The case for regulating religion

Wrath: Six police officers died during an attack on the Ngcobo station, which involved several members of the Seven Angels Ministry. (Lulama Zenzile/Gallo Images/Netwerk24)

Wrath: Six police officers died during an attack on the Ngcobo station, which involved several members of the Seven Angels Ministry. (Lulama Zenzile/Gallo Images/Netwerk24)

The events that unfolded at the Mancoba Seven Angels Ministry in Ngcobo in the Eastern Cape are testament to the need for mechanisms to regulate religion.

On February 21, members of the ministry allegedly attacked the Ngcobo police station, leaving five police officers and a retired soldier dead. Two days later, police raided the ministry’s premises, killing seven people and arresting others.

About 100 women and children there were allegedly used as sex slaves and the children were denied education. Its leaders face charges of sexual exploitation, rape and sexual grooming — committed in the name of religion.

The question of how to regulate such harmful religious practices must be answered.

This is not the first time that problems with the Seven Angels Ministry have emerged. In 2015, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities identified the church as an extremist organisation during the course of its investigations into the commercialisation of religious practice and the abuse of people’s belief systems.

The commission quoted the church’s founder, Banele Mancoba, as saying: “Satan came to Earth and breathed on the Constitution of South Africa and its schools. We are saying that education is wrong. Because Satan has taken over schools after Nelson Mandela allowed him to do so. We are saying children should not go to school as Satan has infiltrated schools. People must not listen to the Constitution because it’s driven by Satan. I consider the Constitution to be an evil spirit. We are saying that life must return to the Lord and Satan must go.”

When the commission finalised its findings last year, it made several recommendations to address the abuse and exploitation of religious practices it had found.

First, religious leaders should register and be certified. Second, a peer review committee should be established under the commission to oversee religious practices. Each centre of worship should register under an umbrella organisation with the peer review committee, which would ensure that its religious practices are lawful. In essence, the commission called for greater self-regulation of and by churches themselves, under the auspices of the commission.

These recommendations are a laudable attempt to grapple with the sensitivity of religion and social wellbeing. But they do not address the root of the problem, which is that the harm they have uncovered emanates mainly from unregulated, personality-driven Christian and traditional practices.

Many of the churches that have been in the news for subjecting members to practices and rituals that evoke questions of human rights and ethics identify as Christian. For instance, Pastor Lesego Daniel of the Rabboni Centre Ministries near Pretoria told his followers to eat grass to get closer to God. On another occasion, he told them to drink petrol. Pastor Lethebo Rabalago, from Mookgophong in Limpopo, is commonly referred to as the “Doom pastor” for spraying insecticide into congregants’ faces to heal them.

Religion is subject to the Constitution and the law. But the law is seldom used to protect congregants. A rare exception to this was the conviction of Rabalago on five counts of assault and three of contravening the Fertilisers, Farm Feeds, Agricultural Remedies and Stock Remedies Act of 1947.

The key to turning this around is to ensure that religious institutions and practitioners are held to account under the Constitution.

Indeed, the commission’s recommendations of a peer review committee and umbrella organisation were put forward as a mechanism to implement the Constitution in the religious sphere.

The Constitution affords very wide protection to religious freedom, leaving scope for all kinds of beliefs and opinions, no matter how bizarre. Like any other right, the right to religious freedom can be limited, although this must always be justified by the state.

One important justification for limiting religious freedom is the question of harm. The question is: What kind of harm would justify this?

Philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that harm is conduct that directly affects another. Although there might always be disputes about whether certain religious beliefs are harmful or not, it seems that the real problem lies in objective harm rather than subjective harm.

Subjective harm may be defined as something that only some people find to be a problem. It may be argued that this gives significant leeway to voluntary religious practices, however absurd and even damaging they may seem. For example, some of us might believe that it is harmful to fast, which is the religious practice of abstaining from eating food in an effort to connect with God. But this practice is not objectively harmful.

Some of us might even think that the religious practice of praying to an unseen God, with no concrete evidence that one’s prayer will be answered or even heard, is bizarre but not necessarily harmful.

Objective harm is what, collectively, citizens agree is impermissible and damaging. The basis for this collective agreement lies in our Constitution, which is not interested in the views of a section of the populace but rather in whether the core values of dignity, equality and freedom have been infringed.

Currently, the only harm that amounts to crime is widely recognised to be objective harm, for instance, the sexual exploitation, rape and sexual grooming that allegedly took place at the Mancoba Seven Angels Ministry.

Nevertheless, there might be forms of psychological and physical harm that have no criminal consequences but still have harmful repercussions. For instance, a pastor tells a barren woman, who has struggled for years to conceive and has consulted many medical doctors, to “donate” her pension in return for the pastor’s intercession, in the hope or expectation of being blessed with a child. But the women remains childless, bereft not only of her hopes but also of her hard-won security.

We can also agree that involuntary participation in religious practices can be objectively harmful, such as denying food to children who do not pray.

Although a peer review committee would ensure that the Constitution is upheld, it does not go far enough. An investigative unit should be appointed under the commission to investigate religious practices that may not amount to a crime but nevertheless have the effect of objectively harming church members.

Members criticised for their practices are often of the view that the law is set against them but the Constitution supports a wide scope of religious freedom. The interventions suggested are not intended to stop religious practice but to protect religious practice and those who engage in it.

Though some pastors or religious leaders may come disguised as harmless shepherds, they can be ravening wolves. It is a matter of concern that religious leaders are not willing to subject themselves to governing authorities. No religious leader should fear regulation of objectively harmless religious practices.

Perhaps the crucial lesson from the Mancoba Seven Angels saga is that, if rigorous measures are not taken, harm and death are inevitable. Religion is sensitive and a private issue for many but its practice is public and must be regulated.

Lerato Maviya is a candidate attorney and has recently completed her master of laws degree

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