The year 2019 is the year of the pig in the Chinese zodiac. Although it symbolises prosperity, its infamy as the epitome of greed lingers in the mind.
The Reverend Vukile Mehana, a senior Methodist Church of Southern Africa minister, the ruling party’s chaplain general and a highly networked private and business sector leader, seems to have inadvertently ushered in the South African edition of the year of the pig — the male chauvinist pig.
What does Mehana have in common with Mabel Jansen, Adam Catzavelos and Saloshna Moodley? That their “private conversations” or social media rants were “unfairly” made public? No. We cannot “unknow” what we know, namely that Mehana holds derogatory and demeaning views about his female colleagues in the Methodist Church and perhaps about women in general.
What do these people have in common? Hate. All seem to drink from the same old South African fountain of hate and bigotry and harbour a deep-seated disdain for their fellow humans.
Like Catzavelos’s, Moodley’s and Jansen’s contempt for black people, Mehana’s disdain for his female colleagues is palpable. His recorded words are uttered with frightening conviction, like a believer effortlessly explaining long and deeply held articles of faith.
Mehana “introduces” his colleague, the Reverend Nompithizelo Sibhidla, despite her training and ordination, as “ngumfazi otheni lo … oputya-putya nezifuba zamadoda?” [What kind of a woman is this who fiddles with men’s chests?]”
Later in the recording, he asks: “Bathini abafazi balamadoda [qa] kukho lomfazi onamabele amakhulu oputya-putya iziphika zamadoda? [What do the wives of these men think when there is this woman with big breasts fondling the chests of (their) men?]”
Mehana seems to recast the ritual of robing into an act of indecency. He does this by reducing Sibhidla’s actions to a “fondling of men’s chests” and by making a body-shaming reference to her “large breasts”.
Implying that Sibhidla has fraudulently appropriated some forbidden power, exclusive to male priests, he asks: “uNompithizelo u yithatha phi lento ayenzayo? [From where does Nompithizelo get this tendency?]”
If Sibhidla cannot robe the men, can she touch their foreheads when she blesses them? Can she serve them communion? And when she does, how far must she stand from the untouchable chests of men? Can she bury the dead and minister to the sick, in spite of her “big breasts”?
Together with his telephonic sidekick, Raymond Sibanga, Mehana suggests that the men who have been robed by Sibhidla should repudiate this, or the church should do it for them. He proceeds to equate young men’s guild robing to male circumcision. This is so far-fetched that it boggles the mind.
He seems to think that, because he is an African theologian, he does not need to care about patriarchy and gender insensitivity, which he refers to as “rubbish”. But an African theology of liberation must care about patriarchy and gender insensitivity.
Many African male theologians have long responded to the call by their sisters in the struggle to recognise the blind spots, even in their own liberation theologies, and have started to respond positively. Exponents of black and African theologies of liberation such as Desmond Tutu, Itumeleng Mosala, Musa Dube, Mercy Jean-Marc Ela, Mercy Oduyoye, Manas Buthelezi, Isabel Phiri and Allan Boesak, to mention but a few, would never allow themselves to be associated with the kind of African theology that Mehana seems to espouse.
In an article on the hypocrisy of the churches regarding the Timothy Omotoso rape trial, Sarojini Nadar argued that there is a golden thread that links the lived teachings of the church and the seemingly “deviant” behaviour of the likes of Omotoso. Similarly, the utterances of Mehana may not be an exception to, but the reflection of, mainstream thinking.
The request by the Methodist Church to deal with the Mehana matter internally must be rejected.
What do Jansen, Catzavelos and Moodley not have in common with Mehana? They were either fired, resigned or taken off a plane.
Mehana has issued an apology. To back this up, he should resign his board memberships, church positions and ANC chaplaincy position. The least these organisations can do is to ask Mehana to step aside.
If not, we might as well brace ourselves for yet another South African year of the pig.
Sarojini Nadar holds the Desmond Tutu research chair in religion and social justice at the University of the Western Cape. Tinyiko Maluleke is a research fellow at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship at the University of Pretoria