Despite its liberal and secular Constitution, South Africa is a religious country. It is a country built on the foundations of African belief systems, the Calvinism of the first European settlers — Dutch and French — and the Protestantism of 1820 British settlers. The Cape Malay slaves brought Islam. Indentured labourers from India docked in Durban, along with their faiths such as Hinduism and Islam. Jewish migrants brought their religion and culture while seeking a land of new opportunities and escaping the pogroms in Europe.
Statistics SA notes that more than 94.8% of South Africans subscribe to some form of religious practice.
Many rejoiced when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced this week that under level three of the Covid-19 lockdown, places of worship will be allowed to open for no more than 50 congregants at a time.
For almost two months, people have had to worship by themselves, without the fellowship of a religious community. Some violated the level five and four regulations and gathered in secret. Police have at times made arrests.
Others observed the regulations and their religion by turning to technology. Sermons on WhatsApp videos have been shared. Hallelujahs and Amens have been uttered on platforms such as Zoom, MS Teams and Google Hangout by congregants practicing their faith from the safety of their homes.
Now the devout can go out and gather. This is not a good idea. The full brunt of the coronavirus outbreak is yet to hit South Africa. The peak is expected in July and August. About 20 people are dying each day and projections suggest 300 people will lose their lives daily in August. Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has asked towns, municipalities, and cities to find more land in the event that current burial spaces cannot accommodate the number of people who will die of Covid-19 in the future.
Faith leaders have the responsibility to protect those they serve.
Some religious organisations — ranging from the Jesuit Institute South Africa to the Claremont mosque in Cape Town — urge their congregants to pray behind closed doors during level three of the lockdown. They say their responsibility is not only to protect and guide the faith of their congregants but also to safeguard their lives.
Worshippers have the responsibility of ensuring they do no harm. If they knowingly choose to go to a place of worship they must keep a physical distance, wear face masks, use hand sanitiser and avoid rituals that spread the disease
“And whoever saves one — it is as if he had saved mankind entirely,” says the Holy Qur’an.