/ 14 April 2023

Ruling ANC rides the religious wave

Paul Mashatile
Deputy President Paul Mashatile. Photo: (Morapedi Mashashe/Getty Images & Christopher)

Over Easter, most ANC leaders attended church services. These efforts reflect an edge over opposition parties that is often overlooked when analysing next year’s elections. 

While the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) keep to politics, the ANC embeds itself in people’s lives in a way that is paradoxically apolitical. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed a packed field of pilgrims at the St Engenas Zion Christian Church, while his deputy Paul Mashatile called the Grace Bible Church his “home”. Nomvula Mokonyane gamely celebrated both at a Methodist Church and the International Pentecostal Holiness Church. 

The list is endless, from ANC’s top seven leaders to its provincial executive committees and ward councillors. A savvy media campaign, #ANCinChurch, documented many of these visits. 

With few exceptions, ANC leaders avoided talking explicitly about politics; instead, their messages, delivered in multiple languages, praised churches for their achievements and reiterated the ANC’s historic relationship with Christianity. 

The efforts of the main opposition parties stand in stark contrast. The DA tweeted an Easter banner, accompanied by a video from party leader John Steenhuisen, which dedicated considerable time to road safety. Helen Zille, Ivan Meyer and Siviwe Gwarube — who are among the most senior members of the DA — did not tweet about the occasion. 

The EFF tweeted an Easter banner, as well as a two-page message for Good Friday and Easter, which focused on the Palestinian struggle and the ANC’s mismanagement of South Africa. Party leader Julius Malema retweeted a banner for Family Day from a boutique hotel

Mbuyiseni Ndlozi retweeted a short video of the “highlight” of a church service in Mpumalanga — EFF members handing out red gifts to children dressed in red. Earlier, Ndlozi had tweeted a video that seemed to mock a church. Of the EFF’s top brass, only Floyd Shivambu retweeted the EFF’s letter. 

Although the leadership of the DA and EFF might have attended church services, they lacked the coordination and intensity of the ANC’s “Easter Pilgrimage Weekend”.   

How the ANC’s approach differs from other parties is relevant in a country as religious as South Africa. Nearly 80% of South Africans are Christian. In a survey in 2009, 82% of South African Christians reported attending church at least once a month. 

As we head into next year’s elections, this context shapes how we should assess the ANC’s support. 

In part, the ANC can reach so many people because of its size. South Africa has 257 municipalities. Within these, the ANC has nearly 4 000 branches and 700 000 members. The ANC can attend many church services and knock on many doors. 

But size alone does not explain the difference in strategy between the ANC and the opposition. The EFF claims to have more than a million members, but Easter was not a strategic priority. 

Instead, two features might give the ANC an edge over the opposition. 

First, the ANC integrates itself into citizens’ lives in a way that is unusual for conventional political parties. 

ANC members are often visible at funerals across the country, whether formally represented or wearing ANC shirts, dresses or doeks. 

Many families in South Africa will have stories of family members who were involved in the struggle; indeed, perhaps most people in South Africa have at least one relative in the ANC. 

It is not only that the ANC is often present; the ANC is present at moments in which people make meaning in their lives — in churches and at funerals and dinner tables. 

Second, the ANC has developed a paradoxical strategy for engaging with religion — with some exceptions, it does not talk party politics. 

The ANC has honed this approach over the past 100 years. Rather than discussing basic service delivery, criticising other parties or dressing the audience in party colours, the ANC’s messages to worshippers and the media last weekend praised the positive role of churches and the ANC’s long relationship with Christianity. 

Getting this delicate balance wrong is costly. When the ANC’s Peggy Nkonyeni spoke explicitly about the ANC’s successes in an Easter address in KwaZulu-Natal, she was heckled. Overall, however, congregations seem to have warmly received the ANC’s apolitical messages.

The ANC has a difficult election ahead. The electorate is frustrated. The many failures of governance are galling. But predictions of electoral doom need to consider the ANC’s unusual presence in society. 

Voters who feel a personal relationship with the ANC might stay at home rather than vote for absent opposition parties. 

David Jeffery-Schwikkard is a PhD Candidate in theology and religious studies at King’s College London and a visiting researcher at Walter Sisulu University. He writes in his personal capacity. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.