Religion and politics in SA

Published in Business Day on 17 September, 2007, under the title, ‘SA politicians show their spirit’

Should South Africans celebrate the recent discovery of an unexpected spiritual dimension in some of the country’s political leaders?

Earlier this year, churchmen from the Full Gospel Church, the eThekwini Community Church, and the Miracles Gospel Church conferred the honorary title of “pastor” upon African National Congress (ANC) deputy president Jacob Zuma. Pastor Vusi Khoza, who presided over the May 2007 ceremony, brushed aside the disapproval of some larger churches: “We stick by our decision to honour Zuma. He will continue to carry the mandate of Jesus Christ for us.”

Now citizens hear the news that the country’s largest church, the Zion Christian Church (ZCC), has taken a special interest in President Thabo Mbeki.

On 2 September, His Grace Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane, paramount leader of the ZCC, invited Mbeki to attend the church’s latest assembly in Moria, a meeting that attracted a staggering two-and-a-half million believers.

Mbeki recalled Bishop Lekganyane’s sermon at some length ten days ago in his regular letter in ANC Today. His recounting came complete with sub-titles – such as “the leaders we need” and “the role of the media” – in order that inattentive readers should not underestimate the significance of Lekganyane’s words.

The “leaders we need”, the hereditary paramount ZCC leader observed, are not born of “meaningless quarrels”. True leadership is based on “service to the nation” and not on “serving your interests and fighting over leadership”.

Meanwhile, Lekganyane’s account of the proper “role of the media” echoed the philosophy propounded by SABC chief executive Dali Mpofu. Although Mpofu is not a ZCC member, and may not be strongly associated in the public mind with ZCC values such as dutifulness and abstinence, he would concur with Lekganyane that the role of the media is “to educate, to transform and inspire our nation”. The bishop’s castigation of “negative reporting”, which encourages disrespect for community values and for the rule of law, likewise recalls the state broadcasting supremo’s recent extensive ruminations on the subject.

His Grace also ventured into the field of health policy, advising the youth to abstain from premature engagement in “adult activities”, and demanding that unnamed villains should “please stop misleading our children that there is a cure” for HIV/AIDS.

In Mbeki’s emotional recollection, the Bishop concluded with a prayer for the President and his cabinet that they might “overcome the challenges they have [faced] in fulfilling their mandate to make a better life for all.” Celebrating achievements such as Nepad, Lekganyane commented that “Your expertise has made us great”.

Mbeki, perhaps unsurprisingly, concludes that “Bishop Lekganyane addressed all these important matters as the leader, and on behalf of, the millions of members of the ZCC,” his words suggesting that His Grace was delivering a vote of confidence on behalf of his church and its many members in the president and his government.

Such an interpretation of the paramount leader’s sermon, however, is misleading. In the apartheid era, after all, ZCC doctrine confused almost all outsiders. Some highlighted what they saw as the church’s tolerance for apartheid evils, and accused the ZCC of “political acquiescence”. Others took the contrary view that the ZCC’s rituals and superficial conservatism concealed a robust cultural resistance to colonialism or even a powerful political protest against apartheid.

As Bishop Lekganyane explained the crux of the matter more than twenty years ago, ZCC theology demands that “a man cannot be a follower of God without rendering due respect to the earthly government which He has ordered.” For this reason, “the President, Prime Minister, Ministers of State, chiefs, and all members of administration, are in authority over you.”

One consequence of this doctrine was that the current Bishop’s father, His Grace Edward Lekganyane, invited representatives of the National Party to Moria even in the immediate aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre. In 1965, when Minister of Bantu Affairs de Wet Nel visited a conference, Bishop Edward thanked government for its “kindness” and “goodwill”.

Two weeks ago in Moria, Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane doubtless conferred upon President Thabo Mbeki the respect due to him as state president. However, this same obligation to a secular authority was evident in April 1985 when Lekganyane invited state president PW Botha to celebrate the 75th Easter Paseka of the ZCC with him. His Grace prayed to God to “keep our state president and Mrs. Botha safe from harm” and awarded PW the “Freedom of Moria”.

The Groot Krokodil inevitably interpreted this gesture as tacit support for the apartheid regime and gratefully told ZCC members that “you respect law, order and authority. I have come to tell you that we see this.”

Botha’s gloating was based upon ignorance of a theology that insists on due respect for the earthly authorities created by God. In 1986, a year after Botha’s visit, in a sermon delivered to believers and reported only in the ZCC’s official newsletter, the Bishop spoke quite unequivocally about institutionalised racism: “The ZCC, and I as a leader, detest apartheid together with all of its discriminatory laws”.

Despite often profound social conservatism, ordinary members were also a long way from the mindless accommodators of apartheid they were often made out to be. Indeed, when all opposition parties were unbanned in 1990, thousands of ZCC believers immediately became ANC activists.

Today, the Zionist obligation to respect secular authority still conceals a wide spectrum of political opinion and a high degree of underlying political sophistication. Members of the ZCC will not be swayed, and are unlikely to be impressed, by attempts from whatever quarter to mobilise them as recruits in a merely political campaign to advance factional or personal interests.

Butler teaches public policy at UCT.


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