The ANC as a religion

ANC is not unlike new ‘churches of prosperity’. Business Day, 18 February 2011. Anthony Butler

President Jacob Zuma has been widely admonished for his recent claim that opposition voters support “the man who carries a fork” and “cooks people”. He has also been criticized for his insistence that holders of African National Congress (ANC) membership cards have a fast-track to heaven, and for his warning that those who abandon the liberation movement will be cast out by their ancestors and “struggle until they die”.

Zuma’s remarks shed fascinating light on the changing role of religion in South African political life. The South African Native National Congress, as the ANC was first known, was founded and led by Christian converts and former mission school pupils who propagated values of moral improvement and respectability.

When the ANC was first convulsed by ideological conflict in the late 1920s, the communist insurgents believed themselves to be “scientific socialists”. However, they remained prisoners of the Christian values expressed thus in Acts, Book 4: “There was no poor person among them, since whoever possessed fields or houses sold them …and a distribution was made to each one in accordance with his needs.”

Today, Christian concepts have fused in unexpected ways with African systems of ideas. The partisan pursuit of sectional interests and values at the expense of communal cohesion – known to its supporters as “healthy democratic competition” — has been regarded as divisive across most of the political history of Christian societies. Cabals, factions, and political parties themselves have been viewed as threats to the “one perfect body” to which a Christian people should aspire.

This view has echoed and reinforced African conceptions of the legitimacy of “communal” governance. It is a small step from the celebration of one indivisible community to the demonising of the official opposition’s leader as a Satanist or “high priestess” of disunity.

The recent growth of organized religion in this country has been influenced by what is sometimes called “prosperity theology”. A 2006 Pew Forum survey suggested that eight out of every ten South African Christians believe that God “grants material prosperity to all believers who have enough faith”.

In many fast-growing churches, worshippers are preoccupied with the blessings to which they feel entitled as a result of their faith. Church services include testimonials that link religious devotion to wealth. The pastors who lead these churches demand substantial tithes and enjoy lavish personal lifestyles. The plight of the poor must not be ignored — this is the sin of the man named Lazarus – but personal wealth should nevertheless be celebrated and pursued. In the words of the Rhema church’s school of business, believers should aspire to “impact the marketplace with Christ.”

There is a remarkable ethical parallel between the prosperity churches and the liberation movement.

In a prosperity church, worshippers’ tithes support the ostentatious wealth of the pastor, and the congregation’s members understand their success and bodily health as signs of divine intervention and as rewards for their religious devotion.

In the contemporary ANC, wealthy cadres make substantial donations to support the administrative and campaigning expenses of the movement. When they do business, they give the ANC a cut of the spoils. The tenders and job opportunities that come their way are accepted as an expression of grace — as a sign that they are in good standing with the movement to which they have devoted their lives.

It is probably the questionable legitimacy of new-found wealth that explains these striking parallels. The ANC and the new churches have not forgotten the poor but they do not know how to help them. Yet it remains an affront against African communalist ethics – and indeed against the morality of any decent society — for individuals to live in luxury amidst a sea of poverty, while withholding the fruits of their good fortune from their extended families and communities. The ANC and the prosperity churches have found a way to render such personal enjoyment of wealth legitimate in a morally rich but profoundly unequal society.

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