Photo Credit: Albin Hillert / WCC
[WCC, by Anli Serfontein] With less than a week before hotly contested local elections, church leaders in South Africa have appealed for calm and asked political leaders of all political parties to help contain dissent. The run-up to the elections on 3 August has been marred by recurrent bouts of violence, intimidation and even political assassinations.
“Has our country descended to these low levels and becoming a mafia state? Let it not be so. God forbid! That is not the promise of South Africa; that is not the South Africa we pray for,“ Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), said in a statement released ahead of the elections.
“Too many lives were lost in our struggle for democracy – and yet, even in sovereign freedom, killings continue, especially in the last few weeks,” Mpumlwana, who is bishop of the Diocese of Maropeng of the Ethiopian Episcopal Church, said.
The SACC is the umbrella body for 27 of the country’s larger churches, including the Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, Apostolic Faith Mission, Baptist and Lutheran churches.
In recent months, church leaders have had a strained relationship with the African National Congress (ANC) government, where once they were close allies in the struggle against apartheid.
After church leaders called on President Jacob Zuma to resign, following the Constitutional Court judgment on 31 March 2016 that found he had violated the constitution, they themselves came under attack.
“The role of the church is nothing else but to preach reconciliation, forgiveness and to build the nation, as they have done during the anti-apartheid struggle,” Mpho Masemola, deputy national secretary of the Ex-Political Prisoners’ Association (EPPA), told reporters in April.
Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, has been outspoken from the pulpit. In his Easter 2016 sermon in St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town he preached: “As your Archbishop, when I see the absence of moral authority in our country, I feel fear. When I see public representatives on gravy trains of sleaze and dishonesty, oblivious to those who are hungry, I feel fear.”
A few days later, speaking at a graduation ceremony at Wits University in Johannesburg on the day of the Constitutional Court judgment against Zuma, Makgoba, who is also chairperson of the National Church Leaders Forum (NCLF), spoke of a new struggle – this time against endemic corruption, nepotism and greed – and the need for courage.
Referring to the late Nelson Mandela, he said, “During the last years of Madiba’s life, I spent a good deal of time with him. Through him I was constantly reminded that courage is not the absence of fear but the capacity to triumph over it. The brave woman or man is not the one who does not feel afraid, but the one who conquers their fear.”
“We live in a society based on fear. Our members of Parliament are too scared to hold the executive properly to account. . . And I hope that today’s Constitutional Court judgment finding that both President Zuma – in seeking to dodge the Public Protector’s findings on Nkandla – and Parliament – in seeking to protect the President – acted unlawfully, will give public servants and others new courage to speak out – and generate not just a wave but a tsunami of truth-telling.”
The metropolitan areas, where Zuma is unpopular, are hotly contested in this election. The SACC’s plea to pastors is: “To anchor our democracy in integrity of processes, the SACC requests that local churches intensify prayers and pastoral interventions in communities where peace must be restored, to maintain orderly coexistence across political divisions.”
In the late eighties, when anti-apartheid political organizations were banned and most civic organizations restricted, the churches stepped into the vacuum, leading to a heated church-state conflict during the dying years of apartheid.