Archbishop Thabo Makgoba has been outspoken from the pulpit. © Albin Hillert/WCC

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba has been outspoken from the pulpit. © Albin Hillert/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 last month 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.

A new struggle?

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:

“And 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.”

Historical alliance now frayed

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.

In May 1988, the SACC launched a concerted programme of mass Christian action called the Standing for the Truth Campaign, invoking the wrath of President P. W. Botha’s government.

“There can be little doubt that the church played a key role in the ending of apartheid,“ theologian John de Gruchy wrote in Christianity and Democracy: A Theology for a Just World Order.

Professor Tinyiko Maluleke, a political scientist at the University of Pretoria and a former SACC Council member, said at a recent conference there that after the advent of democracy in 1994 the ANC tried to control the organized church.

According to him, the ANC’s way of keeping the SACC in line was to give former SACC leaders government positions. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was appointed chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Frank Chikane was given a position as director general in the presidency, and Father Smangaliso Mkhatshwa the mayorship of Tshwane. “This was a strategy to keep the SACC, the radical left churches, under control,” he said.

Ongoing issues and impact

Are the churches doing enough? South African theologians disagree about the level of church engagement in the present situation and its public impact.

Professor Madipoane Masenya, Professor of Old Testament Studies at the University of South Africa (UNISA), told Oikoumene, “In a nutshell, I think one would be unrealistic to expect a church and religious leadership that did not grow out of a prophetic tradition, to start prophesying now towards a just society, especially now that ‘the enemy is within us.’”

But Rev. Dr  Mary-Anne Plaatjies Van Huffel, moderator of the General Synod of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA) and a president of the World Council of Churches, told Oikoumene that during apartheid the media played a huge role in covering church opposition on “the ills of society in apartheid South Africa,”  and therefore the perception was that the churches played a large role.

“Currently the media is reluctant to give much attention to the SACC, National Church Leaders Consultation  (NCLC)  or churches’ statements on the ills of society.  The lack of media coverage led to the illusion that the churches, faith communities and the SACC do not attend to socio-political and economic justice issues in post-apartheid South Africa,” she said.

She believes that religious communities are as active as ever in dealing with socio-political and economic ills in society, pointing out, for example, that the SACC has launched a programme called The South Africa We Prayed For.

Asked what challenges religious leaders are facing at the moment, Masenya said she thought “Leaders need to be transformed from the old mode of remaining in our silos and understand that it is our responsibility to impact the lives of our communities holistically, taking our cue from the eighth-century prophets.” She added that many younger black theologians are dealing with “issues such as racism, black affirmations, gender criticism, HIV and AIDS, social injustices, issues that continue to bother South Africa. But the question is, who is listening to us?”

More information about South African churches and the SACC

See a recent article by Madipoane Masenya on the Bible and HIV in South Africa

See recent posts of Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

Learn more here about the ecumenical struggle against Apartheid from Never Bow to Racism

See a recent discussion of ecumenism in South Africa in The Ecumenical Review

*Anli Serfontein is a South African freelance journalist based in Berlin and Johannesburg.