THE gospel according to President Jacob Zuma is being challenged by Christian leaders, as are the actions of his government.
Speaking not from the podium, but from the pulpit at the 33rd synod of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Giyani, Limpopo, last week Zuma told congregants: “If you don’t respect those in leadership, if you don’t respect authority then you are bordering on a curse.”
But these sentiments are in contrast to a clear voice of protest emanating from church leaders who are condemning alleged abuses by the government and affiliated members of the tripartite alliance.
In recent weeks we have seen:
- The KwaZulu-Natal Church Leaders’ Group issuing a strong statement against what they describe as brutal oppression by various government officials and the police. The group has repeatedly been involved in court action to support Abahlali baseMjondolo shack-dwellers in Cato Crest, KwaZulu-Natal. Some of the shack- dwellers in this informal settlement are from the Eastern Cape.
A strongly worded statement issued by the church leaders lists the following abuses: Fraudulent selling and allocation of houses by local political leadership; city officials and political leadership “despising and ignoring” several court interdicts secured by Abahlali protecting their homes; local ANC leadership and members in Cato Crest intimidating the legal teams attempting to effect court orders restraining the city from evicting people and demolishing their houses; shooting with rubber bullets and live ammunition by the Land Invasion Unit and the SAPS of protesters asserting their rights.
The statement ends with a commitment to pray, protest and push. “To pray – for those suffering this inhumanity… (and) for justice; to protest – against the ongoing abuse of power and stripping of people’s dignity; to push – for an end to this deadly violence”.
- The UK based organisation Christian Aid and their local partner organisation, the Church Land Programme (CLP), condemning the actions of the state.
Graham Philpott of CLP is quoted on Christian Aid’s website stating: “If the courts have given orders, they should at least be respected by officials. It cannot be tolerated that people protesting for their rights are shot by police, and criminalised by the justice system.
“This immoral behaviour by city officials and political leadership is destroying our society.”
(Coinciding with these statements was an open letter of protest about the situation at Cato Crest written to Zuma and local government leaders by leading international academics and intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky.)
- The office of the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town issuing a statement on behalf of the Anglican synod, the church’s highest legislative and deliberative body, calling on the ANC affiliated South African Democratic Teachers Union “to refrain from destructive stay-aways”. The synod also condemned “the corruption and laziness which deprives our children of the education they deserve” and asked parliament to declare the teaching profession an essential service.
The Anglican leaders further appealed to all Anglicans who may be Sadtu members to transform the union into a body that “truly serves the cause of education or resign from it”.
- A dyed-in-the-wool ANC stalwart and longstanding party representative in the Eastern Cape, Mkhangeli Matomela, quitting the ANC with the support of prominent Eastern Cape church leaders to convene the Kingdom Governance Movement because they feel the ANC is implementing a system that contradicts biblical values.
- Repeated statements by Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of the Catholic diocese of Mthatha against state corruption which he says harms the poor. He has also called for civil society to stand up in the face of the education crisis.
Sadtu responded this week to the Anglican church with a scathing attack, accusing the church as having “lost the plot”.
In a statement the union said: “The synod was opportunist in adopting an antagonistic posture against the union.
“We reject the synod’s call with the contempt it deserves and its attempt to interfere in labour issues and the rights that we fought for. Its call for education to be declared an essential is dead call (sic).
“We will not allow education to be colonised by the Anglican Church … The dictatorial and judgmental stance by the Anglican Church is totally unbecoming for an institution. It lacks the Christian agenda but reeks of a political agenda.”
Christian leaders however, disagree with this interpretation of their actions and do not believe they will be cursed for challenging government.
The Anglican Bishop of the diocese of Natal, Reverend Rubin Phillip, who has been active in supporting Abahlali, says that while it is important for all citizens to respect anybody in a leadership role, that does not stop the church or the wider citizenry from being critical of government.
“To criticise the leadership is perfectly in order, as we say we need to speak truth to power. Those in leadership are not always correct. When the church or ordinary South Africans criticise the president or those in power it doesn’t imply that they are bringing a curse upon themselves.
“The church must learn to regain its voice that it had in the days of apartheid when it spoke out against the wrong.”
Asked what the scriptures say about the church and governance, Phillip said: “The church is called, as the Bible puts it, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and when the church is trying to be salt and light there’s bound to be some clash with those whose behaviour is in the dark as opposed to being in the light.
“The church must continue to play its role – to be prophetic to speak the truth as it understands.”
Phillip said the church needed to be careful that it did not get co-opted by the political leadership.
“We are seeing at this time some signs in our country that seem to be taking us backwards instead of forward. What people fought for was for better education, better housing, for food and employment. Because we are not seeing those things as they should be, the Anglican Church has decided that it is going to raise its voice.”
Matomela said that while it was indeed incumbent on members of the church to pray for government as ordained by God, it was equally incumbent on the leaders of government to fulfil God’s mandate to serve the people God’s way.
Referring to Zuma’s comments he said: “It is governors or authorities who reject God who are bordering on a curse because it is God who appoints leaders to rule according to his will and purposes.
“Those who are acting as a prophetic voice to the government who point out mistakes and weaknesses will be commended and blessed by God, not cursed.
“That comment by the president is misplaced.”
Matomela also said God raised leaders who fought against racial segregation before the formation of the ANC. “God then raised leaders in the church, mobilised them to work and form the ANC which later fought against apartheid.
“Now were are being dragged into another form of colonialism – that of the anti-Christ system. God is now raising up leaders and people in the church to stand up against government wrongs.
“We are being stirred by the Holy Spirit.”
Speaking from Mthatha, Bishop Sipuka said: “All authority comes from God. The Bible says we should pray for those in authority. Once there is no government there is chaos and a lot of harm is done to people. However, if, in its carrying out of its duties, a government is seen as infringing on the order of God which is grounded in human dignity, it can be challenged or made aware.
“The government is made up of people, they can require oversight sometimes. The church has the duty to remind them of the purpose of government.”
So rather than examining the question of who exactly stands to be cursed, the better question is perhaps whether we are seeing a return to the adversarial relationship that existed between the church and the state in the decades prior to democracy.
Back then, the church took a lead in protest politics. It gave refuge to fugitives from an abusive state, vocalised the problems of the oppressed, and its leaders were prominent in their red cassocks at the forefront of protest marches held under the umbrella of the United Democratic Front.
Only time will tell whether the wheel will turn full circle, but it is clear the church does not see its role as confined to the pulpit, or in terms of historical political relationships, but as fundamental to addressing the everyday needs of the people and participating fully in the affairs of the nation.
Abongile Mgaqelwa writes for the Daily Dispatch