OPINION | Have no faith in political messages from pulpit
The orbit of new political parties around former president Jacob Zuma is a noteworthy phenomenon – one that he, who always proclaims himself “a loyal and disciplined member of the ANC”, is yet to denounce.
These are seemingly splinter groups that are disenchanted with the ANC under the leadership of President Cyril Ramaphosa and want independent representation in parliament. This means they want to take votes from the ANC, as well as shuffle the deck in the opposition benches.
As a former ANC president and a star attraction at the party’s campaign events in KwaZulu-Natal this week, it should surely bother Zuma that so many of his friends and loyal supporters want to bite a chunk out of the ANC's voting base.
Mzwanele Manyi, who is able to self-immolate and reincarnate better than a Buddhist monk, believes his new party, propitiously named ATM (in this case standing for African Transformation Movement), will be running the government after the 2019 poll.
Like his benefactors currently evading justice in Dubai, Manyi has a penchant for innovative computations.
But the pull of these new political parties, rooted in evangelical and messianic churches with huge followings, should not be underestimated.
When Zuma was fired as deputy president in 2005 and charged with corruption, he leant heavily on Cosatu as the biggest organised formation in SA. He understands the power of numbers, even if he has trouble reading them out.
Cosatu has neither the numbers nor the political clout anymore, but new churches are drawing large congregations of committed followers.
Andile Mngxitama’s Black First Land First offers vigorous backing for Zuma, but it cannot fill stadiums for Zuma to practise his performance art in. The churches can. They have not only become hugely influential in people’s lives, but some double as big business enterprises.
Zuma has for some time shored up support by attending huge church gatherings.
The messaging from the church leaders is overtly political – whipping up the radical economic transformation rhetoric and fostering antagonism against “white monopoly capital” and its supposed defenders. Zuma recognises the enormous influence of religious leaders, having borne the brunt of criticism from prominent leaders such as Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, as well as a concerted campaign against state capture by the South African Council of Churches (SACC).
He knows the mainstream churches played a major role in swinging public sentiment against him.
The South African Council of Messianic Churches in Christ – made up of the Twelve Apostles Church in Christ, the Bantu Church of Christ, Zion Christian Church and a faction of the Shembe Church – has set itself up to compete with the SACC, and later registered as the political party on which Manyi has now perched himself.
Several church groupings are vying for parliamentary representation by contesting the elections.
Another of Zuma’s fervent supporters, Bishop Timothy Ngcobo, is leading the African Freedom Revolution and, like other church leaders dabbling in politics, says he “informed” the former president of his intentions.
Political messaging from the pulpit is not untoward: it is in fact the responsibility of religious leaders to interpret biblical teachings in the context of current events and advise their flock how to live good Christian lives.
Just this week, Pope Francis delivered highly political commentary on the state of the world to the diplomatic corps in Rome, denouncing the rise of populism and nationalism.
He said some of these attitudes went back to the period between the two world wars.
“The reappearance of these impulses today is progressively weakening the multilateral system, resulting in a general lack of trust, a crisis of credibility in international political life and a gradual marginalisation of the most vulnerable members of the family of nations,” Francis said. “Politics must be far-sighted and not limited to seeking short-term solutions.
“A good politician should not occupy spaces but initiate processes; he or she is called to make unity prevail over conflict, based on solidarity in its deepest and most challenging sense.”
We should not for a second believe that the religious leaders transfiguring into politicians here are doing so for virtuous purposes, or that having preacher men in parliament will elevate our politics.
It is a good thing that the ANC is facing strong competitors in a field of more than 300 parties likely to contest the elections, as many South Africans feel betrayed by it.
The ANC needs to prove it deserves people’s votes and can no longer rely on its liberation history or its current leader’s charisma. There is a deliberate attempt, however, to fragment the main political parties using people’s faith as the drawcard.
Zuma is the nexus of this phenomenon and very far from the pope’s definition of a “good politician”. His endgame is not yet clear, but, as Ramaphosa learnt this past week, Zuma is a wily player and not above using God to get his way...