A BRIEF EXAMINATION OF THE POSITION OF THE CHURCH IN POST-APARTHEID SOUTH AFRICA By GREG ALEXANDER MASHABA
- The objective of this brief article is to stimulate serious discussion on the role of the church in post Apartheid South Africa and in particular in the period leading up to the election of Jacob Zuma as leader of the African National Congress “ANC”in 2007 and his eventual appointment as president of the Republic of South Africa in 2009. It is my view that in the run-up to the ANC Elective Conference the church took a political stance that was apparently hostile to Jacob Zuma and apologetic towards the then incumbent, Thabo Mbeki. It is also my view that leading figures in the church openly expressed views which were intended to tilt the outcome of the Elective Conference in favour of Thabo Mbeki. The landslide view which propelled Jacob Zuma to power took our bishops by surprise and caught them off-guard. The bishops were exposed as being out of touch with the political realities on the ground.
- Before I get a bit deeper into laying grounds in justification of my above-mentioned position, it is desirable that I briefly define the “church” within the context of this article. For purposes of this article the “church” primarily refers to that grouping of churches which has also been referred elsewhere as the “mainline churches”; that is the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church (officially known in South Africa as the Church of The Province of Southern Africa), and the Methodist Church. These churches are organised under the umbrella of the South African Council of Churches “SACC”. Lest we forget and I am judged to be biased, these are the very same churches which were at the forefront of the resistance to the tyranny of Apartheid oppression by religious formations during the darkest years of Apartheid regime rule. I am therefore, together with millions of the previously oppressed grateful and indebted to the church for the role it played in our liberation. The people of South Africa and the ANC surely owe a great debt of gratitude to the heroic role played by our bishops in the fight for national liberation. Whatever happens in the future can never and must never be allowed to extinguish from our history books the great contribution made by the church towards our liberation.
- In examining the role of the clergy and in particular our senior clerics, it is of utmost importance that we are not to be seen to be making sweeping statements and thereby being seen to be painting our bishops with one brush. There are indeed many progressive priests and bishops in our churches. I am a practicing Catholic and have personally known many priests who are very circumspect in their analysis of the current political situation in South Africa. One such priest is Fr Emil Blaser OP, the founder and director of the only Catholic Radio station in South Africa, Radio Veritas. I am greatly privileged to have become a close friend of Fr Emil. What I immediately picked up after our first meeting at my residence a couple of years back was that he is not a progressive-minded priest but that he keeps an open mind on current affairs, being very circumspect in his analysis. Another such priest is Fr Jeff Jawaheer OFM , currently based at St Dominic’s Catholic church in Boksburg. He too is very progressive-minded. I do often discuss current affairs with him. Sometimes we disagree on certain points. He is however very objective and circumspect. Another great priest is Fr Joe Wilsom MSC, the famous priest who has become renowned for his deliverance and healing ministry. Fr Joe Wilson is not only a just man but he is very sincere and straight-forward in his analysis of social and political issues. What is most remarkable about him is the tendency to include himself as one who is equally susceptible to human frailities like everyone else when he refers to the social ills bedevilling our country.
Amongst my favourite bishops is the Bishop of Rustenburg , Bishop Kevin Dowling CSsR. His contributions to the advancement of the cause of the most marginalised sections of society are legendary.
Then there is Bishop Jose Louis Ponce De Leon IMC, Bishop of Manzini. Originally from Argentine, the birth place of our great Holy Father Pope Francis, he is a very humble bishop, very much in the same way that Pope Francis is. When I first wrote to him as addressed him as “Your Grace “, he quickly wrote back to me and told me that he prefrs that I address him either as simply “ Bishop “ or “Father “. Such is the simplicity and humility of Bishop Ponce. He is easily approachable and accessible to all. Indeed the Diocese of Manzini has been blessed in the past by having such clerics appointed as its bishop: the late bishops Mandla Zwane and Louis Ndlovu.
There are many other such clergy men but for purposes of brevity, I cannot list them all.
- I have also been impressed by the attitude of the Anglican Bishop of Pretoria Allan Kannemeyer who was installed sometime last year with his seat being the St Alban’s Cathedral situated on Francis Baard Street ( previously known as “ Schoeman Street ). I had the honour and privilege of listening to Bishop Kannemeyer ‘s homily on the occasion of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the opening of St Peters Anglican Church in Garankuwa, Pretoria North. The service was broadcast on Dumisa TV (DStv Chanel 340) . In his homily the bishop reflected on the current political situation in South Africa. He implored the faithful gathered that they must never shy away from raising the issue of racism and the quest for an inclusive economy in South Africa.
- In so doing , Bishop Kannemeyer moved away from the traditional position of his colleagues in both the Anglican and Catholic churches whereby raising the issue of transformation has been pushed into the drawers of the presbytery and replaced solely by the shrill calls for an end to state capture and corruption. As I shall argue herein, the latter call has been misused either based on ignorance or a failure to appreciate the political and social challenges confronting our infant democracy, or perhaps an outright attempt to mislead the faithful people of God. Could it be that some of our clergy and senior clerics choose to ignore some of the fundamental issues, political and economic , which have served to deepen the political crises in our country? Could it be that the political, social and economic situation in our country also plays out within the religious sphere? Are the clergy immune from political bias or are their views on the current situation based on their class positions or their allegiance to the growing African middle class and their sponsors who sit in JSE Listed companies? You be the judge. Let me state my own response to the questions I have raised herein. I stand to be corrected if wrong. After all , my objective in writing this article is to solicit the views of other South Africans, the clergy included.
- Sometime in 2007 I had a brief meeting with one priest with whom I had worked closely in the church. For some reason the issue of the possibility of Jacob Zuma assuming leadership of both the ANC and the Republic came up for discussion. “I don’t like him!” was the priest’s remark. When I asked him why he didn’t like him his response was that “…he has too many wives !” Well and true our Catholic doctrine restricts marriage to two partners namely the husband and the wife. However , as I pointed out to the priest, Jacob Zuma’s cultural beliefs also entitle him to freely practice his religious and cultural beliefs, including the right to marry more than one woman. I further – with deep humility – pointed out to the fact that many western leaders have been known to be involved in extra-marital relationships. French presidents in particular have been known to openly have mistresses who not only reside in the presidential palace but also enjoy certain benefits including VIP escort and travel at state expense. I am not sure whether the priest agreed with my views or not but he quickly dropped the subject and said; “Oremus”, which is Latin for let us pray .
- I am referring to this incident simply to begin laying down the foundation for my arguement that our clergy are not immune from prejudice and bias.
A priest can never have the right to express hostility to someone simply because such person has cultural views which differ from his own. Perhaps that is why many people, including Catholics , were somehow taken off-guard when Pope Francis humbly told journalists on board a flight from the United States that he was not entitled to pass moral judgement on gay and lesbian brothers and sisters: “ ….after all , who am I to judge ….” was the pope’s humble response. In yet another interview broadcast on international television, the Pope , in referring to his upcoming meeting with newly inaugurated President of the USA Donald Trump, cautioned against passing judgement on the American president. Again, he stated in a humble but matter of fact manner that he cannot pass judgement on a person until he has met such person and has engaged such person frankly and solicited their views on pertinent matters.
Unlike Pope Francis , the priest to whom I refer to above, very much like the priests and bishops organised under the banner of the SACC displayed ignorance of our constitutional and human rights values which are enshrined in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights. This is the Constitution and the Bill of Rights which the clergy continuously tell us is under threat under the current government of Jacob Zuma. It is therefore with a heavy heart that I state that I am dismayed at either the ignorance of our clergy or their double-standards when it comes to examination of the critical issues confronting our country at this very difficult time. Emeritus Archbishop Tutu has made it his pastime to engage in knee jerk attacks of our government, attacks which were crowned by his vow to pray for the downfall of the government of Jacob Zuma. In recent months he has been joined by the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Archbishop Thabo Mokgoba, who is also incidentally a founding member of Save South Africa , the apparently civic body which is however regarded in the townships as an ally of the Democratic Alliance.
- I shall now return to opening remarks ( paragraph 1 above ). In the run-up to the ANC Elective Conference in Polokwane in 2007, the clergy and in particular Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu openly expressed support for the re-election of Thabo Mbeki rather Jacob Zuma. Again leading the charge was Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The bishops seemed to be oblivious to the fact that presidents in all political dispensations which pride themselves as being progressive, the incumbent can never run for a third term. All manner of insults and disparaging remarks were levelled at Jacob Zuma . At the same time , there was unqualified support for Thabo Mbeki, this despite the fact that our country had been reduced to the level of a pariah state because of his notorious policy of HIV/AIDS denialism, his closing down of the national RDP office, his refusal to provide funding to ESKOM – a refusal which led to years of load shedding and the cost for the rectification thereof which is today borne by the working class who have to bear yearly increases in the tariffs imposed by ESKOM. It is a matter of historical record that Jacob Zuma scored a landslide victory in Polokwane , a victory which his detractors including the clergy had failed to anticipate despite all the signs of discontent on the ground with Thabo Mbeki’s rule.
- It is perhaps important that we raise the question of why Thabo Mbeki was the apparent choice of not only the clergy but also of the growing black middle class. Could it be due to the fact that Thabo Mbeki and his cabinet, especially his Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel, were seen as proponents of business-friendly policies while Jacob Zuma was supported by a broad coalition including the unions and the powerful ANC Youth and Women’s Leagues? I do not have the answers to these questions. However one pointer could be the fact that after the election of Jacob Zuma as president of the ANC , and following that difficult day in the history of our organisation and country when the ANC recalled Thabo Mbeki as president of the Republic , there was a mass exodus of members of the ANC who supported Thabo Mbeki . This grouping went on to form the Congress of The People ( “COPE” ) . Although very vocal about clean and transparent government, COPE has seen itself, together with other parties like the United Democratic Movement ( “UDM “ ) and the Economic Freedom Fighters ( “EFF” ) have allied themselves with the party which has traditionally been seen to be the party which represents white minority interests. In a word, COPE, the UDM and the EFF have become mere proxy forces of the DA. There seems to be an umbilical chord uniting these parties with the DA, especially in the flow of financial support from big business. Thus when big business and white employers gave their employees the day off, with full pay, a few weeks back so they could participate in the DA organised “Day of Action”. Such act of generosity had hitherto seemed implausible in South Africa. After all, employees are often not even allowed to take time to bury the dead.
The claim by the EFF to be champions of radical economic transformation cannot hold water. Their support for the DA which enabled the latter to secure three metropolitan areas after the local government elections of 2016 proves otherwise. The continuous attempts by the EFF to continuously paralyse the functioning of parliament betrays their primary strategy which is to cripple and undermine established constitutional institutions and processes. Their continuous undermining of the constitution which they claim to be protecting by seeking together with their allies in the DA and the allied foundations displays a blatant attempt to not only undermine the very same constitution but to also circumvent traditional political processes and dictating new spheres of political struggle. These are spheres which show contempt for the electorate, spheres where those with access to numerous financial resources can dictate the rules of the game.
- Although I am a practicing Catholic , I am no expert on the bible. However I shall open my bible and refer to the Gospel of Mathew, Chapter 7 , Verse 15-16 :
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits “.
You might wonder why I have resorted to quoting the above mentioned extract from the gospel of Mathew and why I have taken time to reflect on the issues raised in paragraphs 5 to 7 above . It is simply because these political formations together with the foundations seem , strangely in my view , to enjoy at least the tacit support of the clergy.
Our clergy (at least in the Catholic church) are highly educated. They are not only experts in disciplines like Divinity and Dogmatics, some of them hold post-graduate qualifications in fields such as philosophy and government. I fail to understand then their apparent failure to comprehend what is happening in the country. Again I will not hazard a guess. However there are possible lines of arguement which I can raise. Let me mention a few :
8.1 Ignorance of , or a wrong interpretation of the political situation in South Africa. We are all human and prone to many vulnerabilities. This is however difficult to appreciate especially in the light of the observation made above, namely that our priest are well educated. After the Constitutional Court had ruled that President Jacob Zuma, in failing to implement the recommendations of the then Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, had failed to uphold the Constitution, our clergy joined in the ever rising chorus that the president had acted in an improper and immoral manner and to resign. The judgement of the Constitutional Court was wrongly interpreted, either by design of by a failure to understand the true nature of the judgement. The fact that in his judgement, Chief Justice Mogoeng CJ had raised the possibility that the president could have been misled by the decision of the lower court, namely that the remedial recommendations of the Public Protector were not binding. The fact that the president had relied on evidence provided by senior legal counsel was found to be of no consequence.
If only the president enjoyed the same protection that is enjoyed by the captains of industry, namely the so-called “business judgement rule” which is now codified in Section. 76 of the Companies Act ( No 71 of 2008 ). This section basically absolves directors from liability provided they can show not only that they exercised their duties to the best of their abilities but also that in doing so, they relied on expert advice.
8.2 Political bias . Bishops and priests are ordinary people like myself and yourself . Indeed a lot of priests and bishops will voluntarily admit to this fact. Bishops and priests have also been known to have political allegiances which they however always seek to conceal. Comments on what is happening in every country will quite often provide an indicator that particular clergy man’s political inclination. I must say that it not easy to for to change one’s political views . Such is human nature. Be that as it may be, there is a need to foster in our clergy the attitude that they must try to be as objective and circumspect as possible when analysing the political situation in our country. Most of the bishops in Latin America lost credibility in the 1970’s and 1980’s when that continent was plagued by right-wing military dictatorships which were sponsored by the United States. A lot of bishops sided with the ruling elite in the form of the generals and the rich land-owners. Opposition to the dictators was left to the priests and the religious ( ie nuns ). Only credible and brave bishops like Archbishop Oscar Ramero in El Salvador stood out. Archbishops Ramero’s plea for help in confronting the military dictatorship in his country were ignored not only by the Vatican and his fellow bishops who all turned their backs on him, but also by the United States government, who were seen as the primary backers of the regime. A young bishop, Jorge Mario Bergoglia, then Bishop of Buenos Aires and Archbishop Ramero were the few exceptions. Archbishop Oscar Ramero paid the ultimate price for his bravery when he was assassinated while celebrating Mass on 24 March 1980. Archbishop Bergoglio would emerge in 2013 as head of the Catholic, whereby he assumed the name Francesco. Hence today we have Pope Francis, one who will almost definitely go down as the most popular pope in recent decades. One cardinal is said to have held so much bitterness and animosity towards Pope Francis and his radical views that he was reported to have been overhead saying that he wished the pope would die soon. I hope that Pope Francis does enjoy good health and long life and may God deliver him from the hands of his enemies. But should he die soon , we shall certainly be guaranteed of a saint in heaven .
Soon after his installation as head of the Catholic church in 1978 Pope John Paul 11 ( now St John Paul 11 ) took a hard line towards the philosophy of liberation theology. Bishops and priests who followed this practice were quite often summoned to the Vatican for a dressing down. What made John Paul’s attitude more complex was the fact that he was seen to be apparently tolerant of priests who got involved in politics in his native Poland, which was then part of the Soviet bloc. The Holy Father was heavily critisesd both within and outside of the Church for what was seen as double standards. For those us who were not only Catholics but were members of the liberation movement outside the country , it became increasingly difficult to defend our Catholic faith. We put in a particularly difficult predicament because the ANC received most of its material , military and financial support from the Soviet bloc . It was only through our continuous prayers to invoke the Holy Spirit to guide us that we kept our faith in the face of much ridicule and contempt. Be that as it may be I strove always to seek to be as loyal to Pope John Paul 11 and the Magesterium united behind. Practising one’s faith is very hard , especially if one is Catholic.
8.3 The church in South Africa is cut straight down the line across class and racial lines. In a book released by the Southern African Catholics Bishops Conference, the bishops , of their own accord , analysed and confirmed this reality. The bishops acknowledged the fact a parish in the surburbs would invariably have access to more financial and material resources than one in the townships and rural areas. One reason advanced for this state of affairs was that it was easy for a white priest , especially one who was an immigrant to secure funding for his parish from abroad. A second reason of course is the fact that parishioners in such areas are predominantly white and wealthy. Thus they are more generous in their contributions to the church. This ought to be welcomed. After all one the precepts of the Church commands to contribute to the upkeep of the clergy. I am not sure however what steps the bishops have taken to address these inequalities. I would appreciate feedback from the clergy .
Coming to the issue of racial divide, there has been a painful phenomenon whereby white parishioners migrate from one parish to another. It has been said that this is primarily due to the fact that a lot of black people are moving out of the townships into the suburbs. In 1994 my parental home was moved to the centre of town in Emalahleni ( formerly Witbank ). The Cathedral of Christ The King was a mere ten minutes walk from home. Upon entering the Cathedral, us black people were expected to sit separately upstairs, away from the white congregants. We were told that there was no longer any space downstairs. My mother stearnly refused to follow the instructions from these ushers and insisted on finding a place to sit downstairs .
In the book on racism which was released by the bishops, it was also noted that our fellow white Catholic brothers generally speaking, did not participate in mass activities of the Church. One such example was the installation of Joseph Buti Tlagale as Archbishop of Johannesburg in 2007. The other example was the beatification of Benedict Daswa in Limpopo in 2015. On both occasions very few white Catholics attended these very important events in the history of the Church.
One final example of racism in the Church is an incident which occurred at Our Lady of Loreto Catholic Church in Kempton Park during the recent Day of Prayer for the country. I was not present but one family member attended. Apparently only about three black people attended (which is very sad). As the faithful were slowly making their way out the Church, one parishioner was heard to say “…I hate this government, we must get rid of them…” to which his companion responded: “……I really hope that God destroys them!” Again people who claimed to be pious preached hatred. I will make no secret of my opposition to the DA and allies, after all I see them as parties which seek to perpetuate white minority rule. But I, as a Christian and a Catholic can never and must never express hatred to my fellow parishioners who are in the opposition parties. Such practice is wrong and offends the basic tenets of Catholic doctrine.
8.4 The flow of resources from some sections of the faithfu , especially our white brothers and sisters also most probably exposes our clergy to possible political and racial manipulation. This situation is further compounded by the fact that some of our own black brothers and sisters find it difficult to give generously to the Church, this in spite of the fact that some are very affluent. A few years back I approached a number of very wealthy Black Catholics on behalf of Fr Emil at Radio Verities. Despite the vast wealth at their disposal, the response was very disappointing to say the least. Radio Veritas still gets most of its funding from the loyal listeners of the station , black and white .
9. Finally I wish to touch briefly on one other sore point , namely the failure on the part of the clergy to recognise corruption in the corporate sector for what it is. Corruption remains corruption irrespective of where it occurs. Can I please implore the clergy to give equal attention to the vast conglomerates which are listed on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange (JSE ). It would be interesting to find out what the position of our clergy to the following:
9.1 the scandal involving the big construction and engineering companies and the construction of stadiums and highway infrastructure prior to the Fifa World Cup in 2010. Of course our own government let us down by having these cases, which cost the taxpayers billions of Rands to be referred to the Competition Commission instead of prosecuting them;
9.2 the ABSA scandal relating to the acquisition of Bankorp;
9.3 the reports of illicit flows of billions of Rands from South Africa to Europe;
9.4 recent reports of currency manipulation by our financial institutions;
9.5 reports of exercise of influence on former Public Protector by powerful individuals like Johan Rupert.
9.6 Closely related to the four above-mentioned points is the question of the church regarding corporate governance. Do we as a Church for example award tenders based on international best practice? Are construction tenders ( for example for construction or renovation of a parish building properly advertised and evaluated and adjudicated in an open and transparent manner?
Are elections to structures within the church in the case of the Catholic , the Parish Pastoral Council (‘PPC”) and the Parish Finance Committe (“PFC”) free and fair? Are elections to the latter bodies undertaken under the auspices of independent electoral bodies or are they rigged to favour certain candidates?
We need to freely address the issues raised herein. Such discussion must not be confined to a few. Let it be a more transparent discussion. Our Church shall be much richer in both spirit and in material terms if we do so.
Mashaba is an additional BEC member of the ANC Ellen Khuzwayo Branch in Ekurhuleni. He writes in his personal capacity.