Deja vu from the Counter-Reformation


Several things that I heard or read in the news last week jarred me. First of all, I read a comment made by Thuli Madonsela, in her latest reincarnation as a university professor: she said that all along, BEE was bound to fail as a restructuring device because “one-size-fits-all policies do not work”.  

According to her, they often bring about unintended consequences that prove to exacerbate the very problems they seek to solve. Instead, she said, South Africa needs policies that will enable people to pull themselves up, giving them a hand along the way; instead of handouts that create a culture of dependence.  She said that we have been creating inequality – with good intentions.

Then I heard that the esteemed Chairman of the ANC – who presides over the Top Six – was shouted down by members of his own party. They would not let him speak.  This, because he is now one of the Reformers, in this new phase known variously as Ramaphoria, the New Dawn, and Zexit. Such unexpected chronicles made me think that history is repeating itself – Reformation is giving rise to a Counter-Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation was a huge cleansing project, driven by the likes of Martin Luther (German), William Tyndale (British) and John Calvin (French) – among others.  These are usually called the Reformers, but they could have easily been called “the Stalwarts” or even “Save Christianity”.  They used similar tactics to the formations we know, shaking the Church’s foundations and challenging its top leaders – and the way they were conducting church affairs.  They rejected the corruption that was implicit in papal fundraising by selling indulgences.  They exposed the patronage networks whereby kings and even emperors were subordinate to the Vatican.

They adopted revisionist beliefs and slogans like “justification by faith” and “the priesthood of all believers”. To the 16th century mindset, these were radical notions that could be compared with “expropriation without compensation” and “radical economic transformation” today.

This was another defining moment in church history.  Since the merger of the Roman Empire and Christianity over a thousand year earlier stretched the Middle Ages.  The phenomenal success of “Roman Catholicism” was based on a success formula that was decoded and adopted by David Mabuza last year. He called it “unity”. Here’s how it works – you have to balance Identity on the one side with Universality on the other.

The ANC has had more than a century to galvanize its Identity. The Stalwarts and the Reformers were adamant that the Zuma government had betrayed these cherished convictions and values. 

Now remember that Christianity had emerged from Judaism.  But the Jewish faith was dominated by men, even though it was matrilineal. It was somehow genetic – there is no way that it could evangelize the whole world. In short, its Identity was well defined, but exclusive. It was when early Reformers like St Paul challenged the Stalwarts and argued in favour of universality, that Christianity split with Judaism. This happened again at the time of the Protestant Reformation – the Reformers rejected the change in Identity that had evolved over a thousand years and called Christians to return to their roots.

The “unity” strategy adopted at Nasrec is like this – don’t lose what is sacred to the beloved ANC, but keep it inclusive as well. Or else there will be a split.  Like there was between Judaism and Christianity, and between Catholics and Protestants.

The truth is that Jesus was Jewish and Martin Luther was a Catholic priest.  Neither started out with a plan to split their religion. Both were stalwarts, who wanted to restore the true Identity that had been misplaced.  But both also wanted to restore Universality.  For example, the day of Pentecost was the undoing of the tower of Babel – which is where different language emerged.  At Pentecost, everyone could hear St Peter’s sermon in their own language and the worship that day was in all the vernaculars of those present – not just in Hebrew (as in the Temple).

Likewise, the Reformers wanted to translate Scripture into all languages, and liberate the laity through literacy and education, so that they no longer needed the intermediation of a clergy.

But the Protestant Reformation was eventually answered by a “Catholic revival” – usually called the Counter-Reformation. By then, too much time had passed with too many reforms (and associated peasant revolts) to try to call back the faithful to the mother church.  Its members had already departed and re-grouped.

Even though some aspects of the Counter-Reformation were aimed at repairing broken parts of Catholicism, the primary effect was to stabilize and reinforce Catholic practices. It would be fair to say that the Counter-Reformation, especially the founding of the Jesuits and the results of the Council of Trent, slammed the door shut on any possible reconciliation with Protestantism or the Reformers.

A look at the map of Europe at the height of the Protestant Reformation is instructive. Southern Europe remains most Catholic.  Northern Europe has become mostly Protestant.  Middle Europe is a checker-board.  Expect to see this kind of admixture after the 2019 elections in South Africa – the DA has its sights on the Northern Cape and Gauteng. Kwazulu-Natal seems to be launching a new party – a quintessential Counter-Reformation? Or conservatives there may opt for the IFP?  Mpumalanga has always had the highest density of ANC vote, of any province.  And the middle provinces will be a checker-board. Even more so, predictably, after the 2021 municipal elections.

Just as many “denominations” emerged from the Reformation, we now have UDM, COPE, EFF, Agang, BLF and so forth. Beyond the Protestant Reformation came the emergence of nation-states.  In fact, there was a symbiosis between – for example – German princes and the Lutheran church.  Expect Zulu ethnicity to become a new force – like Catalonia in Spain. Shaking off “imperialism” is nothing new – for the political allies of the church Reformers, it was to loosen the hegemony of Rome over their nations.

Expect some censorship, too. Especially in areas that support the Counter-Reformation. Zuma has already started to warn people not to provoke him. Expect the Counter-Reformation party to send out militant missionaries. Not Jesuits but Jacobites. Not from the Society of Jesus but from the Society of Zuma. 

COPE was formed by Thabo Mbeki loyalists. It was launched at a congress in Sandton.  The Counter-Reformation organized the Council of Trent. Policy-wise, COPE is not that different from the ANC. The real noise about policy came from another ANC splinter group, the EFF.  Its pioneering slogans about “land expropriation without compensation” and “radical economic transformation” have now been adopted by the ANC, leaving the EFF looking a bit like a preacher without a pulpit.

All that is lacking now is for these various groups to switch the emphasis from problem analysis to envisioning. From the negatives that they are against, to the positive directions they want to go in.  From: “You see things as they are, and you ask, why?”  To: “I see things that never were, and I ask, why not?”  Then let the electioneering begin!

It looks like David Mabuza’s “unity” project is on the ropes. Ramaphoria is only cleansing a part of the ANC, not all of it. The backlash is regrouping because human nature has never changed. The real consolidation of the Counter-Reformation came in two forms – launching the Jesuits and holding the Council of Trent. Expect a new party to hold a congress before the elections to map out how to conserve Triumphalism, so that a permanent space in politics can be carved out for its champions.

It is déjà vu all over again.

Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director for the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his personal capacity