The role of churches and the 2019 elections

SPECIAL BLESSING: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is blessed by Bishop Abel Gabuza. Picture: Naledi Gaosekwe (Facebook)

Political parties, the electorate and organs of civil society in South Africa are in the process of organising for the general election of 2019. This is a uniquely important election and is likely to be the most intensely contested election since the inception of our democracy. Obviously this crucial election will affect every body in South Africa, not just the political parties. 

So for instance of the many important role players, the organisations of civil society should be constructively involved in the whole process. It is submitted that of these, faith based religious organisations, such as the Christian Church, have an important contribution to make. It should be borne in mind that unlike the United States Constitution, where its Supreme Court has held that religious freedom requires a ‘wall of separation between church and state’ our Constitution in contrast recognises a limited but nevertheless significant role for religion, which it is submitted should be used optimally. 

In this regard the churches must engage both the governing party and other parties in this pre-election period. It is important to understand that the churches should not be doing this as merely an exercise in a lively and robust debate, but fulfilling a moral and spiritual obligation, since as Dion Forster of Stellenbosch University points out that although religious organisations remain the most trusted institutions in South Africa this trust should not be abused or manipulated.  This means they must act independently, boldly and impartially and speak truth to power in relation to controversial and sensitive political issues, without being in any way party political or favouring one party over another.

This is a time when the governing party and other parties are particularly receptive to criticism. Obviously this applies not only to the Christian Church, but equally to the other great religious faiths, such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, all of whom have a common basic moral and spiritual philosophy of care and compassion for people.

During the Apartheid era, the main line English Speaking denominations, and some their leaders, like, inter alia, Emeritus Archbishop Tutu, were very critical of the National Party Government and its iniquitous policy of institutionalized racism. A significantly different approach occurred with the inception of the new democratic era. Initially during the first five years of the new democratic administration under the saintly President Nelson Mandela the voice and views of the Church were feint or even muted, since we as a nation rejoiced in the operation of our non-racial democratic Constitution. 

During the nearly ten years of the Presidency of Thabo Mbeki, despite the arms purchase debacle, silent diplomacy in relation to Zimbabwe, and his genocidal aids-denialism views with its disastrous consequences for millions of persons, the churches were, it is submitted, most unfortunately, not sufficiently critical and vocal. It was only during the last ten years of the controversial and the corrupt Zuma administration that the churches became more vocal, particularly on the contentious issue of state capture, endemic corruption and serious mal-administration in government.

In the wake of the 2019 Election all the churches have an ideal opportunity to engage not only the governing party but all the other political parties. It is submitted that Christian theology requires that the Churches should not merely be concerned with the spiritual welfare of people but also with their material well-being. Indeed the two are inseparable. In this regard what is required of the state and its governing party is a caring and compassionate society. If more than 20 million people in South Africa are living in dire poverty and there is large scale unemployment and very unsatisfactory service delivery for these people, resulting in protests which are sometimes violent, then there is a patent lack of social and economic justice.  

It is clearly evident that we are failing to be a caring and compassionate society and are obviously not in compliance with the Bill of Rights and its requirement of human dignity. In this regard the governing party needs to be challenged in no uncertain terms. South Africa also has one of the most economically unequal societies in the world, where a relatively small percentage of the population enjoy great affluence and a vast percentage of our people live in dire poverty.  

Although this unequivocally reflects a manifest lack of social justice, it also undermines political stability in the country. It is imperative that this must change as far as economic inequality, not only in relation to land, but other resources as well. Although there are no instantaneous solutions, it is essential that we move with expedition in the direction of greater social justice and economic equality. In this regard the ANC, as the governing party, as well as other parties must be challenged. 

Surely in the circumstances some kind of basic income grant should be introduced at least incrementally is essential to relieve the dire poverty that exists in relation to millions of persons who are not in receipt of any social grant? The political parties need to be engaged in justifying what economic system they favour. The EFF appears from its proposals of nationalising the banks and its land policies to favour some kind of Marxist system.

In contrast President Ramaphosa is in favour of a resource driven economy and aspects of social democracy. Do we require and can we afford a welfare state of some kind and is this feasible? Is the Swedish model economically feasible in South Africa or do we need our own sui generis model? The great-war time Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, proposed the idea of Christian socialism. Is this an option? These are some of the economic ideas that the churches and the political parties should engage with. What is essential is that the Churches should not be merely reactive and for instance criticise for instance the Nkandla scandal, the social grants debacle or the Life Esidimeni tragedy. 

The Churches could innovatively formulate a Charter of Compassion and Caring as part a proactive strategy. Perhaps we need a contemporary equivalent of the radical Kairos document of the late 1980’s that confronted the iniquitous Apartheid regime, to give the ANC government a jolt because of their self-serving and iniquitous conduct during the last 10 years under the Zuma administration. Sometimes confrontation is necessary and justified. The pussyfooting must cease.

The Churches must also confront the ANC government on the issue of violence and wide spread crime. This impacts on ordinary people, especially the poor, who do not have the resources to protect themselves that more affluent persons have, although it impacts on all our people. Vast numbers of persons do not feel safe in the sanctity of their own homes. In this regard the South African Police Service (SAPS) has not been sufficiently pro-active, but rather reactive. A fundamental change is required so that ordinary people can once again have a feeling safety and security provided by SAPS. 

In our constitutional democracy it is expected that we must of necessity have robust debates but it is essential that as a nation we maintain peace and social cohesion. What we do not want is any display of violence like that of Julius Malema firing shots in a stadium apparently from an assault rifle at the 5th anniversary celebration of the EFF. As a result the churches needs to boldly confront the EFF.

The churches must make it clear that although the political leaders and members of the electorate belong to strongly opposing political parties, we are all South Africans and not enemies but political opponents. This of necessity excludes violence, such as the political killings as have occurred in KwaZulu-Natal involving ANC factions.

George Devenish is an emeritus professor at UKZN and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993.