South African elections create debate about religion and politics

By Ecumenical News International
April 19, 2009

Religion has always played a part in South African elections say voters, but this year the voice of churches and their leaders has at times been strong during campaigning for the 22 April 2009 general election - writes Munyaradzi Makoni.

Some voters say the pulpit has been used to great effect; others say it is being misused.

The man who is expected to be the new president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, who had himself been appointed a pastor of a charismatic church in 2007, caused a furore when in March he made an openly politicking speech at the Rhema Bible Church in a Johannesburg suburb.

After Zuma took to the pulpit and spoke at the Rhema Church and said "the historical association of the ANC and the Church cannot be doubted', some people in the pews walked out.

"Rhema believes the visit by Mr Zuma and his delegation gave the church an opportunity to minister in a significant way to the leader of the ruling party and his colleagues," said church spokesperson Vusi Mona.

The United Democratic Movement leader, Bantu Holomisa requested the same platform to address the congregation. So did African Christian Democratic Party leader, the Rev. Kenneth Meshoe. Their requests were denied.

The former general secretary of All Africa Conference of Churches, the Rev Mvume Dandala is the presidential candidate for the Congress of the People, a party whose core leadership are breakaways from the ruling African National Congress.

Though not campaigning from the pulpit, he prayed for his prospective voters.

"We are bringing in the desperately needed moral card against a background of corruption and a widening gap between the leaders and the people," said Dandala, a former leader of South Africa's Methodist church and a one-time follower of the black consciousness movement led by Steve Biko.

Russell Botman, a theologian who is rector of Stellenbosch University and the former president of the South African Council of Churches, turned down a offer to stand for the Western Cape premiership for COPE.

Into his place, however, stepped the Rev Allan Boesak, a former president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. He has also broken away from the ANC, accusing it of having wrongly allowed him to be imprisoned for stealing funds he had been holding for the party.

The Independent Electoral Commission has registered 23 million voters who are expected to cast their ballots in 9000 polling stations. Out of 117 registered political parties, only 28 are participating in the fourth fully democratic election since 1994 after apartheid was dismantled.

During the campaign, Nobel Peace Price Laureate and retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, issued a challenge about whether it was suitable to have as the next president a man like Zuma, an unabashed womaniser and polygamist, who has just had lifted charges of corruption, racketeering and money laundering centring on a multi-billion dollar armaments deal.

ANC leaders were furious with Tutu and one of them accused the archbishop of "blasphemy" for criticising attempts by some in the ANC to promote Zuma as a "black Jesus".

The head of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference, Cardinal William Napier, said, "I call on all political leaders from all parties to stop looking to the churches for endorsement and to refrain from using church services as election platforms."

A 27-strong group of South Africa's major religions and denominations did, however, agree on an election covenant, with a campaigning code.

"The relevance of politics for religion specifically for Christians is no longer debatable. Nor do Christians still debate much the need for them to be involved in politics," said Tinyiko Maluleke, the president of the South African Council of Churches. "What remains a debatable event in our day is the level, mode, nature, manner and purpose of Christian involvement in politics."

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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