South African churches and the country's president, Jacob Zuma, are at loggerheads again over remarks by the leader that his African National Congress will "rule until Jesus comes" - writes Munyaradzi Makoni
The South African Council of Churches, which groups most of South Africa's churches and the Roman Catholic bishops' conference, issued a statement stating it is "deeply concerned" about President Zuma's repeated statements that the ANC will rule until Jesus comes.
Zuma made his latest utterance while addressing thousands of ANC supporters at Witbank, in South Africa's northeastern Mpumalanga province on 21 June 2009, when he thanked them for returning his party to power in the national elections held in April.
"The ANC will rule until the Son of Man comes. He must come back while we are still in power," said Zuma. "We want the ANC to win all the forthcoming elections and rule this country."
SACC general secretary, Eddie Makhue said, however, "It is important that if something is religiously controversial that the president uses his liberty to consult with the religious leaders and particularly with us in the SACC."
Makhue said, "We have indicated our preparedness to engage with the president on this matter and we have seen in our human history in other parts of the world, particularly in South Africa, that through dialogue, we are better able to resolve issues of contention."
During the 2009 election campaign, Zuma was criticised for making similar remarks, invoking the name of Jesus to keep his party's hold on power. Some critics compared these statements to those that have been made by neighbouring Zimbabwe's 85-year-old president, Robert Mugabe, who has hung on to power since 1980 despite losing elections in 2008. Mugabe has stated, "only God" can remove him from power.
A group called the Friends of Jacob Zuma Trust accused the South African Council of Churches, which was a staunch opponent of the apartheid regime in the 1980s, of attempting to privatise Jesus and the Christian religion. "We refuse, like many other South African Christians, to allow the SACC to conduct itself as if they own Jesus Christ. It has become clear that this religious body wants to turn the Christian religion into some sort of a cult belonging to a particular grouping," the trust said in a statement.
Makhue said, "We want to remind political leaders that we are living in a democracy and in a democracy the choices of the people are the determining factors and therefore no leader can pre-empt what the decision of the electorate will be." Makhue said Zuma’s comments were "confusing matters of the secular world with matters that are considered to be sacred".
On 25 June ANC spokesperson Jesse Duarte said in a statement, "Remarks made in Mpumalanga should be understood in the context of the president's confidence in the people of South Africa who have - in the last four successive elections - voted overwhelmingly for the ANC. We are confident that the people will continue to do so in future elections due to our track record and legacy."
[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.]