Religion, politics and Jacob Zuma’s victim defence

By Verashni Pillay

Add NewThe National Interfaith Council of South Africa (Nicsa), the Commission for Religious Affairs (CRA), Delangokubona Business Forum, the National Funeral Practitioners Association of South Africa (NafupaSA) and Black First Land First (BLF) held a press briefing in Durban on Wednesday to outline why they supported Zuma.

These particular churches and their rise are an interesting feature of Zuma’s arc in our body politic.

A short history lesson is perhaps in order to understand why.

Mainstream churches in SA have a rich and respectable history in the fight against apartheid since the formation of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) in 1968.

At the height of apartheid, this formation galvanised an otherwise disparate, and sometimes uninterested or even complicit religious sector, eventually including over 20 denominations. The SACC went on to work closely with other movements to tackle the tyranny of apartheid.

This work obviously forged a close bond between these movements, and specifically between the SACC and the ANC, which has traditionally had a “religious desk” as part of its operations. When the ANC-led government took over in 1994, many of its leaders had some or other bond with the SACC. The international donor-funded organisation would have funded studies abroad, assisted families of detained activists, and so on.

It the transition to democracy, however, an existential question faced these churches: how closely should they ally themselves with the new government?

It was a question that faced other sectors too, including civil society. To cut a long story short, the body settled on the idea of “critical solidarity”: they would support where they could while maintaining a critical distance and holding the new leaders to account.

It sounded good in theory. But there was another factor at play: international donor funding, that had been funnelled into the fight against apartheid, was now directed to the new, legitimate, majority government. This factor reflected in the allocation of human resources too.

The ANC was suddenly landed with the entire country to govern, stretching its leaders thin. The story goes that Nelson Mandela charmed various leaders from the church, trade unions and civil society to join the cause, and help make that first, thinly resourced government — so weighted down with expectation — a success against all the odds.

It was a hard request to turn down. SACC leaders like Frank Chikane soon found themselves in government. So with the bleeding of its resources, both human and financial, towards the state, the SACC — like other movements — gradually found itself increasingly thin in capacity.

Yet it still used its voice, particularly to speak out against the most egregious wrongdoings — or at least those that were trumpeted the loudest.

Enter Jacob Zuma. The SACC and mainstream churches largely balked at the allegations levelled against him as deputy president, which started the current court drama a decade ago.

The SACC was by no means perfect in this. A question I’ve often had, of the SACC as well as business leaders, is why were they not as vocal about former president Thabo Mbeki’s catastrophic AIDS denialism as they were about Zuma’s corruption? (Although of course there are exceptions to that rule and some leaders in these sectors spoke out loudly.) Something about Zuma lent itself to easy critique, while Mbeki’s intimidating demeanour and intellectualism seemingly paralysed it. This is something our country must examine closely if we are to safeguard ourselves in future. But that’s a topic for another day.

Zuma, ever the victim, formed a formidable grudge against the mainstream church thanks to its criticisms of him. The effect of this would reverberate for the next decade of his calamitous rule.

With an increasingly alienated religious sector making adverse pronouncements about him, Zuma swung between telling church leaders to butt out of politics, and courting fringe churches to reassure his religious support base.

What’s a fringe church, you may ask? Generally they’re not part of a larger structure or network that monitors individual churches, as traditional churches usually would do, and their leaders are akin to supreme leaders who are accountable to no one. They also are prone to poor theological foundations, which leads to the nightmarish stories of the use of petrol, doom, snakes and more.

In exchange for a national platform and elevated prominence, their support was easy to secure. In KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home base, I have heard talk that some of these church leaders benefit from government patronage — jobs and perhaps even tenders.

And so, under the guise of putting together a more inclusive body, the National Interfaith Leadership Council was formed under Zuma’s watch, later renamed Nicsa. At its root was an attempt to nail down the support of religion in a deeply religious country, while alienating those religious bodies that would not toe the line.

Fast-forward to 2018 and Zuma is a spent political force. The more respectable elements of the council are still legitimately recognised, and the SACC is in a process of rejuvenating itself. But there are still those religious leaders who shout the loudest in defence of a man who nearly wrecked our democracy.

“Could it be that Zuma is targeted because he has always been on the side of the poor?” asked Bishop Bheki Ngcobo at Wednesday’s briefing. “Could it be that Zuma is targeted because he preferred free education for the poor?”

Quite the opposite. The extensive state capture project that happened at Zuma’s behest has hurt the poor most. Any church leader worth their salt should know that.

This column was first published in Business Day online. Read the original here