Faith, hope and coalitions


Faith, hope and coalitions

The feeling that the ANC won't secure a majority in next year's election should excite us. But with so many political leaders making religious statements, we should be wary of what a post-ANC future may hold, writes RUHAN FOURIE.


WE live in an overwhelmingly religious republic. Not so long ago, around 84% of South Africans claimed to be Christian, and three-quarters of our compatriots showed higher trust in faith communities and leaders than in the state and political leaders.

This tendency is also reflected in our national symbols and institutions, such as our divine plea in Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika and in the preamble of our constitution, which could just as well conclude with an “Amen!" 

Yet, in essence, and in the spirit of diversity, tolerance and democratic values, South Africa is a secular state. Believers of all persuasions are embraced, provided their actions remain within the constitutional framework, and there remains a sharp dividing line between church and state. Well, that's how it is supposed to be. After all, there is a difference between democratic values on paper and a political culture that in practice stretches and bends these values for personal gains.

Over the past three decades, we have seen how the ANC opens meetings with prayer and its leaders attend large church gatherings, while some cadres even believe Jesus will be the one to kick the party out of power. But the state has not degenerated into a theocracy, and reasonably progressive social policy has been maintained and expanded under the current regime (the Zuma years were the closest the party came to blurring the line between church and state).

The ANC's mixture of religious rhetoric and a secular policy agenda has been a continuous political strategy over the years, according to the research of David Jeffery-Schwikkard, and the main opposition has also yet to overtly use religion to garner votes. The DA embraced the leadership of Pastor Mmusi Maimane, who held socially conservative views, but party policy was never pulled in this direction.

The prospect of the ANC being pushed below 50% by a coalition effort excites a lot of South Africans but this should not cloud our view of an alternative regime. For those who believe in secular democracy, a worrying trend is emerging among possible coalition partners. 

About a month ago, ActionSA leader Herman Mashaba declared at a public meeting in North West that “when ActionSA is voted into government, we will bring God back into our schools”, after which he waxed nostalgic about the days when school days began with prayer.

“That is going to be brought back. No school will start before there is assembly … to ask for God's blessing for our children. The teachers, everyone should be there,” he said. He noted a concession: no one will be forced, but then mockingly said “non-believers” could sit aside while the rest of the school talked to God. “The non-believers in this country [are in the minority] … and now they are forcing their evil system on us,” said the leader of a party whose dream is “a society based on mutual respect that prides itself in our diversity and embraces our differences”, according to its manifesto. 

A video clip from this speech recently caught my eye when ActionSA posted it on Twitter. It has since disappeared from the platform after the party's communications team probably realised that these statements could be harmful. Yet some believers within the party still uploaded and distributed the video with great pride on Facebook.

Mashaba frequently highlights his semi-theocratic views on social media, like when he suggested God should be part of the constitution (whatever that might mean):

In his regular call to prayer on social media, he refers to ActionSA as “a God Inspiring Movement of Hope”. He asks “Let God Lead, Guide and Direct our Path” with a view to the policy conference in September:

Why go on about Mashaba and ActionSA like this? Because in the run-up to the 2024 elections, the party will be an important pillar in coalition negotiations. And these negotiation agreements will undoubtedly be made with smaller parties that are unabashedly Christian, even theocratic. The policies of the ACDP, which has historically struggled to win more than 1.6% of the vote, are openly based on a narrow interpretation of the Bible, and party leader Kenneth Meshoe is a convinced supporter of Donald Trump.

Then there is the self-appointed kingmaker of coalition politics, the Patriotic Alliance's Gayton McKenzie, who expresses his stance in clear terms: “I am bringing God back, back in the Constitution and schools.” 

The Freedom Front Plus describes itself as “the home of those who … believe in Christian values”, and even if these values are those of the God of the Vow, they have at least proven that they believe in the separation between church and state.

The DA wants to take the coalition to the moon, but with these partners it's unlikely to make it past heaven. In contrast to the two largest parties, these smaller parties represent crass, unnuanced religious views that may lead to narrow policy proposals, or a blind eye to churches and church leaders who exploit their followers.

I agree with the Stellenbosch theologian Dion Forster who writes that religious beliefs and practices cannot function undisturbed because, as we often see in South Africa, they can harm individuals or society at large. A coalition that depends on a group of Christian nationalist-leaning players could be dangerous.

I recently spoke to a Dutch colleague about coalition politics in the Netherlands and he told me Christian parties can separate faith and governance when it comes to policy. They are the preferred coalition partners over right-wing populists who echo the local Christian nationalism of the ACDP, the xenophobia of ActionSA and the black peril of the FF+. Maturity above populism is the goal. 

With South Africa’s history of Christian nationalism, when church and state were so intertwined that this complex country was subjugated by a narrow, single image of a Christian God, we can only hope that we can get closer to Dutch maturity than American populism. 

We must stay vigilant about what the future after the ANC might hold. This means protecting the secular state. A pluralistic society like ours should not be subject to policies that oppress minorities, or rhetoric that alienates them.

♦ VWB ♦

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