South Africa: Developing a vision for new freedoms

South Africa witnessed two major campaigns in October and November. Tens of thousands of students protested against a rise in student fees “Fees must fall”, and the Anglican Archbishop, Thabo Makoba and the Director of the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa, Rev Moss Ntlha led an anti-corruption march of 6000 people.

These protests against the government by Churches which had supported the anti-apartheid struggle marks an important step in the development of South Africa since freedom from apartheid came in 1994.

Rev Nthla wrote in the Mail and Guardian on November 21 “This weekend President Zuma stirred up the memories of Church by suggesting that the church should stay out of politics and stick to prayer. His rhetoric sounded perilously close to PW Botha telling Tutu and the SACC to stay out of politics in the 80’s!

It seems that the group of those who cannot criticise the ANC has been widened – almost 80% of South Africans attend church. More worryingly the treasured role of the South African church as a moral voice speaking truth to power has been undermined.”

Citing, the 4 billion Rand jet purchased in the name of the president in a country where the voices of poor and unemployed are daily to be heard in service delivery protests and #fees must fall campaigns, he said that the democracy that was won through so much sacrifice by so many, was in danger of being sacrificed by the greed and machinations of so few.

Rev Frank Chikane, the one-time director of the Office of the President under Nelson Mandela, and President of the Apostolic Faith Mission, explained to a seminar group on “Faith and Public Policy” held in Johannesburg at the end of November how once caught in the cycle of corruption, those in power never have enough. The black people’s struggle against apartheid was highly moral and refused to destroy the country’s infrastructure because they wanted to take it over intact. But corrupt business interests corrupted the Africa National

Congress at branch level elections to protect their own interests. And those elected then adopt policies to favour those whose corrupt votes they secured. If a president is compromised, he ensures that his successor will protect him.

Corruption corrupts and requires the corrupted people to protect the corrupt in turn. Oppressors are now using the rights framework of the country to protect their privileges.

The “Faith and Public Policy” seminars were sponsored by the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa, the Southern Mission Society, the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life and the Wilberforce Academy UK. Introducing the seminars Moss Ntlha noted that the time had come for Christians to seek to transform the culture of their society. South Africa since 1994 had invented its own righteousness, largely informed by the Nordic Countries and UN agencies who helped it develop its new ‘rights based’ constitution. It was difficult then for the church to engage as it was met with the response: “Since when were you Christians familiar with human rights?”

The post-1994 settlement is now showing major clashes between the secular human rights orthodoxy of the constitution and the faith of Christians who form eighty percent of the population of South Africa.

The charter of human rights was drafted in 1948 by an Egyptian Christian against an assumed background of a Christian social order. But it is now being reinterpreted by autonomous secular individualism and has specious claims to accepted universality given the challenges of Isis, China and India. Secular rights language is being used to force on African societies the acceptance of abortion and same sex behaviour with threats of removal of aid, a culture of promoting death forced on cultures which affirm life with all the arrogance of the colonialism of former generations.

Teresa Conradie, the Chairperson of the Christian Lawyers Association of South Africa and the President of Advocates Africa, drew attention to the threat to freedom of religion due to practices of charlatan preachers calling on people to eat snakes who are citing the freedom of religion. This has led the government to contemplate state regulation of the churches. There are also a number of cases before the courts where the integrity of marriage and the family protected by law were under threat.

To begin an active programme to enable the churches to address these challenges, the seminars suggested establishing champions for biblically based justice ( which means giving each their due and no more than their due) in each congregation; and to develop a think tank to develop and disseminate a renewed Christian vision of justice and freedom to critique the current orthodoxy of secular human rights.