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Anthony Egan SJ (Jesuit Institute South Africa, Johannesburg)


Johannesburg, May 30-31, 1988: At an emergency Convocation of Churches initiated by the South African Council of Churches (SACC), and endorsed by the Catholic Church (which then had observer status in the SACC), the Standing for the Truth Campaign is launched. Comprising Christians from across denominations and including Jews, Muslims and Hindus, its purpose is clear: effective non-violent resistance against apartheid. It called on religious communities to support the June national days of protest planned by the trade union movements, prayer and protest calling for the release of detainees held under the national State of Emergency, the freeing of political prisoners like Nelson Mandela, the unbanning of liberation movements and the transition to democracy.

As I recall, the service that launched ‘Standing for the Truth’ was held at Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto. The church was ringed by heavily armed police and military armoured personnel vehicles throughout and after the ecumenical service. One among thousands leaving Regina Mundi, I noticed (with more than a little unease, I must admit) how the heavy machine guns and water cannon mounted on the APVs followed us to our awaiting transport.

Flash forward: Regina Mundi (again), May 18, 2017: The SACC announces its ‘Unburdening Report’ on corruption and state capture by the ruling African National Congress government. It produces a pastoral statement to all member churches (including now the Catholic Church, which joined the SACC in the 1990s) which states quite bluntly: the ANC, with whom the SACC had often worked closely during the struggle era, has lost moral legitimacy. The government of South Africa could not be trusted to tell the truth about corruption. It was up to the religious community, together with a range of allies (including academics and sometime allies of the ANC, the trade union movement and Communist Party), to reveal the real state of the nation, so that the democratic legacy of the struggle would not be lost.

This is a profound moral moment in South Africa’s history, one that deserves analysis.

For the realm of political ethics, it reflects a dramatic rupture. During the struggle against apartheid the SACC and other religious organisations that were in opposition found themselves in a peculiar situation: while never formally part of the ANC or taking direction from it, and while recognising the significance of other non-ANC liberation movements, it took a broadly ANC line. This was hardly surprising, given that the fundamental option of the ANC – anti-apartheid, pro-democracy, pro-human rights, promotion of greater economic equality – accorded generally with Christian moral values. Even the use of violence by liberation movements including the ANC could be with varying degrees of difficulty accommodated: from the tragic consequence of state intransigence for some to a legitimate use of force under ‘just war’ doctrine.

Today, however, the message has changed. The SACC are not attacking the ANC’s policies as such but rather the misuse of power for political gain by those who run the ANC, centred on incumbent President Jacob Zuma and his colleagues. Whatever the merits or faults of policies, the issue is corruption, revelations of which suggest it is all-pervasive. Moreover the evidence suggests massive undue influence in policy and practice of a number of big businessmen, notably the India- and Dubai-based Gupta family, who have even allegedly influenced appointments to Cabinet and Ministries, profiting themselves and the Zuma clique. Honest public servants like former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan have been fired or side-lined; Constitutionally-instituted organs to prevent corruption have been compromised. In short, we have what is called ‘state capture’.

The integrity – the truth and wholeness – of the democratic system has been compromised.

In the absence of credible state organs, the SACC, religious communities and civil society have once again stepped into the breach – not as a political movement but as a moral voice that seeks to do what the state has failed to do: tell the truth. In telling the truth, it hopes to change public consciousness, offer an alternative moral vision and call public and parties to take ownership of the hard-won democracy, even if it might mean voting the ANC out of power in 2019.

This is a daunting task, one that will not easily be accomplished. First, the majority of South Africans still have an emotional attachment to the ANC. Given too that opposition parties have dubious credentials – the Democratic Alliance is perceived as at best a party of free market capital, at worst the political bolt hole of disaffected minorities; the Economic Freedom Fighters is a utopian socialist party, expert at protest but untested in managing even a city council. Second, the poorest South Africans – spurred on by ANC grassroots propaganda – believe that if the ANC loses they will at least lose their social welfare grants, at worst see the restoration of apartheid. They may be disillusioned with the lack of social development, disgusted with the corruption of Zuma and company, and frustrated by the increasing gap between themselves and the ruling elite, but will that inspire them to jump the ANC ship? Third, the church on the ground is deeply divided – many pastors have close ties with ANC leaders, some of them benefitting from ANC largesse. There is also the problem that many churches, ‘mainstream’ and independent, are themselves practising forms of corruption, notably squeezing money out of often cash-strapped congregations – hardly a grassroots advertisement for the integrity the SACC demands of politicians.

Finally, it is clear that if the SACC initiative takes off, then we are entering a new round of ‘church versus state’ confrontations. It is ironic, but hardly amusing, to note the ANC rhetoric against the SACC: keep out of politics, your job is to pray. We heard that throughout the apartheid era – now the paragons of anti-apartheid are using the same language! More sinisterly, it’s becoming clear that the old apartheid divide-and-conquer strategy with the churches is also being used: bring in prominent church leaders, especially from ‘opposition’ denominations, to give yourself legitimacy.

Like South Africa as a whole as it battles to restore democratic integrity and moral legitimacy, the churches are entering a difficult time. This is as it should be. To paraphrase that great saint of resistance Dietrich Bonhoeffer, if the churches do not stand with the country in its time of need, embracing the hard cost of discipleship, it will have little if any legitimate role in its renewal.