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State Regulation of Religion an Anathema of ANC Policy – Rev Dr Vukile Mehana

Rev Dr Vukile MehanaAs a liberation movement and the governing party of South Africa, the ANC has consistently affirmed the importance of religion in public life. From its first meeting in 1912, the ANC has recognized and appreciated the need for an independent voice from the Church. Such voice has always been intended to ensure the promotion of the spirituality of the struggle of the people and to build and entrench revolutionary morality. The ANC also knew at the time that as we conducted the struggle there would constantly be a need for a custodian and conscience of our ethics and our morality. We knew that within the organisation and amongst our people there would be a need for pastoral ministry; some families would be hurt and divided, people would be injured or killed, and there would be a need for the families to be assured of the care of the ANC. That pastoral responsibility we gave to the chaplaincy; a responsibility we continue to shoulder today.

In recent times, society has witnessed a number of widely reported excesses by certain faith-based organizations, some of whose practices appear to constitute a violation of the rights of their congregants. It is indisputable that of late the religious space has been invaded by individuals and groups with dubious motives. It is also true that there has been a mushrooming of churches, or groups that call themselves churches who are using the preaching of the gospel (with all the preaching of miracles and healing) as a means to collect money. The African National Congress remains committed to upholding the tenets of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, as such we do not under any circumstances condone practices that are violating the human rights of our people, and fully support the mobilization of all state resources to protect our people from any kind of abuse. Having accepted that however the ANC government cannot afford to be seen to be abusing the status accorded our Chapter 9 institutions by setting them up as adversaries to the very communities they were set up to protect.

The issuing of summonses to a number faith-based organizations to appear before the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL) is unfortunate. The resultant furore has given rise to regrettable perceptions that government is attempting to regulate religious practice and expressions of faith.

It has become necessary therefore for the National Chaplaincy to state unequivocally that the ANC is of the view that the issuing of summonses against religious communities displays a heavy-handed, misguided approach. It is also an approach that runs contrary to the letter and spirit of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities Act, promulgated in 2002. As such, we cannot be in favour of the way in which the CRL has conducted itself: this includes controversial public posturing and controversial statements made to the media.

We also cannot support what seems to be an antagonistic approach that in effect tramples on the main mandate of the Commission: which is to promote peaceful coexistence between religious cultural and linguistic groups in the country. While there have been isolated incidences of abuse, the Commission has chosen to paint all faith-based organizations with the same brush. Instead of zooming in on the excesses and dealt with them directly, it has chosen a path of confrontation that unless addressed, will lead to the perception that the ANC-led government is trying to usher in state-regulation of churches by stealth.

There are a number of problems with this: chiefly that this has never been the intention of the ANC, nor of the Commission. When the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa was promulgated in 1996 the then Commission for Religious Affairs (CRA) of the ANC noted that there was a need for religious, cultural and linguistic rights to be further promoted and protected so that everybody in South Africa feels that they’ve got a right to practice their culture, their religion and their language. Soon after, the CRA spearheaded the founding of the Moral Regeneration Movement to ensure that the country operated under a proper moral fibre. It is the ANC government that has developed the Charter of Positive Values to undergird the whole matter of the Moral Regeneration Movement to ensure that we conduct ourselves on the basis of positive values. It has also been under this ANC government that we decided we should have a National Religious Leaders Forum made up of religious leaders who must hold the President of this country accountable, especially on moral issues and ethical behaviour.

This has always been how the ANC has operated, and all the while led by the conviction of the ANC that we would always respect that there was a God who leads us all the way. It was from this necessity that the ANC decided to set up the Commission (CRL), and include it in the legislative framework of the country so that it enjoys the seriousness it deserves and is tasked primarily with the promotion and protection of religious, cultural and linguisitc rights. Regulation of religion was never the aim. Regulation of religion especially by the state is a sensitive matter; and you have to balance regulating the existence of those religions and recognition of those religions.

The Act establishing the Commission speaks of communities, not about individuals, or individual cultural groups or religions. For example, you’ll find there have been dominant cultures in South Africa and then there are cultures we were not much aware of like the Khoi community. The Khoi community is a very important part of South Africa – they’ve got a very rich culture in the history of South Africa but their culture was not that prominent.

The CRL, as part of the family of the legislated instutitions that protect our democracy, was set up to unearth that: to promote them, so that they form part of all other cultures and religions and languages. The operative words ‘promote’ and ‘protect’ define the spirit of the Commission – not harsh confrontational words like ‘summon’, ‘order to appear’ and ‘threat of fine’.

In issuing summonses to all faith-based organizations because of the excesses of a few, the CRL has created unnecessary tension between itself and the communities it was set up to protect. Though it may indeed have powers of subpoena, the Act clearly defines its primary duties as being to educate people, protect people, and roll out awareness campaigns – and not merely to be on the offensive.

It may be said that the CRL may have grossly overstepped its mandate. With regards to regulation the onus is on the churches to ensure they are properly registered and that their financial affairs are properly handled as far as they are being used for the vulnerable and the poor. That function of registration would fall under the Department of Trade and Industry and the issue of the financial side in the main would fall under SARS. There are existing regulatory frameworks in the country, and this Commission was not set up for such purposes.

What we have seen in some newspapers of congregants being forced to eat grass and drink petrol, is certainly outrageous and our people need to be protected from charlatanry. If protection of religious individuals and communities is indeed what the Commission is doing, we commend them for it, as manipulating the spiritual emotions of people for self-enrichment is deplorable.

The ANC encourages the Commission to go directly to those who are performing such actions, but also to relook the way they have approached this very sensitive issue. We also encourage the Commission to rather call for meetings to engage with religious, linguistic and cultural groups for the sake of protecting human rights, instead of dragging people to court as a first instead of last resort.

The National Chaplaincy of the ANC has always been conscious that as we lead the people of God – the churches must be our conscience. As things are happening now, we could get into a point where the envisaged relationship between the church and the state is jeapardized, and the church will not be able to play its rightful role as the prophetic voice and the conscience of the nation.

You cannot have a church that is state regulated in terms of its prophetic function. Once you do that you’ll have now a state church then you become prophets of the palace. There has never been any independet voice that emanates from a prophet of the palace.

Article by Rev Dr Vukile Mehana

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