Over the past two or three years I’ve published several pieces with PTT on the theological significance of South Africa’s democratic evolution and the involvement of churches there. The last of these concerned the #rhodesmustfall movement, which began with a statue fronting the University of Cape Town’s Upper Campus.
With a fresh hashtag (#feesmustfall), the subsequent extension of the movement across the country has signaled the difficult situation poverty-stricken Africans face in educating themselves for a better life. The doors of education, while in principle open, remain difficult to pass through. Moreover, academia itself is seen to be in need of foundational transformation—a fascinating debate which I will not enter at this moment.
The particular situation indicated by #feesmustfall is the plight of South Africa at the close of another election season. According to a study published in this past May, 63 percent of South Africa’s children grow up in poverty. While this is an improvement from earlier figures, it remains staggering in a nation hailed as an icon of democracy and hope only 20 years ago. Housing demand outstrips supply by a ratio of 2:1, with some families have spend an entire generation on a waiting list. Violent service delivery protests continue, though now unreported by the public broadcaster, which in a chilling reminder of the old days is looking more and more like the propaganda arm of the ruling ANC.
And there is President Jacob Zuma. Long held to be a necessary evil for maintaining the unity of the party and its alliance partners, Zuma’s incompetence and corruption lie at the heart of the protests, and more recently the election campaigns. Late last year, a new hashtag emerged: #zumamustfall. Launched with an eight-story-tall banner (which was immediately torn down by ANC supporters) in Cape Town’s CBD, the hashtag announced yet another gatvol (South African slang for “completely fed up”, or “had it up to here”) moment.
The year 2016 has indeed been one series of “falls” after another: first there were the after-effects of the firing of Nhlanhla Nene, a Finance Minister generally respected for his refusal to give blind support to the President’s deals. Then followed attempts to use special investigators on Nene’s eventual successor, Pravin Gordhan, ostensibly for insisting on the independence of the Treasury and Revenue services. Just as he had done for the Public Protector, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, responded with a “Statement of Support” for Gordhan’s commitment to fiscal discipline. While this was going on, the media were exposing the Gupta family’s attempts to influence government appointments. And then there was the Constitutional Court’s condemnation of Zuma‘s failure to act on the Public Protector’s recommendation that he return to the public purse funds taken for upgrades to his Nkandla homestead.
Examples could be multiplied. But it was the latter, Constitutional Court decision on March 31 that galvanized South African churches to embrace the #zumamustfall hashtag.
Terming the decision “a devastating judgement on the constitutional and moral conduct of the President, the National Parliament and the leadership of the Speaker,”] the South African Council of Churches (SACC) issued a statement shortly afterward, calling for Zuma to do “the honourable thing” and resign. Addressing students and faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand, Makgoba echoed it, calling for “a tsunami of truth-telling”.
Similar public sentiments were expressed by the Methodist Church of South Africa and a number of Catholic sources. After a meeting between the The National Religious Leaders’ Council and senior ANC leaders, SACC General Secretary Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana revealed that four of the six were wrestling with consciences on the question of Zuma’s resignation. Several ANC struggle stalwarts, including Ahmed Kathrada (Nelson Mandela’s friend and fellow prisoner) voiced the same sentiment.
It is doubtful that all South African churches are unanimous. Such is the complexity of the South African religious scene. And Zuma can still command a large, Christian audience as he did on Good Friday at the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God’s “Amandla Ngawethu” event. Likewise, the ZCC—South Africa’s largest denomination—has dissented (See Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane’s letter dated 11 April 2016). Nevertheless, this is an important moment for the public witness of the churches. I believe we are seeing the “coming out” party of the SACC.
Nearly four months later, the President retains his hold on power. But pressure has been maintained in protests and petitions. The current elections have focused this pressure. While these are elections for local government, they are widely seen as a referendum on Zuma and the ANC at a federal level. ANC support dropped from 62 percent in 2014 to 54 percent in the latest voting round. Sadly, the campaigns were without incident, and once again the churches and other religious groups have called for calm, as forces of anger and betrayal are unleashed by partisanship.
That the actual elections proceeded without incident is a testament to the solidity of democracy as an institution in South Africa. And a vote—even now routinized—still has powerful significance for people who in living memory paid so dearly for that privilege. Makgoba said he “still felt goosebumps” voting. What follows over the next few months will no doubt continue to test how well the other institutions (the Public Protector and the Constitutional Court especially) that have been sorely tried will stand.
That the #rhodesmustfall and #feesmustfall hashtags initiated by students were succeeded by a broader, #zumamustfall movement taken up by the churches and other civil society organs is a sign perhaps even more positive than the survival of “Chapter Nine” structures. For they signal the health of another kind of democracy: a restless yearning for a just future for the whole demos, the whole people.
Here though South Africa’s churches must exercise theological restraint—especially if they are to learn the lessons of the recent past. After all, the ANC’s origins are tied-in to early twentieth-century African Christianity. And its role in the anti-Apartheid movement was mediated in part by many church leaders in the 1980s. The election of Nelson Mandela in 1994 was not just a victory for the ANC, it was a vindication of those churches who had supported the liberation movements. In fact, it was this association that made criticism so awkward in the intervening years.
Unlike other civil society agents the church always points beyond the immediate dynamics and movements of a situation. Or perhaps better stated: the church points to the “beyond” that is partially visible, partially hidden, in such situations. For even if Zuma’s failures ultimately add up to his fall, it is not the end. The world and its contests for control goes on… until Christ announces its end.
At the same time, it is only by being situated “in the midst” that the church can truly see the “beyond”. To place itself “above” or “beyond” the struggles of the people is precisely to lose the vision of the Kingdom. This also is a hard-won lesson of the South African church. Theologically speaking Christians must assert that the world, not just its local manifestations, must fall. That is the true regime change we all long for.
Stephen W. Martin is Associate Professor of Theology at King’s University College in Edmonton, Alberta. He completed his Ph.D at the University of Cape Town in 1999, and has written extensively on the South African experience, including the book Faith Negotiating Loyalties: An Exploration of South African Christianity Through a Reading of the Theology of H. Richard Niebuhr (Lanham: University Press of America, 2008).