In the wake of the seeming witch-hunt into the internal affairs of church groups in South Africa, it would only be fair to re-examine the role of theology in the context of the national liberation struggle waged by the people and its continuing service in a constitutional democracy charged with concerns of the millenials to decolonise and transform the country. The alleged witch-hunt is viewed in certain quarters as the battles for the souls of South African citizens conducted between the South African Council of Churches (SACC) on the one hand, and the new movement of charismatic churches plus nondescript cults on the other.
Historically Southern Africa is renowned for holding the highest number in Africa of Christian converts per square kilometre. This phenomenon has continued to hold its ground. Social indicators confirm the rise in numbers of Christians in South Africa despite the increasing presence of other religious faiths occasioned by the migration to the south by misplaced persons from African conflicts. Religious beliefs are an integral part of the way of life of the African people.
The church occasionally finds itself used for wrong reasons by dubious forces, to the detriment of the common good of the African people. Bogus pastors acting like fake biblical prophets tend to hypnotise unaware congregants, making them eat green grass, snakes and rats as a path to salvation. This is the stuff of cults.
In point of fact, sceptics of the investigations into the commercialisation of religion – as conducted by the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities – ironically refer to its publicised activities as a witch-hunt. The Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Commission (CRL) are a Chapter Nine institution in the constitution of SA which has been laying fallow without much relevance from 1996 until now. The CRL Commission conducts its investigations behind closed doors, creating room for sensation-seekers in the tabloids to have a field day.
The Signs of the Times
Faith based communities are a reflection of the times they live in. The financialization of the new world order and its impact on the lives of those who are at the bottom of the social pyramid – particularly the underclass, from broken families, without skills and without the chances of employment – makes ‘hell on earth’ a harsh reality. The church for low income, poor and ignorant congregants offers them elements of hope to escape from hell if you pray and give your monetary all to the bogus pastors.
They are no different from the pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die preaching of western missionaries resplendent in African history, who sought to tame the captured souls of the colonised and enjoin them as passive subjects in their own oppression. On opening their eyes, the converts found that they had lost their prime assets, the land and their human dignity, to the marauding invaders.
Afrikaners find their origins in history as victims of religious intolerance and the barbaric wars of medieval Europe. Their false prophets made the promise of divine providence over minions and savages who know no god. This falsehood gravitated into the practice of Herrenvolk beliefs and white supremacy. Apartheid policies were formulated by trained theologians. Granted, some of their theologians have since seen the foolishness of their ways and admitted to an error of judgement.
Charismatic churches – as a sign of the times – are riding the crest of the waves in popularity. They have found resonance in sections of the African faith communities who hold aspirations to acquire wealth – and exhibit it in a vulgar sense of conspicuous consumption. TB Joshua and other leading faith leaders are listed among the rich and high net worth of Nigeria. This is a marked departure from the church that associates the historical Jesus of Nazareth with the poor of his time.
Theology of Liberation in Africa
At the December 1977 Pan African Conference of Third World Theologians held in Accra, Ghana, participating scholars of theological doctrine declared in their final communiqué: “We believe that African theology must be understood in the context of African life and culture and the creative attempt of African peoples to shape a new future that is different from the colonial past and the neo-colonial present. The African situation requires a new theological methodology that is different from approaches of the dominant theologies of the West. African theology must reject, therefore, the prefabricated ideas of North Atlantic theology by defining itself according to the struggles of the people in their resistance against the structures of domination. Our task as theologians is to create a theology that arises from and is accountable to the African people.”
The list of conference participants who presented their exposition of a theology of liberation in the struggle to decolonise and transform the African continent included Kofi Appiah-Kubi, Ngindu Mushete, Jose Chipenda, John Mbiti, Gabriel Setiloane, James Cone, Constance Baratang Thetele, Sabelo Ntwasa, Allan Boesak, Rose Zoe-Obianga, Desmond Tutu, Sergio Torres, among many others. They spoke of Black Theology, Liberation Theology and of an African theological concept of divinity. They committed to spread the gospel that confessed to a God of the poor, as an essential point of view of their theological task. Their view on the written account of salvation in the bible was that of the many interventions of God in favour of the poor and the oppressed. They argued that there was another way of knowing the truth – a dialectical one, wherein the world is not a static object of mass that the human mind tries to learn to understand, but that it was where knowledge of the truth is an involvement and immersion of self in the process of transformation and reconstruction of a new world.
This new epistemological approach revealed the Christian truth to mean the struggle to overcome the fear of freedom by confronting and embracing it. Faith meant an encounter with the Lord, as an expression of love and commitment for others. Faith had a social context, and it was a platform for theological reflection. They pointed out that the radical unity of opposites between the love of God and the abiding concern for the hungry, naked, homeless, and imprisoned was in effect the concern for structural change to introduce a new and just geopolitical and economic order. Faith could be expressed as a love for freedom of self and of society.
Subsequently, this new theological movement influenced the World Council of Churches (WCC) to launch a dedicated Programme Against Racism and mobilised the international community to support the just war concept in Southern Africa. The WCC sponsored the humanitarian efforts in the campaigns, waged by the Pan Africanist Congress of (PAC) Azania, to isolate and defeat apartheid SA.
The theologians made a vow of liberation, and in word and action joined the struggle for national independence, basic freedoms, democracy and a human rights culture.
Africans for Humanity, Humanity for God
At its inaugural convention, the founding fathers and mothers of the Pan Africanist Congress invited leading bishops of the independent churches to pray and bless the liberation movement. The organisation consciously sided itself with a liberation theology for the African people.
The PAC’s third objective is to establish and maintain an Africanist Socialist Democracy, recognising the primacy of material and spiritual interests of the African people. The PAC leadership understood the connection between the omniscient supreme deity and the African personality, and primed the Party to associate openly with the religious affinities of the African people. The PAC unequivocally abhorred totalitarianism.
The PAC position on the practical relations with religious formations as stated in its founding aims and objectives, and in the adopted slogan that “Africa is for Africans, Africans are for humanity, and Humanity is for God”, has been less understood, and at times violently opposed by its misguided younger generations. That Mangaliso Sobukwe stated that Christianity was misrepresented in South Africa meant it could possibly find its true advocates in the new theologians for African liberation.
The PAC position on the freedom of religion and its support for a contextual theology of liberation has been vindicated by a series of failed states worldwide, who suppressed the confessional church movement.
The Jacob Zuma administration is found to be in prayer with strange bedfellows – the National Religious Leaders Council headed by the Reverend Ray McCauley of Rhema Church – who have no known record of taking part in the struggle for a liberation theology. The ruling elites unethically swing like a pendulum from one side to the next without anchoring itself in the moral fibre of the theology of liberation.
The Freedom Struggle of the Millennials
Charlatans and opportunists in their various hues of politics, religion, arts and culture, entertainment and whatever formation that is in proximity to young people, aim to catch the heart and souls of the under thirty generation born shortly before 1994 and after statutory apartheid was abolished. These young people are known in media circles as the millennial generation.
The young people have access to information and they are eager to gain knowledge and transform the obstinate beast ‘that left its heart behind’, as poet laureate of African liberation Ingoapele Madingoane has put it. The young will awake from the slumber induced by the wicked hypnotists – and demand a decolonising theology in Africa.
By Jaki Seroke
The writer is the PAC’s Secretary for Political and Pan African Affairs, Chairperson of the Pan Africanist Research Institute (PARI) and a member of Azanian People Liberation Army Military Veterans Association (APLAMVA) National Executive Committee.