The call by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Women in the Presidency for “government to tighten legislation and to close churches, where necessary”, has been met with shock and outrage by religious leaders across the country. According to a statement by Committee Chair Thandi Memela, “religious leaders will not be able to regulate themselves … a much more stringent system must be devised”.
This blatant call for State regulation of religion follows a meeting on October 30th at Parliament between the Portfolio Committee and Chair for the CRL Rights Commission, Ms Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluvu. This meeting, and the subsequent announcement, was extraordinary in light of the recent announcement by the same CRL Chair that the CRL has “handed over” the process of finding solutions to the abuse and criminal activity occurring in the religious sector to the National Religious Leaders Forum (NRLF) under pastor Ray McCauley. This was confirmed at a meeting with church leaders in Langa, Cape Town last week, where the CRL Chair said that she did not want there to be any confusion about State involvement in the regulation of religion and that the religious community now has the responsibility to develop self-regulatory structures.
“No confidence” in CRL
The CRL’s meeting with the Portfolio Committee on Women makes it evident that, despite its statements to the contrary, the CRL has by no means taken its hands off the matter and is continuing to act as a lobby group, conducting meetings with various members of Parliament and government departments to persuade them to support their proposals for the (State) regulation of religion. They are also engaging with religious leaders who support their views, while side-lining those who disagreed with their position before the COGTA Parliamentary Portfolio Committee during the extensive consultative and democratic process which took place in October 2017.
Following two full days of hearings with church leaders (the vast majority of whom were against State regulation of religion), COGTA effectively dismissed the CRL’s proposals for (State) regulation of religion. Instead, COGTA recommended in February 2018 that the CRL should convene a National Consultative Conference of religious leaders, with the aim of finding solutions by the religious community for the religious community. In terms of the CRL Act, the CRL has a duty to convene such a conference on an annual basis. However, instead of complying with their own legislation and COGTA’s direction, the CRL started a “blame game”, targeting everyone from Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA), to Parliament, to the church itself for the harmful, criminal and otherwise illegal activities that are taking place in the religious sector.
It now seems that the CRL has found an ally in the Portfolio Committee on Women, who has stated that “religious leaders have failed to take a stand against what has been happening in the churches”. This statement comes when many churches (and indeed FOR SA) have spoken out and condemned any harmful, criminal or otherwise illegal activity by religious leaders. Religious leaders around the nation are actively engaged in discussions to find an acceptable form of self-regulation, including the development of a Code of Conduct which is being prepared by the South African Council for Religious Rights and Freedoms (SACRRF). This Code of Conduct will define the “responsibilities” which mirror the Charter for Religious Rights and Freedoms which has already been endorsed by religious leaders representing approx. 25 million people.
Following yesterday’s media statement by the Portfolio Committee on Women, FOR SA has received numerous calls from religious leaders who have voiced their upset at the sudden turn of events which has clearly been inspired by the CRL’s meeting with the Committee. Various leaders have expressed the view that by its duplicitous actions, the CRL has lost both the trust and the respect of major portions of the very community it is supposed to be serving. Instead of fulfilling their mandate to protect and promote religious freedom and to encourage unity within the religious community, the CRL seems to alternate between inflaming public opinion by sensationalising horrendous (but isolated) instances of harmful and/or criminal activity, and making wild generalisations about the state of religion. According to FOR SA’s Executive Director, Michael Swain, “Various leaders have called for a ‘motion of no confidence’ in the current CRL, who they do not believe to have the religious community’s best interest at heart but are instead sowing division and confusion with their actions and statements.”
“Mixed messages” by government
It is very concerning and completely inappropriate that the Portfolio Committee on Women should make a call for State regulation of religion after a single meeting with the CRL Chair. This disregards and disrespects the exhaustive democratic process that has already taken place before the COGTA Parliamentary Portfolio Committee and overrides their clear recommendations. It makes a mockery of democracy and is a slap in the face of the religious leaders who have engaged in the democratic processes to date.
“Given the very mixed messages, it is vitally important that the ANC clarifies its position,” said Michael Swain. “The statements made by the Women Committee are evidently hostile to the religious sector and, if implemented, will effectively destroy the constitutional right to religious freedom in South Africa. The religious community has a right to know if this is the future it will face under a future ANC-led government.”
The statements by the Committee are all the more concerning in light of current developments in Angola where this month, the government passed legislation in terms whereof only pastors who have a theological degree will be recognised as religious practitioners, and churches with fewer than 100,000 members will be shut down. The same happened in Rwanda earlier this year, reportedly resulting in the shutdown of 6,000 churches.
According to FOR SA’s Legal Counsel, Adv Nadene Badenhorst, “Right now, State regulation of religion is resulting in the shut-down of many good and healthy churches north of our border – and it looks likely that the CRL intends to do exactly the same here in South Africa. The bottom-line is that State regulation of religion is unconstitutional, unworkable and unnecessary. Instead of punishing the whole church for the misdeeds of a few, government should be focusing its efforts and resources into prosecuting those who commit criminal or otherwise illegal activities. The recent convictions of both Bishop Ndaba and the so-called “Prophet of Doom”, as well as the current ‘Omotoso trial’, demonstrate that the current law is clearly working. Rogue religious leaders are being brought to book and justice is being served.”
FOR SA remains committed to the process of finding truly self-regulatory solutions by the religious community for the religious community. To this end, we will be meeting with church fraternals and religious leaders – some of whom fear that the statements by the Portfolio Committee on Women are indicative of a “witch-hunt” against the church – in the near future. In the meanwhile, FOR SA is working to set up a “helpline” for any victims of harmful, criminal or otherwise illegal activities in churches, or those who are aware of such activities taking place. Details of the helpline will be available shortly.
Freedom of Religion SA: www.forsa.org.za