Churches get away with a lot in this country and now is as good a time as any to put an end to that.
It was a day like any other at the Global Reconciliation Church in the Free State province. Congregants were gathering for a prayer event which no doubt included praying about what was then an impending 21-day national lockdown due to COVID-19. What no-one had anticipated however, was that five tourists who had already tested positive for the coronavirus, would come into contact with an estimated 1600 other congregants––three of whom have since died as a result.
One gathering, three deaths. This is what South Africans pushing the government to open places of worship, seem to forget. And while the government has remained steadfast in the face of very public backlash following a number of tough decisions during this national lockdown, it seems that churches may just prove to be their kryptonite.
The ugly truth is that a lot of these South African churches need to open because the so-called men of God want their tithes and no pandemic will stand in the way of that.
While the push is for all places of worship to be opened, churches are significant in the South African context because they represent a large group of people who are of significant political interest––Black people. Any sensible political party knows that in order to win the vote of Black people, there is no better endorsement than that of church leaders.
"Black people may not always turn up to political rallies but they will show up to church."
As a result, the power that religious leaders wield over their 'flock', is easily politicised and subsequently weaponised during election campaigns.
Initially, church leaders called for the churches to be allowed to operate as an essential service. First, the church is not an essential service and second, its practices are not limited to a building. This latter is not just a secular "hot take" but a teaching that can be found in the very doctrines esteemed by church goers themselves.
This teaching speaks to the "true church" being one that is made up of the people and not any building with four walls. And so it becomes crucial to acknowledge the important roles churches play in providing a space for believers and shelter to refugees, undocumented foreign nationals, women and children while also pointing out how reopening during this lockdown is, in many ways, about exploiting the poor.
South Africa's national lockdown has been far from perfect but it has prevented the country from following in the trajectories of many European and American countries battling to contain their numbers. While the country initially came together in its famed "rainbow nation" style to prevent numbers from soaring, over time, people have become restless and started to push back against the lockdown restrictions.
Whether it's been White people bemoaning the inconvenience of not being able to walk their dogs and go surfing or the very real threat of starvation and loss of livelihood for poor Black people, the lockdown restrictions have caused raging debates among South Africans. With President Cyril Ramaphosa having recently announced that most parts of the country would enter slightly more relaxed level-3 restrictions, the debates have only raged on.
However, the call to open churches is not where it ends. The state has consistently turned a blind eye to transgressions made by church leaders over the years. The rise in the number of Charismatic churches in South Africa, has also seen the rise in extreme religious practices which have threatened human health in very real ways.
These so-called men of God are free to brazenly declare that they have found the cures to various diseases, COVID-19 included, with no fear of reprimand from the state whose duty it is to safe-guard its citizens against misinformation and harmful concoctions with no scientific backing. People have died because of this. The likes of TB Joshua, Walter Magaya and Shepherd Bushiri––all alleged 'prophets of God' who have been involved in scandals around having found cures for HIV/AIDS and yet continue to profit from their mega churches. And now that COVID-19 has become the 'the next big thing,' it's hardly rational to assume that all churches have the best interests of their congregants at heart.
Although shared as memes on social media, the gravity of pastors spraying congregants with insecticide, running them over with vehicles, feeding them petrol, and even sexually assaulting them all in the name of 'miraculous healing', is not lost––it cannot be. And yet very few of these religious leaders have been brought to book and when they have, charges have eventually been dropped. And so the deceiving of those who are desperate for tangible change in their unfortunate circumstances, continues.
"While it may sound blasphemous to some, the reality is that churches are increasingly becoming places of business."
And because South African law does not require churches to pay taxes on the monies they receive, it becomes a lucrative space that can easily be hijacked by charlatans who are not interested in the faith itself but the potential Rands brought in every week.
"Closing the church is not the solution, we need to be praying in these difficult times," says Bheki Ngcobo, the Bishop at Inkanyezi Church of Christ during an interview with Radio 702 recently. In another interview conducted by radio Cape Talk shortly before Easter, Ngcobo said, "This is not the first disease to come to South Africa...This is spiritual warfare." And while it is a constitutional right of his and others, to believe that this pandemic requires spiritual intervention and not physical measures based on expert advice, that right cannot supersede the sovereignty of a secular country nor steer the government's decision to lift or enforce restrictions as they see fit.
Although the government itself has emphasised that strict measures would have to be followed in the event that churches are opened, because there is no way to police that consistently, the rules will inevitably be broken. Churches founded on not turning away souls (or wallets) will not keep to the maximum of fifty people at a time. And just as we saw with the Global Reconciliation Church, the deaths of congregants are almost guaranteed.
It is up to the democratically elected body put into office to safeguard the interests of its citizens and map the way forward without showing favour towards churches. How President Ramaphosa's cabinet responds right now, will set the precedent going forward because if churches can open, then restaurants, hair salons and other places of business should also be allowed to operate under the same restrictions. Many would agree that this flies in the face of a phased-out lockdown in the first place.
Finally, the decision to keep churches closed should not be viewed as a war against any particular faith or religion but rather a war against the loss of life, religious or not.