As the country appears to plod along aimlessly with moral decay, rampant corruption and public service delivery failures, the church must be a voice of moral reason.
One of few organised forces of civil society that can offer alternative leadership – the church – appears to have been either co-opted by corrupt political leaders, has remained silently on the sidelines or has been direction-less itself.
It appears that instead of giving direction in our uncertain times, many churches, particularly those who had openly aligned themselves to the struggle against apartheid, are now finding it hard to carve out a new role for themselves.
Churches and church leaders captured by politicians provide legitimacy to the backsliding of some ANC leaders. Church pulpits are increasingly being used to fight ANC factional battles.
Churches and church leaders who are critical of instances of government wrongdoing appear to be marginalised.
In South Africa, like other African post-independence societies, an individual or institution’s credibility in the eyes of the former oppressed majority depends heavily on which side of the liberation struggle they fought.
The predominantly white South African churches that supported apartheid, and the black ones who remained silent, at the time arguing the church should not be involved in “politics”, have found themselves in a bind in the new South Africa.
If they condemn the excesses of the democratic government they are reminded of their complicity, actively or silently, with apartheid.
The result, these churches either remain silent out of guilt or overly loyal and uncritical of the actions, even wrong ones, of the new political leaders, to curry favour.
A key strategy of the Jacob Zuma presidency appears to be to co-opt the churches that were either complicit with apartheid or who remained silent during apartheid.
The churches with “struggle” credentials, those who have supported the anti-apartheid struggle, have also mostly fallen silent as former comrades, now in government, backslide in the new South Africa.
Some ANC leaders appear to be actively marginalising former comrades in the churches who still remain critical of government flaws.
Many African liberation movements, in power, saw civil society, including churches, particularly those who were allied with the liberation movement in the struggle for independence as appendages of the party.
Many of these movements after taking power demanded uncritical loyalty from civil groups – churches, trade unions and the press. They co-opt churches leaders. Such co-opted church leaders are expected to be loyal to government and in actual effect become imbongis (praise singers) for government and give it credibility, even if the government is morally bankrupt.
They often front, like in the case of South Africa’s state-sponsored so-called moral regeneration efforts, which would really be a joke were it not so serious.
It’s a question of some of the morally bankrupt trying to install moral values. In return pliant church leaders receive patronage from the government.
Many of the ANC’s leaders, including its first president John Dube, its president in exile, Oliver Tambo, its post-Second World War president Albert Luthuli, were deeply influenced by the message of the gospel: social justice and individual ethical behaviour.
The ANC’s success was to turn the struggle against apartheid into a moral struggle.
The ANC has had extraordinary number of capable churchmen and lay clergymen who cut their organisational teeth within the church, who were brilliant organisers and mass campaigners.
However, it appears that the principles these ANC leaders stood for are in retreat in the ANC of today.
Apartheid has left broken individuals. Many black South Africans’ sense of self was destroyed by the humiliations of apartheid.
Many white South Africans’ sense of self was equally battered by the fact that the “familiar and trusted” institutions of their life under apartheid are now seen as part of the perpetuation of a crime against humanity.
It has left many South Africans (black and white) with a deep feeling of insecurity.
Many black and white South Africans experience a void.
Genuine democrats would want the void filled by new democratic values, morals and cultures.
However, as Pierre du Toit and Hennie Kotze have argued in a very fascinating book, Liberal Democracy and Peace in South Africa South African insecurity has generated “illiberal attitudes” in the wider citizenry.
Violent crime, low level of tolerance for differences, xenophobia, social conservatism, and tribalism are some of the upshots of insecurity.
In some cases the void has been filled by the obsessive pursuit of material possessions.
The progressive church has been spectacularly unsuccessful to help fill this void.
The church will have to become more relevant to the changing society and its changing needs. The church must at all times speak out firmly against injustices.
They must actively hold government and political leaders accountable for their wrong-doing. The church must not defer to political leaders.
Some church leaders have acted in the same morally bankrupt way than the political leaders.
Individual church leaders must be more exemplary in their personal behaviour – to set an example of alternative ethnical, moral and value-based leadership.
The church will also have to internalise the democratic values – get rid of racism, sexism and patriarchy within its own structures.
To regain their credibility churches which supported apartheid in any way must publicly apologise – and play an active role in holding the current and future governments accountable. South Africa is at a tipping point.
Unless churches and civil society groups intervene now, it may be too late to reverse the decline.