GOD SPOT: The third wave

2009-08-20 12:09

THE formation of the National Interfaith Leaders Council (NILC) which presented its credentials to President Jacob Zuma last week marks the beginning of a third wave of faith-based activism in South Africa.

The first wave was protestoriented. Often motivated by moral outrage against oppression and working in alliance with other institutions in civil society, faith-based organisations played a significant role in the mobilisation of society against apartheid.

The second wave was characterised by brokerage. Michael Leo Owens, author of God and Government in the Ghetto, defines brokerage as a process where self- appointed or nominated religious leaders function as intermediaries between government and the governed, and as deliverers of benefits to a group.

This characterised the era of the National Religious Leaders Forum (NRLF), where clergy-led community-based programmes were a conduit of resources from government to identified beneficiaries.

Participation in its projects – skills training, health, social cohesion, early childhood development, housing – has been limited because of incapacity and because government officials were not committed to the partnership.

The disadvantage of brokerage is that it privileges a few over mass participation. The brokerage era has not always led to popular mobilisation of the faith-based sector even as it came dressed in invocations of ‘the people’ or ‘the masses’.

This was apparent at the National Religious Summit called by ANC president Zuma in Kempton Park in November last year.

Attended by about 1 000 multi-faith leaders from across the country, the gathering raised serious questions about the representativeness of the forum – I have, for example, still not heard a convincing answer as to why the leadership of African indigenous churches is excluded from the mainstream religious voice in interactions with government.

It had become an elite-led interest group assuming the voice of a putatively coherent multi-faith community. It projected itself as such for policy-makers. Grassroots-based religious leaders were not getting to speak but were being spoken for.

Whatever its flaws, the forum took the relationship between church and state further and taught us many lessons about brokerage.

We are now entering the third wave of faith-based activism which must be characterised by mass mobilisation and inclusive participation.

At the summit, Zuma committed the ANC government to reaffirming the historical relationship the party has had with the religious community since its inception in 1912.

He called on faith communities to structure themselves in all the provinces into inclusive, service-oriented partners with the government.

Any new structure had to be mass-based and not be a mere consultative forum with the president, with an existence only justified by successive meetings at the Union Buildings.

Last month, religious leaders and workers from all the provinces met in Johannesburg and formally established the NILC. The head of its secretariat, Dr John Lamola, says it will be “action-oriented in the spirit of seeking partnership between faith-based institutions and the government”.

The third wave of religious activism is marked by an unequivocal commitment to collaboration with the government.

The council moves from the premise that collaboration with government is desirable when it helps both to achieve their mutual goals such as poverty alleviation, improvement of education, reduction and elimination of crime.

Sceptics say this is undesirable, even dangerous, as it could lead to government using this collaboration as a means of co-option and could diminish the ability of faith-based organisations to challenge the status quo.

The more cynical say it is state seduction of religious organisations.

I prefer to see it as a rational decision that had to be made to achieve a set of interrelated goals between government, communities and faith-based organisations.

  • Mona is deputy director-general: communications in the Presidency. He writes in his personal capacity

    The God Spot is a new column on spiritual matters. City Press invites contributions from any religious or spiritual denomination. Please send contributions to: ferial.haffajee@citypress.co.za

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