Gareth van Onselen on the ANC President's strange conflation of church and party
The Ten Commandments according to Jacob Zuma
"I arrived from Jordan this morning just after 5 o'clock... I must say I took advantage of being in Jordan to go to the River Jordan where Jesus was baptised - I was around there. Jericho and Jerusalem were just across the Dead Sea. So, if I look at anyone, he or she will be blessed." [Jacob Zuma; Questions in the National Council of Provinces; 24 June 2003]
Jacob Zuma has always been a profoundly religious man. In a 2006 interview he stated that "I start from basic Christian principles. Christianity is part of what I am; in a way it was the foundation for all my political beliefs". True to form and ever since then, as he has risen through the party ranks, so he has repeatedly given life to this claim.
His religious discourse is at its most powerful in the run-up to elections when he frequently ingratiates himself before a great many of the country's various churches and religious institutions and makes use of those platforms available to him to preach about the ANC and its close relationship with God. He has gone so far as to suggest his party is God's chosen political vessel in South Africa, its supporters his chosen people and its opponents his sworn enemy.
Likewise, many South African churches have ingratiated themselves before Zuma. In 2007, the independent charismatic churches ordained Zuma as an honorary pastor at a meeting in Durban. Zuma and his allies retain close ties to the Rhema Church, which gave him a platform in the run-up to the 2009 election.
In June 2012 the GCIS even took time out to announce the Jacob Zuma Foundation was donating a church to his homestead village of Nkandla (why this constituted government business was never explained). The list goes on. Quite where ANC politics begins and private religious convictions end has always been a difficult line to draw when it comes to the ANC President.
It is a mutually beneficial relationship for the Zuma camp. These churches provide him with the means and support to canvass South Africa's religious communities; he, in turn, imbibes his political rhetoric with religious fervor, merging God and politics and elevating religion in the public mind.
It must be said, not all churches have agreed with the way in which Zuma has politicised religion. A significant number, as you shall see, have spoken out against him. But for the most part this is done on a case-by-case basis, by taking issue with specific statements, as opposed to any general condemnation of the broader practice.
A great many of his statements have become notorious. The quintessential example being Zuma's bigoted 2006 Heritage Day claim that "Same sex marriage is a disgrace to the nation and to God"; a remark for which, after a huge public outcry, he would later issue a groveling apology.
So a mutually beneficial relationship it might be but his private religious convictions have done nothing to enhance his standing as the highest custodian of the South African constitution (it is worth noting the Rhema Church is a staunch opponent of gay rights).
So what are all these religious beliefs the President and his supporters are constantly advocating? I believe they can conveniently be summarised into ten key ideas, which I have called, ‘The Ten Commandments according to Jacob Zuma'. They are listed below and a relevant explanation is provided for each. But don't take my word for it. Here is President Zuma in his own words:
1. Thou shalt believe in God and the ANC alone
"Believe in two things: God and the ANC" Zuma told an ANC rally in the Eastern Cape town of Graaff-Reinet on 9 April 2011, in the run-up to the local government elections, perhaps the definitive Zuma statement on the ANC and religion. Short and to the point it merges seamlessly best democratic practice - that a political party should stand or fall in elections by the principles and values it upholds - with religious doctrine - that divine right, not free choice, determines such things. There is a reason why any healthy democracy separates church and state: the moment you rob people of choice and put political decision-making in the hands of the Gods, there is no need for political parties or politicians to account for performance, indeed, to perform at all; for democracy becomes nothing more than the mere extension of God's will.
2. The gates of heaven shall be opened only unto ANC supporters
In many different ways and on numerous different occasions Zuma has stated those who vote for the ANC will be "blessed on earth and [in] heaven," as he told ANC supporters in the Eastern Cape in February 2011, promising them that only an ANC membership card would guarantee them an automatic pass to heaven: "When you are carrying an ANC membership card, you are blessed. When you get up there, there are different cards used but when you have an ANC card, you will be let through to go to heaven." It was a comment met by much outrage. Eddie Makue, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, described the remark as dangerous, arguing that "not even a priest could provide this type of guarantee". Of course, if ANC support is a guarantee into heaven, the implicit suggestion is that the ANC alone enjoys God's good graces, as the next commandment makes explicit.
3. Blessed shall be the ANC
It's not just support for the ANC that will get you into heaven, according to Zuma, the organisation itself is sacred: "When you vote for the ANC you are voting for Qamata (God), Qamata is the midst of the ANC. We are the mother of democracy, no other party deserves to be voted for other than the ANC. There's always the presence of God where we are. When you vote for the ANC even your hand gets blessed." That's how he put it to a crowd, again the Eastern Cape. But he has gone further still, saying that the ANC is the only organisation "that can claim it was baptised when it was born" and that it is "a child of the church". Just as the suggestion that political support is subject to divine blessing is profoundly problematic, so the idea that one party is divine is equally fraught. One might well ask what a party actually is, outside of those people that comprise it? Nothing more than an abstraction. To suggest an idea alone enjoys supernatural support is therefore to denude principles and values of their purpose: because rationality is no longer the means by which decisions are made, merely some greater, unknown force, working in mysterious ways. If the ANC is divine by what standard do people judge its nature or the conduct of its representatives?
4. Jesus shall return only when the ANC falls
Perhaps Zuma's most infamous religious statement: "The ANC will rule South Africa until Jesus comes back". When he first said this, on 15 March 2004 to a Gauteng ANC special council, ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama tried to explain away the outrage that followed by arguing, "the expression the Deputy President used was a manner of speech which is used in a number of ways in a number of different languages." But Zuma soon put pay to any pretence it wasn't deliberate, stating again in a tribute to Oliver Tambo in Kimberly, on 24 March 2006, "that is why we believe [the ANC] will be in power forever until the son of man comes back"; and, again, to supporters in Mpumalanga on 11 March 2009, saying "We believers know that Jesus will come back, we say the ANC will rule until he comes back". Most recently Zuma repeated the refrain at the ANC's centenary celebrations, saying the ANC will be in power "until Jesus comes". So make no mistake, it's entirely purposeful.
The sentiment has been repeated by the Zuma faithful. Party chief whip Mathole Motshekga told the Limpopo ANC's elective conference in Polokwane, in December 2007, that "the organisation has a responsibility to rule until Jesus pays us another visit". Likewise on the campaign trail, this extract from Bushbuckridge's mayor Milton Morema's 2004 election speech (straight after Zuma spoke) being perhaps the quintessential example: "The ANC follows the teachings of Jesus Christ. When Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem he identified with the poor. That is what the ANC does. Jesus Christ suffered because he wanted to see people sheltered. The ANC provides Bushbuckridge with houses. Jesus Christ would have loved to see people living in healthy situations. The ANC provides clinics and food parcels. Jesus fought poverty and suffering in his preaching. The ANC provides grants to stop people from suffering. Like the Pharoahs, God did not support the Apartheid government. That is why they did not last. But God supports this government. It does what Jesus does. It will rule till Jesus comes back."
5. Those who oppose the ANC shall be damned
It might be undemocratic, but there is a certain logic to Zuma's various religious utterances. If the ANC is divinely endorsed and its supporters the chosen people then, by default, those that oppose it must face divine retribution. Sure enough, on 5 February 2011, Zuma told supporters in Mthatha, Eastern Cape, opposition to the ANC was innately evil, akin to supporting the Devil himself, and eternal damnation would inevitably follow: "When you vote for the ANC, you are also choosing to go to heaven. When you don't vote for the ANC you should know that you are choosing that man who carries a fork ... who cooks people." He continued: "When you are carrying an ANC membership card, you are blessed. When you get up there, there are different cards used but when you have an ANC card, you will be let through to go to heaven," he said to applause, "when (Jesus) fetches us we will find (those in the beyond) wearing black, green and gold. The holy ones belong to the ANC."
6. Thou constitutional democracy shall be based on the word of God
Zuma's recent comment, not religious but no less problematic, that "You have more rights because you're a majority; you have less rights because you're a minority. That's how democracy works" was indicative of his attitude to the constitution, which he regards as ‘nice to have' rather than an authorative set of principles or values. Remember, this is the same person who has argued the constitution exists only "to regulate matters" and that the ANC is "more important" than the constitution. It makes sense, then, that if the ANC is endorsed and sanctioned by God, "No-one can argue South Africa is not based on the principles of God," as Zuma told supporters in Gauteng on 27 November 2008 - as opposed to human rights or best democratic practice. For Zuma such things are secondary considerations. The ANC is primary. The ANC rules by God's grace, therefore the majority rules by God's grace, therefore the constitution is merely an extension of the ANC's and God's will, and minorities the poorer for it.
7. The Church and God shall guide ANC government policy
If you believe South Africa's democracy is an extension of holy design then, logically, you would advocate the Church be able to guide government policy. On several occasions Zuma has assured the Church, if the ANC government strays from God's will, they should be able to intervene. "Church leaders should be able to tell government leaders if they are straying and their laws clash with the teachings of the Lord," Zuma told congregants of the Ethiopian Holy Baptist Church in Zion in Soweto, on 8 March 2007. In November 2008, he would again repeat the statement in Gauteng, saying the church "must advise and criticise if there are things we do that are not in keeping with the principles of God". In return for this, Zuma has argued, God will guide government. On 20 November 2011 Zuma would tell villagers in Qumbu in the Eastern Cape, "God helps those who help themselves. He softens the hearts of government and of business owners". Keep South African policy Christian, in other words, and the Christian God will imbue government and business leaders with empathy, sympathy and compassion.
8. Like Jesus, Jacob Zuma shall be persecuted
Zuma has compared himself to Jesus. In an interview with the Sowetan in March 2006, Zuma states he is "like Christ", that the media and his detractors wanted to nail him to the cross like Jesus, and that certain newspapers had sought to "crucify him". It was an analogy that resonated deeply with his supporters and, since then, has been often repeated. "Jesus was persecuted. He was called names and betrayed. It's the same kind of suffering Mr Zuma has had to bear recently, but he's still standing strong" Free State ANC leader Ace Magashule told Volksblad in December 2008. At Zuma rallies his supporters have carried placards which read "Zuma is Jesus", "Zuma is black Jesus" and asking "Why are you crucifying Zuma?" Once a supporter went so far as to carry a wooden, home-made crucifix bearing a picture of Zuma with outstretched arms. But Magashule has been the defining example of the problem. In January 2009 he told supporters: "In church they sing that they will follow Jesus wherever he goes. That's how we should be about Jacob Zuma."
The comparison is, of course, deeply problematic. Apart from being profoundly egotistical, the implicit suggestion is that Zuma himself enjoys God's support (which makes sense in Zuma's world- if the ANC is God's chosen political party, its leader must be God's anointed representative), which is to remove from him any responsibility for his actions. Likewise, the implication that Zuma's trials and tribulations are divinely constructed is to strip democratic accountability of its value; for what is the point of oversight or criticism if Zuma is nothing more than the victim of some unjust and unholy plot? Were this so, there would be no point in questioning his actions, certainly he would not be to blame for any ostensible indiscretion.
9. No man shall stand in the way of the ANC
In various different ways, implicitly and explicitly, Zuma has suggested that to oppose the ANC is to oppose God's will. But he has also made the claim that any such opposition would be futile regardless, because who can stand in the way of God himself? The fact that that the ANC enjoys a large majority is therefore, for Zuma, an illustration of God's approval: "It is an unequivocal biblical declaration that if God is for us, who can be against us?" Who indeed? In fact, why have elections at all?
10. No party shall be allowed to govern other than the ANC
And when the ANC doesn't secure a majority? Like in the City of Cape Town or the Western Cape? Well that must be unholy. Not only is power the ANC's by divine right but, if you believe Jacob Zuma,South Africa's cities and provinces must actually belong to the ANC. They are ANC's by right. Hence the following statement, made on 5 May 2008 to an ANC rally in Khayelitsha: "God expects us to rule this country because we are the only organisation which was blessed by pastors when it was formed. It is even blessed in Heaven. That is why we will rule until Jesus comes back. We should not allow anyone to govern our city (Cape Town) when we are ruling the country." Perhaps the most frightening of all his religious statements for its sheer anti-democratic sentiment, it brings together many of the other ideas Zuma has expressed in one powerful, autocratic impulse.
Consider this quote, from another demagogue, who believes his power and that of his party comes directly from God:
"[They] will never be allowed to rule this country - never ever. Only God, who appointed me, will remove me... Only God will remove me!"
That was Robert Mugabe. But tyrants and dictators throughout history have evoked God. Even Hitler declared "...My conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator". Jacob Zuma is not Hitler, but the problem inherent in his various supernatural claims is the same: a profoundly undemocratic spirit that reduces human agency to nothing more than a whim, inconsequential in the light of God's all-knowing plan. If that were true, democracy, civil liberties, elections, choice and free will would be of no consequence because every action is predetermined, every decision a pretence.
Zuma will no doubt claim much of what he has said allegorical but he can only do that in retrospect, never once has he suggested as much at the time. Even if he did, it changes nothing about the implications of his words. Allegory or not, the sentiment is problematic. And ask yourself this: when have you ever read a statement from Zuma distancing himself from the anti-democratic nature of his statements? Not once. He believes them to be true. In the quiet of his own conscious he truly believes he serves a holy cause, divinely inspired and endorsed; that its purpose is God's will and its opponents, God's enemies. And that tells you everything you need to know about the man.