PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma brings in addition to his brand of racial African nationalism, three other ideological threats to freedom: 1. His various traditional cultural beliefs (it is "not right" for a woman to be single); 2. His populism (the African National Congress (ANC) is "more important" than the Constitution); and 3. His personal religious convictions ("When you vote for the ANC, you are also choosing to go to heaven").
Each is more often than not the source of ridicule rather than serious reflection. He says things that are so laughable (a hair straightener is "unblack") that the media’s response is often to mock.
That can be a powerful and effective way of contextualising a problem for the public. But it does mean one sacrifices a certain amount of serious interrogation.
All three escape a great deal of meaningful criticism simply because it is wrongly assumed to be politically incorrect, racially insensitive or an assault on dignity to question such things in modern-day South Africa — but of them his religious views are perhaps the most immune to real critique. They are treated first and foremost as funny, not disturbing.
The issue is important because, following Zuma’s visit to the 33rd Presbyterian Synod in Giyani, Limpopo, earlier in October a spate of like-minded religious rhetoric has followed from other members of his administration and party — Zuma said, among other things, "if you don’t respect authority then you are bordering on a curse."
First, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga told Mpumalanga residents: "We believe nothing can defeat prayer; we will make sure that the kids are delivered from the evil spirits and believe we will get the best results this year." Moral-regeneration movement provincial chairman Micah Nthali reiterated the minister’s position, saying: "It is about time that the devil sees the power of prayer. As a moral-regeneration movement we decided to put pastors in all the schools to cast out all the demons and pray for matriculants."
Second, on Tuesday, ANC national executive committee (NEC) member Mcebisi Skwatsha told ANC delegates gathered at the Mayibuye Centre in Kimberley that: "God is with the ANC and that is why we will win the 2014 general elections. As the religious leaders have pointed out, we will not fear any weapons formed against us ahead of the 2014 general elections because God is with us. We will crush anyone who contests us at these elections," he said.
Zuma’s religious utterances, then, clearly resonate within large sections of the ANC and, in making them, he implicitly gives others an opening they are only to happy to fill with their own brand of religious politics.
For anyone interested in democracy, as a system designed to ensure the will of the people determines a society’s form and nature, it is important to understand why Zuma’s religions convictions do damage to that ideal when expressed in his capacity as president — in his own private universe, he is of course entitled to believe whatever it is he wants. When private religious convictions are merged with public business the consequences can be profound indeed. Here is why.
And he certainly makes them often enough.
Zuma has said:
"Believe in two things: God and the ANC;"
"When you are carrying an ANC membership card, you are blessed;"
"The ANC will rule South Africa until Jesus comes back;" and
"When you don’t vote for the ANC you should know that you are choosing that man who carries a fork … who cooks people" and that South Africa is "based on the principles of God."
But the remark by Zuma, made on May 5 2008 at an ANC rally in Khayelitsha, best captures them all in its entirety: "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."
So why is it a problem for a president, the democratically elected representative of all South Africans, to say such things? What are the democratic implications? There are three worth dwelling upon.
First, it merges 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 design. There is no free will, only God’s will.
In other words, it renders the very purpose of a democracy redundant.
Second, it delegitimises the idea of opposition, criticism, competing ideas and alternatives. It suggests that to oppose the ANC is to oppose God’s will, and who can stand in the way of God himself? Obviously, any multi-party democracy relies heavily on competition to thrive. Without it, one is left with a single party and a monopoly on power. That is not only to subvert accountability (why explain yourself if you are divinely authorised to act?) but also to ensure fertile soil from which authoritarianism and tyranny will quickly grow.
It is for this reason dictators throughout history and the world over have often claimed to be acting out God’s will. Just ask Robert Mugabe, who has said, "(They) will never be allowed to rule this country — never ever. Only God, who appointed me, will remove me … Only God will remove me." Take a moment to appreciate the size of the ego involved in such an assumption.
Third, it is to excuse oneself from personal responsibility. As with criticism, it follows that, if one is acting on God’s behalf, ultimately one is not responsible for the decisions one makes, they are merely the extension of some divine force. On what grounds, then, can one held responsible or accountable for them? Implicit to that the obvious consequences for free will, already alluded to, and, with that in turn, a society’s moral compass is also rendered worthless. Constitutional principles and human rights values no longer determine right from wrong, but scripture and divine inspiration.
There no longer exists a universal, constitutional moral code against which one can gauge decisions and behaviour only the select belief system of one faith (and that in itself is anti-freedom, subject for another discussion).
The most telling, anti-democratic, phrase in Zuma’s Khayelitsha remarks is the following: "We should not allow anyone to govern our city."
Zuma assumes Cape Town, the only metro not controlled by the ANC, belongs by divine right to his party, the party of God. In the other direction, the voters of Cape Town, in a free and fair exercise of their independent will, said otherwise.
And there you have the fundamental contradiction at the heart of Zuma’s religiosity — a deep, personal disdain for democracy itself. That such a man should be the president is an indictment of the ANC in as much it is of Zuma himself.
In his magisterial book Towards the Light, British moral philosopher AC Grayling says the following of King Louis XIV of France, perhaps the ultimate embodiment of the doctrine of Divine Right; for he decreed he alone acted on God’s behalf: "Since the king is answerable only to God, he (is) not bound by agreements with men."
That captures nicely Zuma’s private convictions. And one sees it everywhere; from his relentless intention to escape prosecution to the way he misuses the public purse to build his own castle in Nkandla. He thinks he walks among us, but he is not of us.
So, by all means, laugh at the idiocy of a statement like "the ANC will rule until Jesus returns". It is indeed inherently laughable. But take a moment to appreciate the profound assault on those core constitutional values, freedom itself, such an idea represents — the very antithesis of a democracy and the arrogant attitude of man who thinks he has God’s own ear. History has repeatedly shown such men contribute more to human regression than advancement, and it would be nothing more than ignorant to dismiss out of hand.