Johannesburg – President Jacob Zuma’s comments about the advent of Christianity in South Africa caused a flurry of criticism and clarifications from various groups on Wednesday.
The Timeslive website quoted Zuma as telling the launch of a road safety and crime awareness campaign in KwaZulu-Natal that “as Africans, long before the arrival of religion and [the] gospel, we had our own ways of doing things”.
“Those were times that the religious people refer to as dark days but we know that, during those times, there were no orphans or old-age homes. Christianity has brought along these things,” he said.
Following the remarks, the presidency and African National Congress chief whip were at pains to clarify Zuma’s remarks. Party chief whip Mathole Motshekga said in a statement that Zuma’s comments were “perfectly sound”.
“Irresponsible journalism will always find a creative way to mislead, and in this case it inexplicably saw an attack on Christianity in the president’s perfectly sound assertion,” he said.
Motshekga said a distinction needed to be drawn between “Christianity as a faith” and “nefarious missionary activities, which have brought sufferings upon our people”.
He said, for example, colonialism was aided by certain missionary “enterprises” who worked under the “guise” of Christianity. Even apartheid was practised “under the cloak of Christianity”.
Each for himself
“While African culture has since time immemorial taught people to care for each other, embrace and show kindness to one another, the advent of [a] Western way of living condoned [a] ‘each man for himself’ principle,” said Motshekga.
“This has resulted in elderly people being condemned to old age homes and parentless children sent to orphanages.”
Earlier, the presidency issued a separate statement in which it said Zuma’s comments were a call not to neglect African culture.
“While we should embrace Western culture and Christianity, we should not neglect the African ways of doing things,” spokesperson Mac Maharaj said.
“Western culture had brought about the end of the extended family as an institution, leading to the need for government to establish old age homes, orphanages and other mechanisms to support the poor and vulnerable.
“Even poverty was an unknown factor as neighbours were always ready to assist each other, giving one another milk or cattle where needed.”
African Christian Democratic Party president Kenneth Meshoe said Zuma’s comments were “hypocritical”.
“During elections he [Zuma] runs to churches to get votes,” said Meshoe.
Cape Town Archbishop Thabo Cecil Makgoba said while he did not know the full context in which Zuma’s comments were made: “We all have a tendency, as we move on in years, to romanticise the past as utopian and without its challenges.
“Given the number of orphans and old age homes, lack of proper sanitation, poor education provision, death on our roads at this critical period for Christians, we need as Christ commanded, to house these orphans as we did of old.
“We need to care for our elderly better as it was done of old.”
The SA Council of Churches general secretary reverend Mautji Pataki said: “We do not understand why the president, whom we have always counted as one amongst us Christians, would find the Christian faith to be so hopeless with regard to building humanity.”
Civil rights group AfriForum said it planned to discuss Zuma’s “extremely insensitive” comments with the government and ANC.
Co-founder of the International Orphan Network website, Sean Grant, said South Africa’s current problems were the real issue.
“The current culture in South Africa is [of] abandonment and negligence. If it weren’t for religious groups and non-profit organisations, there would be far more lack of care, if not dying,” he said.
The ANC has a history of using religious terminology to promote itself. On Tuesday, Motshekga received thunderous applause after he told attendants at the Limpopo African National Congress’s elective conference in Polokwane that “the organisation has a responsibility to rule until Jesus pays us another visit”.
These remarks echoed comments made by Zuma in June 2009 at a rally in Mpumalanga, when he said the ANC “will rule until Jesus comes”.
In February this year, according to a Democratic Alliance transcript of Zuma’s remarks during a voter registration drive in Mthatha, the president said: “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.”
In December 2008, while Zuma was still involved in court action around corruption charges – which were subsequently dropped – Free State ANC leader Ace Magashule told Volksblad newspaper that Zuma was suffering just like Jesus Christ did.
“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.”
Likened to Jesus
In November 2008, Zuma told a national presidential religious leaders conference, that “no-one can argue South Africa is not based on the principles of God”.
In 2007 Zuma was ordained as an honorary pastor at a meeting of independent charismatic churches in Durban.
During his 2006 rape trial, many of his supporters likened him to Jesus.
One supporter was spotted outside the High Court in Johannesburg at the time with a white, wooden home-made crucifix, and asking: “Why are you crucifying Zuma?”
The crucifix bore a picture of Zuma with outstretched arms.