SOUTH Africa’s churches have launched a blistering attack on the ruling African National Congress, accusing it of moral decay and of abandoning Nelson Mandela’s goal to build a non-racial democracy from the ashes of apartheid.
In a letter to president Jacob Zuma published yesterday, a week before an ANC leadership election and conference, the South African Council of Churches (SACC) threatened to agitate for a “more healthy democracy” if its concerns were brushed aside.
“During apartheid, some church leaders wrote to political leaders but they often failed to listen to these voices. Unfortunately we find a similar trend today,” wrote the SACC, a key player in the struggle against the white-minority rule that ended in 1994.
“We have begun to stray from the path of building a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa,” it continued, adding that political leaders had “largely lost their moral compass”.
Founded in 1936, the SACC is an umbrella group for the country’s major Christian denominations. Nobel Peace Prize-winning Anglican former Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu was one of its leaders during the apartheid era, serving as its secretary-general.
The council has criticised the ANC before, but this very public censure – coming before the start of a major ruling party conference – appeared designed for maximum impact.
The rebuke gained extra weight this week with the hospitalisation of former president Mandela, now 94 and revered by most South Africans as architect of the “Rainbow Nation” that emerged 18 years ago from three centuries of white oppression.
Mr Mandela, in hospital since Saturday for tests, had suffered a recurrence of a lung infection but was responding to treatment, the government said yesterday.
The ANC celebrated its centenary this year but its internal back-slapping has been in marked contrast to external criticism that portrays the former liberation movement as corrupt and inept under a scandal-prone and ineffectual leader.
In April, Reuel Khoza, the chairman of Nedbank, South Africa’s fourth-biggest bank, triggered a vitriolic response when he labelled ANC leaders a “strange breed” incapable of running a 21st century economy.
Four months later, South Africa faced its biggest post-apartheid crisis when police shot dead 34 strikers at the Marikana platinum mine, sparking a wave of unrest across the mining sector that hit economic growth.
Seizing on the Marikana killings and a scandal over a 240 million rand (£17m) state-funded upgrade to Mr Zuma’s private home, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) pushed last month for a no-confidence vote against him.
With a two-thirds majority in parliament, the motion seems no more than an irritant for Mr Zuma, 70. He looks set to be re-elected unopposed next week as party leader, a position that tees him up to run the country until 2019.
In a letter to DA leader Helen Zille, a white, former anti-apartheid journalist, the SACC stressed the role of opposition figures in “putting our country on a more healthy footing”.
Four in every five South Africans are Christians adding to the weight of the church criticism. “This is the very same people who led the church’s struggle against apartheid, and it’s very significant,” said Cape Townanalyst Nic Borain. “The church clearly believes there to be a significant crisis of both governance and leadership.”