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What the Church Can Do to Strengthen Electoral Democracy

On 1 November 2021 the province of KwaZulu-Natal saw part of the Church in action. On that day KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council, an ecumenical and multidenominational body in the province, together with its affiliative partners, rolled up its sleeves and involved itself in the work of ensuring democracy is kept alive in the province. It did so, inter alia, by functioning as an impartial observer of the elections as conducted by the Independent Electoral Commission which had accredited it for this purpose in terms of Sections 84 and 85 of the Electoral Act 73 of 1998.
When I refer to the Church in this article I include those Christian denominations which are not representatively included in the KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council and its affiliates. But when I refer to a “body of the Church” I refer to the KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council and its affiliates. This is important to note as it is unfortunately not all denominations who are open to ecumenical involvement, and even with some who are open to such involvement, not all are fully committed and active in socio-political matters. On one extreme within the Church may be those who believe that government should impose religion onto is populace, while on the other extreme outside of the Church may be those who believe that government should actually exclude religion altogether from its populace. Then there are those in the Church who may believe that government is evil and demonic and should be shunned by all means. Another group in the Church may be those who believe that the Church should only do evangelism or mission without involvement in politics. But then there are also those in the Church who hold that it must only do politics and not be concerned about evangelism or mission. These five positions are all unfortunate.
The group within the Church represented by KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council and its partners and affiliates belong to those who find no offense with preaching and teaching for individual salvation from moral sin, but then ecumenically join hands in the belief that socio-political engagement is part of the Christian mandate. This body of the Church therefore deployed its trained observers across the province as its eyes and ears. While it was not all the thousands of voting stations that could be observed, a significant number of them enjoyed the presence of the Church. At the end of the voting day, aside from a few incidents of reported irregularities, some of which are only now, more than a week later, coming to light through protests, the observance of the Church is that the elections were in most cases within its reach free and fair.
This was neither the first time nor the only way by which the Church has positively involved itself in building democracy during municipal elections. This body of the Church has ever been part of electoral processes since the dawn of our inclusive constitutional democracy in 1994. For these municipal elections there were set up units or teams which were the Electoral Violence Monitoring, Electoral Mediation, Voter Education, and Electoral Observation. Through these this body of the Church, even before voting day, would monitor violence that erupts in the province, possibly play the role of mediator in conflict resolution, avail itself in educating voters about their God given rights to dignity, freedom, and equality as expressed through the right to vote, and also observe the electoral processes on voting day with impartiality.
South African democracy has been hard won based on the blood and sacrifice of many who ultimately never got a chance to enjoy the fruits of their labour. And some of the great leaders of the liberation movement were either church leaders or devout Christians who were specifically inspired by their faith in their work of liberating the oppressed people of our land. A few examples are John Langalibalele Dube, the first President of the African National Congress, who was also a gospel minister. Chief Albert Luthuli, another President of the African National Congress, was also a preacher and a devout Christian. There are other more recent examples and icons such as the Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu who has just celebrated his 90th birthday, Dr Allan Boesak, Dr Frank Chikane, and so many others. All of these, and more, are examples of the power of the Church as an instrument of building democracy in South Africa.
Democracy at heart means power belongs to people who are the ones who then place persons into positions of responsibility, and further continue having a say in the running of the state. This is not a perfect system as it has its problems, especially due to shortfalls in the morality of those in power, sometimes. Power without morality is a pain, but the Church is called just for that – to inject morality into the veins of society. Democracy is therefore not perfect but is the best system available which takes us through the middle road between a dictatorship and a theocracy. The former removes power from the people while the latter imposes God forcefully onto people. But we know that the Church is called neither to legislatively impose its beliefs onto people nor to criminalise unbelief, but to transform them through their influence of love in action.
For example, while Christians or believers are at liberty to hold the belief that homosexuality is a sin, none have the biblical or legal right to forcefully or legislatively prevent any two adults who voluntarily believe otherwise and actually enter into a marriage-like relationship, let alone to criminalise them. The key purpose of government is to provide safety and security, in all its dimensions, to its populace without prescribing what its inhabitants must religiously believe or practice even when no involuntary harm is experienced by others. Similarly, everyone is permitted to vote in the exercise of their legal and biblical right to do so, and the Church is neither to vilify nor stand in the way of voters.
This phenomenon of Christian influence in political life has not only been evident in South Africa but was also demonstrated in the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950’s into the 1960’s in the United States of America. But locally, an example of what the Church could be may be illustrated by the story of retired Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, together with a small multiracial group of clergymen, during those turbulent years around 1990, in Sebokeng township. They stood on a street between approaching soldiers in a convoy of armoured vehicles with heavy machine guns on top on one side, and a crowd of two or three thousand angry protestors on the other side.  The bishops stood in between the two approaching sides and stretched out their arms towards heaven in prayer for divine intervention as they could see impending devastation and bloodshed on that street. By standing in between the oppressors and the oppressed and lifting up their hands to God for intervention both the military and the angry crowd stopped, and the clergy were able to avert the loss of life.  It was a small multiracial and multidenominational group of ministers who saved the day under God.
South Africa can still today feel the prophetic presence of the Church, not merely through voice but through action. Unlike during the Apartheid era where the issues of systemic racism were crystallised and clear, issues now are more complex and largely centre around the economic freedom of the inhabitants of this country. But that goal is intrinsically linked to political authorities and hence elective processes. And so the Church is a prophet to the nation and its authorities. KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council is one of the avenues of this prophet.
It may be true that certain corners within the Christian family of churches also face their own internal challenges such as through bizarre practices and fake miracles which stain the Christian name to some, but those abnormalities should neither occupy centre stage nor be regarded as characteristic of the Church as a whole. Society can still place reliance on the Church.
The reader will know very well that South Africa is still recovering from its municipal elections of 1 November 2021 out of which some came with joy and others with deep concern, if not tears. The exercise of the right to vote is one that resonates well with our belief in a God who created and carved his image in us and thereby the capacity and right of freedom which, in South Africa, includes the right to choose municipal leadership. But the reality is that, because of the presence of sin and evil, elections are usually marred by falsehood, anger, assassinations, and also provide an opportune time for protest action.
Some of our neighbourhoods have had blood spilt on their streets and possibly, blood on the hands of some elected officials. Some community members are experiencing anger and suspicions of foul play relating to the election results. There are families that are going to gain income through successful electoral campaigns, and be able to put bread on the table, while others have lost income through defeat as party representatives or as independents. Worse still, some families are covered in tears and remain in mourning because of political killings.
It is for such a time as this that the Church has been called and enabled by God. This is what the Church is called by God to do. The Church is called upon to put on the garments of justice and truth, and to inject moral life and justice into the veins of society.
The same ecumenical spirit that is demonstrated by KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council which represents a theologically and ecclesiastically diverse group of Christians, should be demonstrated by political parties at this time in coalitions, especially as these are municipal elections and not national ones. At municipal level the philosophies and ideologies of the various parties do not carry the same significance as during national elections where national laws and policies are crafted and promulgated. And so there should be no room for political manoeuvring and manipulation, especially at municipal level where the core of the issues relate to service delivery and not national laws and policies. Voters must have cast their votes, at least generally, with the intention to have their party of choice become the governing party within their ward or municipality. In the event that purpose has failed and a municipality is hung, no party should be faulted in forming coalitions with other parties for the benefit of the electorate in terms of service delivery. Personality differences should have little value in coalition talks.
It should be recognised that part of the reason for the dozens of hung municipalities across the country is due to the fact that only 30% of the registered voters turned up to vote. The Church must be concerned by this and engage in surveys and analysis in order to discover the reasons because, depending on the reasons, this country will be plunged into chaos and more lawlessness. For example, if the reason is the loss of trust by the voters in the state and the political parties, such a loss of confidence in the system will have the effect of developing a South Africa where people take the law into their own hands. This has already been demonstrated in the recent lootings of July 2021 in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. The loss of trust combined with increasing poverty provide the ideal and conducive environment for societal disruption and chaos upon any significant trigger event like a lit match with petrol on the floor.
The KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council, together with its regional entities, and through its partnership with associates such as University of KwaZulu-Natal and Diakonia Council of Churches, will and must, increasingly so, continue to make its prophetic presence felt and realised in this province. More denominations must join this fight for justice, even if not through this body of the Church. Christian presence sometimes seems feeble and weak, as it still is the Church militant, internally and externally, but it will in time also become the Church triumphant!

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