OPINION: Coming soon to a church near you: The CRL
South Africa is often referred to as a 'religious society'. Of course, no one quite defines what that means, but it is a part of our national identity that we encompass many religious groups who believe different things. And we're often quite proud of that. It would be weird for the African National Congress (ANC) to open a political conference without almost all of the country's beliefs being represented. This makes religion quite a powerful force. But over the last month, a Chapter Nine Institution, known as the CRL, has started to muscle in on religion. And it is doing so unfairly.
The CRL is the ugly step-sister of our Chapter Nine Institutions. It is often known as the "one with the long name". Which for the record, deep breath please, is the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities. Once, memorably, it came out of the cover of darkness to hold a press conference railing against the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) over its condemnation of the way a cow was slaughtered to celebrate the release of Tony Yengeni.
To be met by the first question: Who are you people, and what have you been doing all of this time?
But recently, it's decided to up its profile. Under a relatively new chairwoman in Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, it has suddenly found itself in the pages of a tabloid near you. The start of this goes back to reports that a pastor in Soshanguve was feeding his congregants, not with the traditional loaves and fishes (or even bread and wine - Ed), but with petrol and snakes. Which, he claimed, turned to chocolate or bread in the mouths of his followers.
There was widespread outrage, and all sorts of people promised action. In the end, it was the Economic Freedom Fighters who basically tore down his structure.
That 'Pastor' Penuel Mnguni is a charlatan, a liar, and almost certainly a thief, is not in doubt. He is taking from the poor to feed his own rich tastes. And he is by no means the only person doing this. Depending on your own beliefs, you may, or may not feel that other people operate very similar operations to Mnguni, whether they operate with a huge satellite dish in Randburg, or employ God as an architect in Nigeria.
Prodded, no doubt, by the repeated TV pictures of these 'meals', the CRL then decided to take action. It launched an investigation into the 'commercialisation' of religion. With righteous fury and holy anger, the CRL said that it would not allow poor South Africans to be taken advantage of this way, that it would hold forth the sword of vengeance, and take it upon itself to judge the mortal souls of those who committed these unGodly deeds.
Unfortunately, it has done this in completely the wrong way. It started by saying that the main aim of this investigation was to produce a report that would go to Parliament that would, in turn, decide how religion should be regulated.
Oops. Religion. Regulation.
Two words that should always been kept in separate sentences, separate speeches, if possible. Especially in a time when the legitimacy of government is being questioned, often by religious leaders themselves. When Archbishops are leading protests over scandals like Nkandla nothing is more likely to get a quick reaction from organised, resourced, and respected groups, than this kind of comment.
Unfortunately, worse was to come. It turned out that Mkhwanazi-Xaluva had issued summons, through a sheriff, to certain pastors to give testimony. She had not bothered to speak to them first, or to invite interested parties to speak. She summonsed them. When questioned about this, she claimed that the CRL Act gave it the power to issue a summons, and that if people did not give testimony, they could go to jail. When asked why she didn't first invite pastors, she said she had to follow the Act, and could not simply issue invitations. She had to issue a summons.
That may be the case, but that indicates she simply lacks the political skills to understand how this was going to be perceived. She could have, quite easily, got in touch with these leaders, and explained she would like to invite them, but couldn't, and so, she's very sorry, but to please expect the summons in the post, and she's really looking forward to having a cup of tea and a chat afterwards. Instead, she got everyone's back up.
But then came the final, Stalinist touch. The hearings are being held behind closed doors. Just stop and think about that for a moment. An organisation you've probably never heard of sends a summons through a very official-looking sheriff. It demands that you come and give evidence before it, at a time and place of its own choosing. And then it says that no one will see you testify, and it will all be in secret. Does that remind you of a time significantly less holy than today?
What makes it all so much worse is that there is now a huge fight about whether, in fact, someone has actually complained to the CRL at all about these preachers officially . At first it seemed that the South African Council of Churches (SACC) was the complainant. But now it appears that, in fact, it complained only about two churches, those that featured the holy sacrament of snakes and petrol. To add some rather strong spice to the mix, one of those summonsed is a member of the SACC himself. And he is not, repeat, not amused.
Through all of this, Mkhwanazi-Xaluva has remained immovable; she says that the hearings are held in private to protect those who could be whistle-blowers. But that is hardly a justification for keeping all of these hearings private. If someone wants to come forward and testify in secret, let them, but let them ask first. But this entire issue is of huge public concern. If people are lying and abusing the poor, we need to know about it. We need to see them answering questions about their faith, telling their own testimony, so that we can make up our own minds about whether they are charlatans or, perhaps herald the return that President Jacob Zuma so often refers to.
The fact that the CRL has only gone after the smaller players is also telling. If she were so sure of herself, Mkhwanazi-Xaluva would also tackle the bigger, perhaps more mainstream religions. But the Chief Rabbi has a doctorate in law, which perhaps makes him a little harder to summons. And nothing could bring him and the Islamic leaders closer together more quickly, than for them to receive their summonses on the same day. And that's before you take on the full might of the established Christian churches, with their resources and organisation.
All of this is an indication of what happens when Chapter Nine institutions are deliberately weakened. It takes the best kind of person to lead them. When that happens, they are strong, valuable to our society, and vitally important to our constitution. When it doesn't, they lose legitimacy.
If the CRL doesn't back down there are two likely consequences. Religious groups and leaders could simply refuse to testify, leading to court cases and arguments about whether the CRL has behaved reasonably. It does seem hard to believe that it has. Or, it could be used to establish some sort of precedent that, yes, indeed, there are bodies in this country that have the legal power to summons you, and force you to give testimony, and documents about your finances, to a panel being held in secret.
And in the meantime, those who are summonsed are able to use this to grow their own flocks. Like politicians under fire, they will claim this is proof of their constitutional power that they are being demonised, and must, therefore, be protected from all that is unholy. Which will have the completely opposite consequence to that which the Commission claimed to want achieved in the first place. Using holy summons, holy sheriffs and the holy secrecy does not happy society make.
Stephen Grootes is host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes