S. African president ‘patches’ breach with national church grouping

July 1, 2010

JOHANNESBURG

South African President Jacob Zuma appears to have patched up a quarrel with the South African Council of Churches, a key body in the struggle against apartheid.

The council was offended in 2009 when Zuma failed to consult it about the creation of the National Interfaith Leadership Council, and did not include it in the new body.

The South African Government’s Buanews agency reported on June 22 that “Zuma, who held a brief meeting with the South African Council of Churches … said the Church had historically played a key role in government and he hoped it would continue to do so by providing advice and constructive criticism.”

The NILC is headed by Pastor Ray McCauley, who runs a Pentecostal church called Rhema Ministries, but it excludes South Africa’s older established churches, including the SACC, which groups more than half of the country’s churches.

The ANC’s commission on religious affairs consulted various religious groupings and leaders but ignored the SACC when it sought advice on the launch of the NILC.

After earlier unsuccessful efforts, the SACC met with Zuma on June 22 for the first time since he came into office in May 2009. Zuma apologized for failing to consult the SACC and assured it that he had never intended to marginalize it, according to SACC general secretary,  Eddie Makue.

He said the SACC accepted Zuma’s apology and his pledge that the presidency would in future consult the church body.

The NILC, which comprises Christian, Muslim and African traditional church leaders, has committed itself to helping Zuma deal with his main political problem, the delivery of socio-economic services.

Makue said that the SACC had told Zuma it was ready “to play a role in nation-building, fighting poverty and moral regeneration.”

Church insiders say complex religious politics lay behind the June 22 meeting. The SACC enjoyed a cozier relationship with Zuma’s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, but more recently is seen to have lost influence even among its own member churches.

Zuma’s shift away from the established churches towards more populist movements such as Rhema and traditional African churches also relates to his seeking to promote himself as a “traditional” African.

Some analysts believe it also connected to the fact that the SACC tends to be more independent politically while Zuma’s new allies in the NILC tend to avoid political controversy.

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