Zohra Dawood: Director, Centre for Unity in Diversity
Freedom of religion, belief and opinion, in addition to freedom of association, are embedded in the Bill of Rights and serve as valuable constitutional rights.
Yet in the last year or two, there have been increasingly strident calls to curb these rights. These come in the wake of several appalling cases of manipulation and abuse of vulnerable people seeking spiritual comfort and support, who have ended up in the hooks of dangerous and often self-made men of God. These range from the “Doom” pastor, to Lesego Daniel of the Rabboni Centre Ministries, who propagated the consumption of grass after which he be allowed to stomp on congregants. The list of deviances continues with many in the public recently following the trial of Pastor Omotoso in the Eastern Cape High Court. His abuse of young women has both sickened and shaken many who rightly ask how these irrational, illegal and downright dangerous criminal activities under the guise of religious worship go unchecked and unpunished for years.
Much has been written about how and why socially fragile and frayed individuals and communities fall prey to these practices. However, the purpose of this article is to raise the debate about whether the regulation of churches and religious leaders per the recommendation of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission), is a step too far.
In a 2017 report by the CRL Rights Commission, Report of the Hearings on the Commercialisation of Religion and Abuse of People’s Belief Systems, several recommendations emerged, and these have been ventilated subsequently in Parliament. The Centre for Unity in Diversity, in a September 2017 roundtable discussion co-facilitated with the CRL Rights Commission, engaged in a public discussion on the recommendations made in the Report. The rich discussions that ensued on the issue of regulation of religion saw both protagonist and antagonist engage an issue that arouses deep-seated views in a religious country that embraces a spectrum of religions, including African traditional belief systems.
The Parliamentary process post the publication of the CRL Rights Commission Report was interesting in that two portfolio committees came to different conclusions about the issue of regulation of religion. At its proceedings in February 2018, the Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) recommended that the Commission convene as national conference of religious leaders to find solutions amongst themselves. The Portfolio Committee on Women in the Presidency, at its 30 October 2018 meeting, supported the notion of regulation and in a summary gleaned from PMG, the sentiment was as follows: “there is a lack of proper regulation to control churches that are operating outside of the law. Municipal by-laws should be enforced. Legislation should be put in place to allow for the accountability, transparency, registration and regulation of churches and religious leaders. There was a suggestion to make use of a peer review system by the Commission to prevent abuse”. This encapsulates both sensible procedural and legal outcomes that must be complied with. It includes proper processes for observation of by-laws, the imperative to register for tax or apply for tax exemption with SARS as required by law and, most crucially, that of ensuring compliance with the criminal justice system, which clearly some of the religious leaders cited above are in violation of.
The contentious issues that the Portfolio Committee on Women did not interrogate with the requisite attention, are those of tampering with fundamental freedoms, in addition to emboldening the powers of the CRL Rights Commission to serve as the overseer of religious practitioners. The organogram of the envisaged pyramid structure drafted by the CRL Rights Commission sees a base of religious practitioners working upward through worship centres, through to umbrella organisations, to peer review committees, and ultimately to the CRL Rights Commission. The problematic assumption in this pyramid is that religions can broadly be categorised within and between for example Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, African traditional churches, etc. The reality is that intra and inter-religious differences are a feature of practice and have been since time immemorial. To premise legislation and policy on forced cohesion within and between religions is to miss the point of the promotion of diversity in religious practice and choice. While some regional neighbours, including Angola and Rwanda, have imposed restrictions on religious leaders and facilities, the South African Constitution is clear and unambiguous in enjoining each to follow his or her conscience and practice their faith or lack thereof in an open and unfettered manner. This cornerstone of our constitutional democracy, together with the right of association, must be fiercely guarded.
The exploitation of the weak and vulnerable; the illegal and criminal activities of the ‘God Man’ and the abuse of girls, boys and women within both mainstream and fringe religious institutions and by religious leaders, however, remains cause for concern. These must be exposed and the guilty must be held criminally liable with the requisite punishment for harm committed. The legal and criminal justice systems must impose the full might of the law in these cases. Civic education processes about human rights within religious communities could be one way of ensuring that those who perpetrate these evil deeds are brought to book.
However, the constitutional guarantees to freedom of religion and association enshrined in the Bill of Rights must be protected and promoted, and not weakened based on the criminal and nefarious practices as outlined above. Equally, constant vigilance is necessary to keep in check the matter of (State) authoritarianism and that of ensuring distinct lines between church and State. As a Chapter 9 institution, the CRL Rights Commission is an organ of State and its role is to expose, educate and affirm its mandate per the Constitution. Oversight of religious leaders and practices as it has recommended in its report and in Parliament, is not one of these functions. Instead the Commission should, per the recommendation of the Portfolio Committee on COGTA, facilitate dialogue and engagement to ensure, like the media, a process of self-regulation by the religious fraternity, in its diverse forms.