Religious fundamentalism: An opium of the masses

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The recent activities stemming from various religious doctrines in South Africa, have sparked conversations about suitable legislative, social and political aspects to confine different religious believes. As the conversations take place, it is important to take into cognisance the different role played by various religious dominions in the past to enhance and curb colonialism in all its manifestations namely; internal, external, colonialism of the special type, and apartheid. This means that, like any other vital social forces, religion can be manipulated and be used to oppress a certain type of people, while it can be used to liberate them.

The South African context is a great example, for instance when the European-settlers-cum colonisers landed in our shores, confiscated land through various wars of dispossession and infiltrated African societies through missionaries. During the second half of the nineteenth century Presbyterian, Methodist and Anglican missionaries established educational institutions in southern Africa which trained teachers, builders, carpenters, printers, ministers of religion and others. The young men who qualified at these institutions were granted universal suffrage, ownership of some portions of the land and occupied high levels of social stratification. 

It is important to note that, the missionary schools were not restricted to religious activities, but they played a significant role in shaping the political outcomes through providing requirements for the universal suffrage. They shaped class orientation through providing requirements for those who qualified to own the portions of land, and deepened institutionalised gender relations, by making sure that only men were educated. 

The impact of religion does not only end when the Bretton missionaries dissipated. But elements of religious fundamentalism continued to resonate with the new coloniser, in this context the Dutch. President Thabo Mbeki in his speech titled The Historical Injustice best explains the way the Dutch colonisers, distorted the religious notion of Calvinism. He said that, “From Calvinism the Boer took the doctrine of predestination and perverted it. For Calvin, the chosen of God were those who survived the jungle of capitalist enterprise in industry and trade and emerged as successful men of business, without regard to race or nationality. In the patriarchal economy this was transmuted to read: the chosen of God are those who are white…” 

The impact of the distorted forms of Calvinism justified actions taken by the coloniser to hunt down African bodies, convert them from humanity to commodities, transform their leisure time into exploited and alienated cheap labour, convert African believes into inferior standards and diminish identities of African people. All these was done for the chosen white people to fulfil their Godly predestined lives at the expense of the unchosen African masses. The interesting factor about religion is that, in most forms of resistance by the African people against colonialism in all its manifestations, religious mechanisms were applied. For instance, there were breakaways in some churches, in Transvaal, Mangena Mokone in 1892 broke away from the Wesleyan Church, formed the Ethiopian Church. By 1896 the Reverend J. M. Dwane had also broken away from the Wesleyan Church to join the Ethiopian Church, but later seceded to lead the Order of Ethiopia. The dissatisfaction also spread to the (Presbyterian) Free Church of Scotland. The Reverend Pambani Mzimba broke away to form the Bantu Presbyterian Church (iCawa yakwa-Mzimba) in 1898. 

The church breakaways played a significant role in the establishment of political formations such as, Native Congresses in the Free State, Natal and Transvaal, while in the Cape Africans formed the South African Native Congress in 1898. In 1902 Dr Abdullah Abdurrahman established the African Political Organisation (APO). Although the membership of the APO was open to all, in practice it became an organisation for coloureds. In Natal, Mahatma Gandhi formed the Indian Congress. With the founding of the African National Congress (ANC) as a culmination of deeper and long-standing structural processes and forces. 

The role of religion cannot be ignored! It cuts deep into societal scars; as a remedy and treatment to the scars, while at times as its courses. In the democratic dispensation, the supreme law of the land; the constitution, enshrines the freedom of religion and association. This means that in all attempts to consolidate the democratic order, different religious dominions have a meaningful responsibility to contribute to societal development. The dialectical relationship between religious rights and responsibilities must not be ignored. This means that everyone must be afforded rights to religion, while at the same time, have a societal burden to confine all religious activities within the supremacy of the constitution. For instance, when forms of capital accumulation, commodification of religious activities are practised, they need to follow the laws and regulations that govern the economic activities. 

When societies evolve, the utility of religious activities are not left behind, because they do not take place in the air, they are performed by people. In fact, many people resort to religion to find solutions towards the evolving societies, because they believe that a higher being have answers to everything. In this way religion, like education, occupies the epicentre of human interaction and development. This means that with the existence of human beings and their prevailing challenges, religion also exists. In an unequal society, with high unemployment rate and poverty, religion becomes hope to the hopeless, it also creates a platform where the victims and the perpetrators, the rich and the poor converge in harmony, despite their everyday differences! 

Rhulani Thembi Siweya is an NEC member of the Ancyl and founder of Africa Unmasked

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