Every five years the residents of Pretoria are treated to the likes of Robert Mugabe and his rather peculiar scarecrow-like amandla fist-pump. Every five years our eyes are trained on that Herbert Baker monument that is the Union Buildings. Every five years we put on an august show that is a representative manifesto of our political ambitions as a country. Every five years we celebrate the symbolism of our political dispensation by inaugurating a president.

Every such occasion is opened by an inter-faith prayer and meditation item. But I find that such an item has always lacked substantive diversity and is narrow even within its own scope.

The prayer item lacks substantive diversity in that there is no recognition that there are those that believe in God and those that do not. No recognition that, in as much as those that believe, observe their belief in a myriad ways, there is a substantive difference between those that do not believe in the supernatural and those that do.

The prayer item is narrow even within its own scope in that even though it caters mainly for the believers, it is very selective about the type of believers it chooses to accommodate. After four inaugurations why is it that we never see a sangoma leading prayer at an inauguration? Is it because somehow there are some religions we do not acknowledge when we have guests and others that we wheel out as though they were special crockery and cutlery.

Many South Africans visit sangomas on a regular basis. This is evidenced by talk of soccer teams having unsettled debts with sangomas. Recently music star Kelly Khumalo was photographed, by the Sunday World, leaving the premises of a sangoma on the East Rand. Even the ANC Women’s League had sangomas lead the prayer when they held a vigil for the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. And the sangomas were seen burning medicinal incenses just before Women’s League president Angie Motshekga spoke at the vigil.

Traditional systems of belief are often dismissed as primitive. But the spectre of religion itself is seen, by many thought leaders, as a relic of an age of adolescent human existence. Religion is seen as an appendix on the intestines of life, a vestige that can become infected and potentially kill you. Daniel Dennett wryly summarised his sentiments towards religion when he pointed out that there was a deathly silence when Matthew McConaughey, in his Oscar acceptance speech, thanked God for the Oscar. The point I am trying to make is that for one religion to be called primitive over another is ironic given that thought leaders think religion itself primitive. Notwithstanding, religion and spirituality are a big part of our lives.

The Constitutional Court of South Africa in the case of MEC for Education: KwaZulu-Natal and Others v Pillay heard the case of a schoolgirl that was not allowed to wear a nose-stud to school. She had sought to do so on religious and cultural grounds. Justice Pius Langa in penning the majority opinion said that the expression of religion and culture is not something to be feared but rather something to be celebrated. He then commented as follows about the school code prohibiting the nose-stud: “The norm embodied by the Code is not neutral, but enforces mainstream and historically privileged forms.” The narrowness of scope present at inaugurations speaks to preferring these historically privileged religions.

This narrowness is further entrenched by “organised religious diversity” that clings primarily to representatives of Islam, Judaism and European Christianity (eg Anglican, Methodist and Catholic). The narrowness of this “diversity” is seen in the absence of African Christian formations at state occasions. These would, for example, be Lekganyane’s ZCC (Zion Christian Church), Modise’s IPCC (International Pentecostal Church of Christ) or even Shembe’s NBC (Nazareth Baptist Church).

According to a StatsSA 2012 report, church affiliation in SA is as follows: no religion (6.7 million), ZCC (4.9 million), Roman Catholic (3.1 million), Dutch Reformed Church (3 million), Methodist (2.9 million), Anglican (1.6 million), Islam (654 064), Judaism (75 555). Given these numbers it is baffling why there is such a narrowness of scope.

So in addressing this, our actions have to be based on reason and not faith. In the case of Town of Greece v Galloway, the US Supreme court upheld that government council meetings can have partisan prayer and that this is not constitutionally inappropriate. In other words council prayer meetings do not have to be substantively diverse or wide in scope. They merely need ensure that the partisan prayer is not inflammatory to or disparaging of non-believers and other different believers. I hold that this disregard for lack of substantive diversity is not something to which we, as South Africa, should aspire or seek to emulate. Substantive diversity and widening of scope of belief would be a celebration of both our constitutional right to our current spiritual diversity and a celebration of the human reason basis of our Constitution.

There has been movement to address the issue of substantive diversity in other spheres of State operation. This is evidenced by those not wishing to swear an oath before God, being allowed to make an affirmation of their commitment instead. But in terms of the prayer/meditation item at state functions, both substantive diversity and widening of scope are wanting.

The issue of including sangomas is a double-whammy for the status quo in that it tackles the issue of historical exclusion and also challenges notions of belief diversity. Humanists and sangomas may be to inaugurations what the EFF is to Parliament.

Twitter: @melomagolego

Image – AFP


Melo Magolego

Melo Magolego

Mandela Rhodes Scholar. Fulbright scholar. California Institute of Technology. MSc in electrical engineering.

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