Charlotte Drew on Religion and Politics in South Africa

This essay shall focus on the intersection of politics and religion through the lens of African traditional religion. African traditional religion, most widely practiced among the Zulu people of South Africa, itself is rich in diversity, but because all such local forms worship a supreme being, revere their ancestors, and rely on oral transmission, they are generally referred to by the singular term “"traditional religion."” This belief system accepts all other religions as equally valid constructions of knowledge and does not pretend to hold all the answers to human problems. Other views are considered, and often adopted, making African traditional religion a dynamic institution. Because African traditional religion believes that all authority eventually comes from the spirit world, any expression of power necessarily has religious implications. This principle manifested itself in several ways in traditional Zulu culture and continues to surface in the current politics of Africa. Religion was used to explain political failures and occupied the place of the political system in stateless societies. It also explains the tension over land ownership in modern southern Africa. Finally, the Zulu people play an important role in today's politics by leading a prominent opposition party.

Religion was employed in pre-colonial southern Africa to conceptualize the divide between good and evil in society. Evil typically centered on the misuse of power. In societies where political institutions have abused the authority vested in them, religious discourse can be seen as an attempted remedy by means of reordering of power. Religion was used to explain political misfortune in the community. Ngwabi Bhebe proposes that some Shona groups blamed their downfall on a former ruler who had abandoned traditional beliefs. The ancestors sought to punish him and thus allowed for the Zulu conquerors to triumph. In the same manner, when the king of Ndebeleland, Lobengula, failed to hold off white invaders in the late nineteenth century, it was said that he received messages from Mwari, the Shona deity, claiming that the colonizers where actually Mwari's sons sent to punish Lobengula for excessive raiding of the Shona people. In more recent times, the link between spiritual evil and political failure is still evident. A popular story in the Democratic Republic of Congo constructs an underground world where demons construe evil plans leading to the destruction of Africa. Using religious imagery, devilish creatures are depicted in modern situations, even with an underground international airport for all sorts of sorcerers and magicians flying in and out, and with various evil characters equated to World Bank and IMF agents. Thus, a religious story is used to explain disillusionment over domestic political and economic processes and international political development and equates political failure with evil.

Similarly, religion often replaced central authority in early stateless societies. Religious structures and hierarchies translated into political organizers. As Ellis and ter Haar state, "Authority over the spirit world thus translated into authority over people, making religion an outstanding means of instrumentalising political power ..." The use of lineage and clans, which continues today in Zulu society, concentrates authority in the most senior living descendant. Different religious sects may also function as political factions, according to Robert Janosik. "Sects may counterbalance central authority, and by developing an ideology ... and relating particular actions and mundane practices within a wider set of meanings ... leading [to] a more honourable and dignified complexion to social conduct. Here, religion offers an alternative to the typical political process, and still achieves the same end, a more organized and accessible society."

With this strong foundation in religion, different members of traditional African societies were able to manipulate religion for political purposes. Bhebe points out when Zulu King Mzilikazi conquered the Shona in southern Zimbabwe he adopted many of their religious beliefs in order to integrate the Shona into Ndebeleland peacefully for the political benefit of his kingdom (Bhebe, 1979: 287). Simultaneously, the Shona religious authorities were trying to curry favor with the new rulers by accepting them as god-sent. With the beginnings of Christianity in Africa, and the creation of African Independent Churches, this same theme is evident. Africans appropriated certain aspects of Christianity that seemed politically beneficial yet maintained their traditional ritual practices. When the Christian missionaries gained strength during the colonial period, however, Africans allowed for more Christian customs due to the importance of negotiating with the white conquerors. In this way religion was used as a means to political stability and prosperity. Likewise, religious communities acted as targets for political mobilization. By declaring authority from a supreme being, African rulers could demand taxes, labor, or participation in the army.

The most drastic mixing of religion and politics occurs when the line between the two becomes is erased entirely. The belief that everything derives power from the spiritual world allows religion to actually usurp politics. Politicians or tribal rulers then come to rely on religion for their very legitimacy. Religion determines power relationships and commercial ties, and thus it becomes the main institution in society. When Ndebele King Mzilikazi moved his Zulu followers out of South Africa and into Zimbabwe, conquering and incorporating groups as he went, he eventually found himself in unfamiliar territory. This threatened his power because as the king, he was responsible for appealing to his ancestors for rain for his people. However, his careful study of the clouds in South Africa was useless in Zimbabwe. The Shona, whom he conquered in Zimbabwe, were experts in the Zimbabwean clouds and told Mzilikazi that if he appeased Mwari [the Shona deity] with black oxen, tobacco, and other useful things, he could cause a downpour even though there might be a drought. Mzilikazi thus adopted the Shona belief in Mwari to maintain his political power. Moreover, a succession crisis followed Mzilikazi's death, and a council was chosen to select the next king. Their leader, Mncumbata, appealed to Mwari for help, who directed him to Lobengula, Mzilikazi's son. Thus, the new king remained to some extent dependent on Mwari for his power to rule the Ndebele and their subjects. Lobengula's authority rested on the Ndebeles' belief in Mwari, the traditional Shona god.

Religion is able to manipulate politics because traditional African religion incorporates the spiritual world to such a high degree in every day life. The ancestors are just as important as the people of the human world. In this sense, the evolving political language of Africa tends to regard politics as a metaphor for movements in a spirit world rather than vice versa. Because the ancestors are the cause of evil and suffering, they also hold the key to peace and happiness. All religious, and therefore political, communication is directed toward this end. Thus, the only way to attain political power is through the ancestors.

Recent religious revival in Africa demonstrates the prevalence of political and religious interdependence. At a time when political failure is widespread, coupled with the disillusionment of World Bank and International Monetary Fund programs for development, rekindled religious sentiment reflects disappointment with the current system of governance. Because religion locates evil in society, and allocates power accordingly, ambiguity concerning the morality of the state logically breeds religious excitement. The same applies to nations with strong governments like South Africa. Here, religious movements challenge the very basis of legitimacy of states which operate through institutions and norms of governance originally created in colonial times. A considerable factor in the anger over forced removals under the apartheid regime stems from traditional religious beliefs. On the Zulu homestead, a clan's land is regarded as sacred. Ancestors are buried there, and it is also the site of important rituals. By forcing people to leave their land, the central beliefs of African traditional religion were placed under direct attack by the state. In the 1970s, a homeland was established for the Zulu people, called KwaZulu, consisting of a small portion of the original Zululand. After apartheid, the Zulu people formed their own political party, the Inkatha Freedom Party, and hold a prominent place as an opposition party today.

Before the bureaucratic institutions established by colonial powers took form, religious specialists played an integral role of checking the chief or central authority figure to guard against corruption and tyranny. This concept has not faded with modernization and education, as many Africans today continue to hold beliefs derived from traditional cosmologies which they apply to their everyday activities. In the contemporary African mind, concepts concerning ancestral interference with daily life still hold a considerable amount of influence. Instead of trying to eliminate or disregard such customs, international donors and developers must work within this uniquely African framework to find solutions to the continent's problems.

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