President Cyril Ramaphosa's comment last week at the Cape Town City Hall about what is now euphemistically referred to as fake pastors or fake prophets indicates the matter has become a national concern. Though he was responding to a question from the floor on why police are not arresting these bogus pastors and prophets, a view on the matter by the head of state ought to be taken seriously.
Ramaphosa is on record as having said: “We are concerned about this trend that is evolving in our country where pastors or religious leaders of questionable practices have surged to the fore and have started doing things that appear like they are taking advantage of our people."
This came shortly after the surfacing on social media of a video clip of Johannesburg based pastor where it was claimed he had resurrected a man from the dead. There has been another social media claim of someone being raised from the dead in Emalahleni, Mpumalanga. These so-called miracles, especially how they are used to take advantage of the poor and vulnerable, these acts have embarrassed us and the Religious Sector, particularly the Christian Faith, has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons and have caught the attention of government and raised the call for the religious sector to be regulated.
As the religious sector we have a nuanced approach to the regulation of religion. In principle, we would frown upon the state interfering on matters religious. President Ramaphosa himself is quoted as having said: “We do not want to interfere with people's religious beliefs, but we should have a conversation about how we deal with these bogus pastors.” We concur and prefer that religious leaders should come up with a accountability system in the sector .
In this regard and following the findings and recommendations of the CRL Rights Commission which investigated the commercialization of religion and abuse of people’s belief systems, we in the religious sector in general have decided to develop and adopt a code of conduct that will allow us to deal with such issues. Taking into account that not all religions are homogenous, it might well be that the code(s) of conduct will be religion specific where, for example, Muslims will come with their own code in the same manner the Christian faith might develop its own.
But even so, the principle of accountability is accepted by almost all the religions. Also, there is or ought to be consensus among the different religions about brought issues such as the exploitation of people and misleading people. Critically, the process of developing these codes of conduct must be as widely consultative as possible.
Having said so and while accepting that the state or government cannot regulate what people believe, when such beliefs bring harm upon society and are a clear violation of the laws of the country, those who govern have a responsibility to protect the welfare of society. So, the state cannot abdicate its responsibility and adopt a watching by the sideline posture. Where criminality has been committed the law enforcement agency must act against such people and bring them to book
For starters, the state has a responsibility of keeping records of the religious organizations that operate in the country. Currently, there seems to be chaos in this area, with just about anyone who can opening a church whenever or wherever they feel like doing so. While the license to operate might not be the exclusive preserve of the state (there must be overseeing general councils that offer such licenses or recognition), the state has the responsibility to know who is operating where and to enforce certain minimum standards.
For example, religious organizations should not be immune to bylaws. If a place has not been zoned for religious purposes, a church cannot simply put up structure or gather congregants there without adhering to municipal bylaws. We have seen how in some countries on the continent non-adherence to bylaws has led to tragedies emanating from the collapse of buildings. Even in our country recently there was a stampede during a church gathering where lives were lost. Clearly, these are not matters for self-regulation but for the state to enforce.
Equally, the recognition of foreign-based pastors and the issuing of work permits is another area for the state to properly regulate as it is the financial reporting of religious organizations.
The mess we see in the religious sector speaks to two failures: failure by the sector itself to hold each other accountable and failure by government to regulate on matters where it should. The religious sector is beginning to look at the issues of accountability seriously. We believe that as religious and church leaders we can come up with systems that help us to deal with these issues in our society and bring some order in the religious sector. But for that order to prevail, government will need to govern on issues it should.
PASTOR RAY McCAULEY IS THE PRESIDENT OF RHEMA FAMILY CHURCHES AND THE CO-CHAIRPERSON OF NATIONAL RELIGIOUS LEADERS COUNCIL