At a National Summit for Religious and Church Leaders at Rhema Church (Rhema Summit) two weeks ago, the CRL Rights Commission threatened church leaders that if they did not come up with solutions for the abuses and malpractices in the religious sector (and particularly in the church) on that day, the CRL would ask “ordinary people” to do so at its Fourth National Consultative Conference (NCC).

The CRL this week doubled down on its threat, when it asked the approx. 500 delegates at the NCC – largely made up of community councils, traditional leaders, traditional healers (but only a handful of religious leaders) – to adopt a resolution that the CRL should “continue with a process to control religious practitioners” and to “push for the proposals that the CRL has placed before Parliament”, including a peer review mechanism.

These resolutions ignore the resolution at the Rhema Summit a mere two weeks ago, which was attended by approx. 800 senior leaders from across the faith spectrum. This specified that a broadly representative and inclusive process should be conducted on local, provincial and national levels to develop truly self-regulatory solutions by the religious community for the religious community. This process is due to culminate in a further three day summit in October 2019 when these findings will be presented and adopted. The CRL is well aware of this resolution, having co-organised the Rhema Summit and been presented with a report on the outcomes.

The CRL’s decision also conflicts with the report by the COGTA Parliamentary Portfolio Committee, which effectively rejected the CRL’s proposals for (State) regulation of religion. Instead, COGTA recommended that the religious community be given the opportunity to address the issues identified in the CRL’s report and to develop effective solutions, including a Code of Conduct for the sector.

According to Adv Nadene Badenhorst, Legal Counsel of Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA), who attended the NCC this week, “the Rhema Summit was a key part of COGTA’s recommendations, and it is astounding that the CRL now views this significant meeting as inconsequential and ‘unconstitutional’. This raises serious questions over the bona fides of the Commission and its agenda.”

In light of the CRL’s NCC resolutions, it is important to ask some critical questions: Who will the State approve to sit on Peer Review Committees, which will decide who can (or cannot) practise their faith? What criteria will be used to decide who is eligible (or not) to receive a licence? How will an expression of faith be defined as “appropriate”, given that the Constitutional Court has already decided that even if a religious practice or belief is “bizarre, illogical or irrational”, it still enjoys constitutional protection (provided of course it does not amount to harmful, criminal or otherwise illegal conduct)? Who will pay for the vast bureaucracy that will be needed at local, provincial and national levels to ensure that registration is enforced? And is a heavy-handed approach necessary given that existing laws are evidently effective in curbing criminal activity and excesses, when enforced?

In the same way that the State in recent years has tried to curb and curtail the media, the focus has now swung to the religious sector. However, one thing we can know from a simple look at the broad sweep of human history is that whenever a State (including an “institution of State”, such as the CRL) has taken control of the religious sector, persecution and oppression inevitably follow. Why the ANC-appointed Chair of the CRL has chosen to pick a major battle with the faith community of South Africa in an election year remains a mystery which surely needs to be explained.

FOR SA Executive Director, Michael Swain, comments that “President Ramaphosa’s statement this morning that government will not ‘go overboard and start regulating churches and religions’, is encouraging, particularly as he declared that it could be considered ‘unconstitutional to start regulating faith-based organisations’. We welcome his approach to engage faith-based organisations on how we can work together to solve these problems, rather than rushing into legislative control.”

The CRL Rights Commissioners’ term is coming to an end today. Interviews for the short-listed candidates were postponed indefinitely on Saturday, and the Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs is yet to make a statement in this regard.

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