South African Pentecostalism and Political Participation
After the first Dutch settlers arrived in South Africa in 1652, Protestant Christianity (with almost entirely European membership) through the Dutch Reformed Church held total monopoly until the 19th Century. Today, some three-quarters of the Black population are members of many ‘Protestant’ churches, but this figure includes a majority of African initiated/independent churches (AICs) and Pentecostals. South Africa was one of the first countries on the continent to receive Pentecostalism, in 1908. In less than a century, between 10-40% of the population have become Pentecostals, depending how ‘Pentecostal’ is defined. The 10% includes ‘Classical Pentecostals’ of several denominations, the largest being the Assemblies of God (AOG), the Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM) and the Full Gospel Church of God (FGC). It also includes various new Pentecostals and ‘Charismatics,’ churches affiliated to associations like the formerly white-dominated International Fellowship of Christian Churches (IFCC) now led by Ray McCauley and Mosa Sono, and many non-aligned churches. These together would be accepted as ‘Pentecostal/ Charismatic’ by their fellow Pentecostals and Charismatics in the West, with whom they have great affinity, and most of these churches have both Blacks and Whites as members. But the other 30% of the population consists of the almost entirely Black ‘Zionist’ and ‘Apostolic’ churches, including the largest denomination in South Africa, the Zion Christian Church (ZCC), and other significant churches like the St. Engenas Zion Christian Church, the St. John Apostolic Faith Mission, and the Nazareth Baptist Church (amaNazaretha). There are between 4,000 and 7,000 smaller church organizations of a similar type, many being house churches which form socially meaningful groups both in rural villages and especially in urban sprawls. Almost all of these churches, like all Pentecostal churches, emphasize the power of the Spirit in the church, especially manifested through healing, prophecy, exorcism, and speaking in tongues.
These churches arose during the religious and social ferment that followed the arrival of Zionist and Pentecostal missionaries from North America in 1904 and 1908 respectively, and the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. A number of African ‘Zionist’ and ‘Apostolic’ churches began to appear from that time onwards, most in striking continuity with the fledgling Pentecostal movement. These are African forms of worldwide Pentecostalism with their genesis in the western Pentecostal movement, which have maintained both historical and theological affinities while developing in quite different and distinctive directions.This analysis of Pentecostalism in South Africa is a result of my own academic research over the past decade and my involvement in the movement there for 25 years. The Pentecostal movement, including the many African churches that have emanated from it, is not a North American imposition but collectively one of the most significant African expressions of Christianity in South Africa today, where at least ten million people can be identified with a form of Pentecostalism.
South Africa differs fundamentally from other African countries on several fronts. In the first place, it has by far the largest European settler community in Africa, about 17% of the population in 2000, with another 9% of the population of mixed race (the so-called ‘Coloreds’) and ‘Indians,’ most either Afrikaans or English speaking. The remaining 74% of the population are Africans of nine ethno-linguistic groups and a number of immigrants from elsewhere in Africa. Secondly, South Africa is arguably the continent’s wealthiest nation, with vast natural resources and a developed industrial and mining infrastructure. But the other side of this scenario is that although political power has been in the hands of the Black majority since the 1994 elections, the White minority wields economic power. Thus the gap between poor and rich is also a gap between Black and White, and this has repercussions for the churches.
The political responses of most White Pentecostals have been considerably influenced by the ‘Religious Right’ in the United States, but for Black Pentecostals, this influence is minimal. Prominent North American ‘televangelists’ Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson and Kenneth Copeland visited the country in the 1980s and were among those who seemed to add their support to the beleaguered White government. The largest and wealthiest congregations in the nation are predominantly White, middle class, independent Charismatic churches in the Gauteng heartland, the best known being the Rhema Bible Church in Randburg near Johannesburg and the Hatfield Christian Church founded by Edmund Roebert in Pretoria and now led by Francois van Niekerk. Both churches are White-led and both proclaim a gospel of prosperity and health, especially Ray McCauley’s Rhema with origins in the Rhema ‘faith movement’ of Kenneth Hagin in Tulsa, Oklahoma. These churches have assets worth millions, while for the vast majority of (Black) Pentecostals such wealth is an elusive dream. The White Pentecostals live in a totally different world from that of their Black counterparts, and this is not only true of newer ‘Charismatic’ churches but of ‘classical’ Pentecostal denominations too. With few exceptions, Black and White Pentecostals failed to overtly confront the political structures that oppressed them, and sometimes they even supported them.
The history of South African Pentecostalism is well known and will not detain us further, except to say that it was mainly Black, rather than White pioneers who were responsible for its rapid growth. It expanded initially among oppressed African people who were neglected, misunderstood, and deprived of anything but token leadership by their White Pentecostal ‘masters’, who had apparently ignored biblical concepts like the priesthood of believers and the equality of humankind. The major Pentecostal denominations were mostly created by White South Africans with a small number of foreign missionaries, but national African leadership was not given space to emerge, eventually resulting in secessions of independent Zionist and Apostolic churches and increasing distance between Black and White Pentecostals in the same denomination. The secessions from the AFM marked the beginning of the independent African Pentecostal churches, which mushroomed from some 30 churches in 1913 to 3,000 by 1970, and to over 6,000 by 1990. The percentage of the African population comprising members of the AICs has dramatically increased from 21% in 1960 to 30% in 1980, and to 46% in 1991— an extremely significant section of the South African population.
Pentecostals, like other churches in South Africa at this time, yielded to the pressures of White society and developed racially segregated churches.The AFM is a striking example of the differences in outlooks of White and Black members of the same church. From the founding of the church in 1908, power was vested in the all-White executive council. A vice-president of the church until 1969, Gerrie Wessels, became a National Party senator in 1955, and the wife of a government minister and later State President, Jim Fouché, was a member of the church. Only Whites could be legal members until 1991, when a new constitution allowed for two sections in the church. For the first time in eighty years, although White churches remained separate, Blacks were legal members of the AFM. Political factors kept the two sections apart until the media-hyped unity celebration in 1996, when newly elected president Isak Burger embraced Vice-president Frank Chikane and apologized for the sins of his people. The AOG, organized in 1925 and for a long time not affiliated to the Assemblies of God in the USA, was initially a Black church controlled by White missionaries. In 1938, when Nicholas Bhengu and his associates joined the movement, the stage was set for the future participation of Black leaders in the national executive of the AOG, a unique feature among Pentecostal churches at the time. In 1950 Bhengu launched the ‘Back to God Crusade,’ and the many autonomous congregations that sprung from this movement soon constituted the AOG majority. Unlike the other major Pentecostal churches, the AOG was not divided into separate ‘mother’ (White) and ‘daughter’ (Black) churches. The division of the organization was into different autonomous associations or ‘groups’ as a result of the work of particularly gifted leaders and missionaries. These ‘groups,’ however, were mostly divided on racial lines and reflected the divisions in South African society.
White-controlled Pentecostal denominations were at least sympathetic to the government that guaranteed their continued dominance and privilege. The oppression of the majority of South Africans in this political system went unnoticed and participation in politics (other than in the politics of the White government) was ‘sinful.’ The swart gevaar (‘Black danger’) was thought to be everywhere present. African nationalism and Black political aspirations were ‘Communist’ inspired, evil invisible forces, and therefore part of the ‘Antichrist’ system that would destroy ‘genuine’ Christianity. The glaring structural sin of the apartheid system was unrecognized, and those Christians who dared speak against it were at best ‘liberals’, but more often were declared to be dangerous, Communist-inspired proponents of ‘liberation theology’, another anti-Christian ideology that amounted to the seduction of ‘biblical’ Christianity by evil forces. This was the prevalent view, and most White Pentecostals preferred the status quo. Black Pentecostals were also affected by this attitude, although they developed their own strategies for survival as the oppressed in this abnormal and violent society. Yet AFM pioneer Elias Letwaba, like many Africans of his time, raised no objection to racist affronts and fostered the apolitical attitude that characterized some (but not all) Pentecostals under the apartheid system.Nicholas Bhengu, a former African nationalist, pioneered the AOG’s transformation to an indigenous African church. He didn’t often make socio-political pronouncements, but believed that Black people would liberated from political and economic oppression through the gospel. Bhengu didn’t challenge the status quo, was described by some African nationalists as a ‘sell-out,’ and received several threats to his life. Like so many other Pentecostal leaders, Bhengu believed that political activity was futile and forbade his members any political affiliation. Similarly, influential Zulu AFM leader in the 1970s, Richard Ngidi, was known for his opposition to involvement in politics, which furthered the traditional apolitical feeling in the AFM. Ngidi would not allow any discussion on what he perceived to be political matters. This was probably due to the prevailing view in the AFM (and, in fact, in most Pentecostal circles) that involvement in politics was ‘sinful.’ Ngidi was, therefore, a product of his environment. Joseph Kobo, a convert of Bhengu, had to resign his church ministry in order to join the freedom struggle, and perceived himself as having ‘backslidden’ when he did so. Although he remained sympathetic to the liberation movement after his reconversion, he had to cease his active involvement in order to become a Pentecostal minister again in 1983. Secretary General of the ANC turned business magnate, Cyril Ramaphosa, who headed the ANC negotiation team in the period leading to the 1994 elections, was formerly a Pentecostal and at university was chair of the local Student Christian Movement, but once again, his political activities were seen as inconsistent with his Christian faith.
Mobilizing the Invisible Powers
The creative combination of Pentecostalism with Christian fundamentalism and African religion is characteristic of most forms of Pentecostalism in southern Africa. Inheriting a form of pre-millenialism from its North American roots, the worldview of this form of African Christianity was pessimistic and escapist, and this resonated well with the African experience of oppression, affliction and poverty— and above all, with a keen sense of powerlessness. The White regime was controlled by invisible powers beyond the strength of the Black majority to resist, and like Pentecostals in Latin America, they held back from politics because they were poor and outsiders to the political process.Unlike Black Christians in ‘mainline’ denominations, they were often excluded from the forum of the South African Council of Churches with the support of the worldwide ecumenical movement. As a result, their voice was seldom heard in international circles, and the impression was thus created that they were supporters of the system. Despite tendencies towards escapism, the power of the Spirit enabled them to cope in a hostile environment and to assert their human dignity in an inhuman world. The Spirit gave them confidence and authority to work for God, and bypassed the restrictive laws of the Whites, affirming their humanity against a system that denied it. The Spirit also enabled the poor and excluded, including Black women, to be leaders in the only community where the exercise of such leadership was possible. It may be idealistic to suggest that paramount in the minds of Black Pentecostals were issues of socio-economic or political liberation. This, as Jean Comaroff has pointed out, was usually implied rather than expressed. Some African Pentecostals established cities of ‘Zion,’ meccas for spiritual pilgrimage and centers of ritual power. The leader of the church becomes a liberating Moses figure who leads his (and rarely, her) people out of bondage into the promised land, the ‘new Jerusalem,’ where freedom from sickness, evil spirits, sorcery, oppression and all kinds of affliction is achieved. There too, in effect, is created an alternative ‘government in exile’ in microcosm. In theological terms, this is a ‘realized eschatology,’ where the distinction between the ‘not yet’ and the ‘already’ is blurred, and where people are urged to take their eyes off ‘worldly’ things like politics, poverty and social oppression.
But this is not the whole story. As in Latin America, in South Africa most African members of all varieties of Pentecostalism are poor and until recently, marginalized. Without access to the corridors of political power, they retreated to an escapist spirituality where their symbolic protest of cultural resistance was all that was available. After the unbanning of political parties and the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, however, Pentecostals began to discover their political clout and to realize their potential to change the public space with their massive vote. At the same time in neighboring Zambia, Pentecostal President Chiluba’s proclamation of Zambia as a ‘Christian nation’ in 1991 heartened their resolve that by the power of the Spirit they could substantially mobilize the invisible forces of the Spirit to occupy and bring the kingdom of God to this public space. The benefits began to outweigh the disadvantages of such participation. Black Pentecostals, frustrated and angered by the non-involvement and complicity of their White counterparts, began to seek new ways of invading the public space.
The paramount example of the tensions in the disparate elements of the apartheid society is the Zion Christian Church. Since being registered with the South African government in 1943, the ZCC enjoyed the favor of the ruling regime. The apartheid government from 1948 adopted a policy of ‘non-interference’ in the affairs of Black churches, which in effect meant encouraging the development of churches totally ‘independent’ of what were sometimes seen as troublesome mission churches. The development of these separate churches was seen as in complete harmony with the apartheid ideology, which opposed any sort of social mixing, including integrated churches. Matthew Schoffeleers suggests that African churches in South Africa may have gone through ‘a process of progressive de-politicization.’ Most African church leaders, including the ZCC bishop, generally took a ‘neutral’ stance and forbade members active participation in structured political activities. But the realities were a little more complex. During research in the northern Pretoria satellite township of Soshanguve in 1991-95, although there was certainly evidence of de-politicization among Pentecostals, an even greater degree of political awareness was emerging among ordinary South Africans at that time, after decades of press censorship, propaganda, institutionalized violence and banned political organizations. A few African Pentecostals said that Christians should not take part in politics, but should pray for the political situation. It appeared that Black Pentecostals expressed their political convictions at that time more by their participation in trade unions and civic associations (alternative local authorities) than in structured political parties. In a survey in 1992, 45% of ‘classical’ and ‘new’ Pentecostals would have voted for the African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party since 1994, and 43% of African Zionist and Apostolic churches. In total, over half of all Pentecostals were supporters of African nationalist organizations, especially the ANC. This percentage is likely to be much higher today after two democratic national elections, as the de-politicization of ordinary African people is less of a restricting factor.
Because of the intense involvement of Pentecostals in their church communities, this is potentially one of the most dynamic forces for the mobilization of the political imagination. The approaches of the apartheid regime to the ZCC during the 1980s culminating in the visit by South African President PW Botha to the Easter Festival in 1985, reinforced the popular perception that the ZCC was a supporter of the apartheid system. It is true that ZCC leaders generally took an apolitical stance and forbade their members participation in structured political activities. Yet the ZCC attempted to play a role in the changes that took place in the early 1990s. One ZCC member wrote, ‘All the ZCC bishops through all the generations of the church have consistently preached racial harmony and reconciliation,’ and this has become a prominent emphasis in the church’s mass gatherings. The visit of the nation’s three most significant political leaders to the ZCC’s Easter Festival in 1992 (Mandela, de Klerk and Buthelezi) at the invitation of Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane was surely a manifestation of the changing attitudes sweeping over all South Africans. This was a pragmatic effort on the part of the ZCC bishop to play a constructive role in the negotiations then being conducted, and thereby to help promote peace during a time of violent strife. Each politician was keen to seem supportive of this enormous African church and to solicit the ZCC vote, and each was invited to address the assembled throng. None had ever spoken at such a large gathering of hundreds of thousands. Most significantly, Mandela received the greatest ovation and made reference in his speech to prominent ANC officials who were members of the ZCC. And yet, the afternoon’s pageant belonged to Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane, the real focal point of the proceedings, rather than any of the three political leaders present. The politicians were on his turf and had to take careful note of what he had to say. Lekganyane, who was playing a significant role in the negotiation politics of the time, was clearly the most influential personality on this occasion and the moment was supremely his. His followers hung on his every word as he admonished the political leaders for their ‘warmongering’ and inflammatory speeches, saying that leaders had responsibility to stop the carnage in South African townships. His members would support those leaders who stood for peace and reconciliation, he declared, for the ZCC was pre-eminently a church of peace. Mandela was patently the leader closest to this ideal, and subsequent events have placed most ZCC members squarely behind the ANC government.
The historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), held between 1996 and 1998, was chaired by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. This unique event was also a watershed for the Pentecostal and Zionist churches, especially as their significance in the national life was recognized by an invitation to address the TRC in November 1997. The ZCC in the person of Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane attended, although as expected, Lekganyane did not address the Commission himself. Unlike other church leaders, the bishop’s spokesman did not confess past failings, but expressed concern about the violence and crime in the nation and asked for the temporary return of the death penalty. Both the IFCC and the AFM made representations to the TRC on behalf of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. Ray McCauley, representing the IFCC, confessed the ‘shortcomings’ of White Charismatics who ‘hid behind their so-called spirituality while closing their eyes to the dark events of the apartheid years.’ The AFM was represented by both Isak Burger and Frank Chikane. After showing a video of the historic unity celebration earlier that year, they confessed that they ‘jointly accepted responsibility for the past’ and had ‘helped maintain the system of apartheid and prolong the agony.’ The representations of the IFCC and the AFM indicate that a significant change of view had taken place, and that the apartheid government was now seen as part of the evil invisible forces that had been overcome by good forces of reconciliation and truth.
Public Space and Invisible Forces
The scenario of a country where a political elite control the public space and where ordinary people do not have access to corridors of political power is probably still true of the new South Africa. But this is one of the world’s newest democracies, still recovering from the effects of centuries of unjust minority domination and oppression, and it is still too early to say which way the Pentecostal influence will go. As a whole, the South African Pentecostal movement, in spite of its witness to spiritual freedom, acquiesced in the midst of the social evils in South Africa. The original integrated fellowship was short-lived, and Africans were denied basic human rights in the very churches where they had found freedom in the Spirit. White Pentecostals either became active supporters of the regime or considered any involvement in political structures as ‘worldly’ and therefore, sinful. Many African Pentecostals silently withdrew to the independent church movements or to their newfound Pentecostal spirituality that remained otherworldly for the most part or used ritual as a form of cultural resistance. There was a certain tension between this spirituality, based on democratic principles of human freedom and equality offering participation to all in the life of the community, and the view of politics as part of a ‘sinful’ universe that could not be resisted. The acceptance of the status quo, of social segregation and political elitism is still a feature of South African Pentecostalism in the 21st Century, with its roots in a marginalized and underprivileged society struggling to find dignity and identity. Pentecostalism was often felt to be politically immature and conservative, and therefore irrelevant. But more fundamental was the question of how the Pentecostals imagined the public space. For most of them, the public space was occupied by evil forces that needed to be overcome by weapons like prayer, speaking in tongues, and ‘spiritual warfare.’ With the dawning of democracy in 1994, Pentecostals began a paradigm shift. Those conservative Whites who had seen the old order as a ‘good force’ now saw the ANC government as an ‘evil’ force, while for the majority, the good had overcome the evil and Christian principles had prevailed in the public space. It was now a short step to active participation by Pentecostals like Frank Chikane and Kenneth Meshoe in the public space itself. The public space was on the road to becoming a place where the good forces could dominate.
Because of its ability to adapt to and fulfill African religious aspirations and to utilize popular cultural artifacts, and its doctrine of the Spirit which encourages full participation in the life of the community for those of any social background, Pentecostalism has become the major force in South African Christianity. Through its often-egalitarian structures it has become a potent force in the establishment of democracy, even though the vast majority of its members remain marginalized and outside the public space. Nevertheless, Pentecostal churches are rapidly gaining in strength and their influence on the public space far outweighs their numbers. In spite of a prevalent tendency towards political elitism, Pentecostals have found themselves being wooed by ‘secular’ politicians and are themselves beginning to occupy significant positions among the political elite.
The rapid increase in urbanization and the socio-political oppression of Black South Africans between 1960 and 1990 may be one reason for the remarkable growth of Pentecostalism during this time. The insecurities inherent in rapid urbanization provide strong incentives for people separated from their roots to seek new, culturally and socially meaningful religious expressions, especially in a society where there was no access to the instruments of social and political power. The increasing disillusionment experienced by Black people in South Africa’s political matrix resulted in a rejection of European values and religious expressions such as those found in ‘mainline’ churches. As Jean Comaroff has demonstrated, the Zionist churches were ‘a more radical expression of cultural resistance’ for those dispossessed by colonialism than that of the more orthodox Protestant churches. She sees the symbols of Zionist ritual as an enduring form of resistance to White hegemony, ‘returning to the displaced a tangible identity and the power to impose coherence upon a disarticulated world.’ Comaroff’s study suggests that the forms of socio-political protest exhibited by this ‘cultural resistance’ are implicit rather than explicit, but are nevertheless all-pervasive. This is true of all kinds of African Pentecostalism, which have not yet adjusted to the new political freedom, but this preoccupation with ‘cultural resistance’ may be one of the reasons why the ZCC could not contribute much more than to protest about violence to the TRC. The prolongation of this ‘cultural resistance’ mindset, although not as escapist as the ‘evil forces’ mindset of the White Pentecostals, nevertheless may be out of touch with the new political realities.
Stereotypes, such as that of ‘apoliticism,’ are difficult to maintain. A survey conducted in 1992-3 during my research in Soshanguve indicated that although there might have been slightly more apoliticism among Pentecostals than among the general population, a significant number of Pentecostals interviewed were supporters of the ANC and other nationalist organizations. When members were asked if the church or its members should involve themselves in political matters, there was no clearly discernible pattern linking one or other church with a particular political stance. Many felt that the church should be involved, as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Others were just as adamant that the church should keep out of politics— mostly because the church leader had said so and not for any particular reason. Some were concerned by the seeming lack of political awareness in their church and especially among their pastors. One member was disturbed by the fact that an event of such enormous import as the release of Nelson Mandela was not even mentioned in his church at the time. He felt that the church should keep abreast of what was happening in the public world, because the church was not an island. Pentecostals expressed their political convictions quite freely during these interviews. One felt that Christians should involve themselves in political matters so that a just government could be established based on ‘the laws of God.’ The Christians alone had the answers to bring peace and security to the land. Although he made this appeal to a ‘politics of the Spirit,’ he said that the ANC was the best government to bring this about. If the ANC stuck to the principles of the Freedom Charter then the country would be in safe hands. Another said that the church should be involved in political matters after the pattern of Frank Chikane and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. If the church didn’t get involved, people could easily be deceived. This was an oft-expressed view. Pentecostals felt that by allowing Christians to participate in political activity, the church was thereby able to exert its influence on the world. The good ‘invisible forces’ were able to invade and eventually subjugate the evil ones.
African Pentecostal churches of all kinds are concerned to provide for holistic needs in many different ways, especially in helping their poor members and thereby assisting in the creation of a transnational middle class in more recent years. Therefore, some churches form funeral societies, maintain bursary funds for the education of their children, and provide assistance for members in financial distress. Some churches have ‘welfare committees’ responsible for feeding and clothing the poor and destitute. The ZCC has a nation-wide ‘ZCC Burial Assurance Fund’ and a ‘ZCC Literacy Campaign’ with adult education centers scattered throughout the country. As Martin West pointed out concerning African churches in Soweto, so Pentecostal churches ‘meet many of the needs of townspeople which were formerly met by kin groups on a smaller scale in rural areas.’ West’s observation of ways in which the social needs of church members are met in an urban setting is still appropriate. The church as a ‘voluntary association’ provides its members with a sense of family, friendship (providing support groups in times of insecurity), protection in the form of leadership (and particularly charismatic leadership), social control (by emphasizing and enforcing certain norms of behavior), and in practical ways like employment, mutual aid in times of personal crisis, and leadership opportunities. The churches thus provide for their members ‘new bases for social organization.’ The result of this on the social life and the public space is much greater than the church leaders have anticipated, and certainly goes far beyond their individual pronouncements and moral platitudes on these issues.
In the Soshanguve survey, Pentecostals were asked what they thought was the most urgent national problem needing a solution, and their answers revealed an awareness of social issues involved at that time. People spoke about the violence in the country, the need for political leaders to talk to each other and negotiate for peace, the problems of education, the shortage of housing and the rampant unemployment. The issue of the prevalent violence was probably uppermost in people’s minds. Christians interviewed from all churches said that there needed to be a real and lasting peace. Some felt that the church had a responsibility to bring peace about. Most members felt that the church should not be involved in violence as a means of political protest, as there were certain boundaries that could not be crossed by Christians. People wanted to see the government provide more houses for the homeless and for those inadequately housed. The problem of unemployment also raised the issue of unequal opportunities between Blacks and Whites— Blacks should receive equal pay for equal work, said one respondent. One said that apartheid must be done away with ‘in practice and not just in theory.’ On the question, ‘What sort of government would you like to see in the new South Africa?’, answers were varied. Most Pentecostals wanted a government that would serve the interests of the people first and foremost, where everyone would have the right to vote and would be free from oppression, and where people would be accorded equal value in the eyes of the authorities. Most members said that they would like all the different political parties to come together and be represented in a future government clear support for the ‘government of national unity’ created in 1994. Some people didn’t want to see a situation arising where a new form of oppression would result, with one political group oppressing the others. The research showed that members of Pentecostal churches were no less aware of or involved in political issues than members of other churches were. It appears that in South Africa, members of African Pentecostal churches have shared to some extent in the struggle for liberation.
The political repercussions of the rapidly changing South Africa in the 1990s were felt throughout Pentecostal churches, manifesting in agitation for united structures and equality of leadership opportunities. This resulted in increasing pressure for change on White Pentecostal leaders and the gradual emergence of Black Pentecostals in church leadership and in the political arena. One of the South African Pentecostalism’s best known figures, Frank Chikane, is an example of the few South African Pentecostals who struggled against apartheid and unjust structures both within and outside the church. Chikane, former General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches and president of the AFM’s Composite Division, by 1999 was vice-president of a united AFM, and had been appointed by President Thabo Mbeki as Director General in the Office of the President. Chikane, son of an AFM pastor in Soweto, considers himself ‘Pentecostal’ in every sense of the word. Between 1977 and 1982, he was detained without trial four times— on two occasions for over seven months, and once he was interrogated by a White deacon in his own church. His continued involvement in the freedom struggle and his community projects brought confrontation with the conservative AFM leadership, who in 1981 suspended him ‘from full-time service’ for ‘one year’ and did not reinstate him until 1990, after intense pressure. Ordained AFM ministers were supposed to reject participation in political activities. In 1993, when elected President of the new AFM Composite Division, he had come full circle from excommunication to the church’s highest office bearer, albeit in the Black section of this church. Since 1995, Chikane has become a high profile diplomat in the ANC administration and one of the most influential people in the country’s political and ecclesiastical life. This has brought him increasing criticism from conservatives in the AFM, some even calling for his resignation at the 1999 annual church conference. Perhaps Gerrie Wessels, National Party senator in the apartheid government and also AFM vice-president, was forgotten.
There were other signs of Pentecostal resistance to apartheid. At least half of the signatories in The Evangelical Witness, drawn up by the Concerned Evangelicals in 1986 as a reaction to the political conservatism in Evangelicalism were Pentecostals, an ‘important document in the struggle against apartheid.’ In 1988, a group of Pentecostals drew up a similar document called The Relevant Pentecostal Witness, which was more specifically a Pentecostal stance against apartheid and the theology justifying the status quo or acquiescing before it. Part of the driving force behind this movement was a reminder of the non-racial origins of the Pentecostal movement and a theology of the Spirit motivating a preference for the poor and oppressed. A significant number of Pentecostals were involved in the Rustenburg Declaration of 1990 calling for an end to apartheid and the creation of a democratic society. There were other, less public protests. An independent Pentecostal college, Tshwane Christian College, gave shelter to students from White-dominated theological colleges who had been expelled for political reasons in 1989-90. One of the graduates from this college, Jan Mathibela, was chair of the Winterveld civic association and from 1994-99, ANC mayor of Winterveld, one of the largest and poorest of the informal housing settlements in the country.
There were other signs of Black Pentecostal participation in the public sphere. In the 1994 elections, a Pentecostal pastor, Kenneth Meshoe, leader of the newly-formed African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), was elected with one other representative to the national parliament. Representation of the ACDP in parliament after the 1999 elections increased to six, polling more votes (1.5% of the national vote) than several other opposition parties, including the left-wing PAC and AZAPO. Although Meshoe is seen in political circles as somewhat of a political novice and conservative moralist, the ACDP was taken seriously enough for President Mbeki to devote part of a major parliamentary speech attacking it. It could be said that Pentecostals dominate the ACDP, but it remains to be seen whether this party will play any more significant role in future South African politics. Meshoe himself returns from his parliamentary office in Cape Town every weekend to pastor his church in Vosloorus, a Black dormitory township in east Gauteng. The former President of the ‘Bantustan’ Bophuthatswana, Lucas Mangope, is a member of the Assemblies of God, and leader of the smaller United Christian Democratic Party, which has three seats in parliament. These two parties undoubtedly benefit from significant, albeit a minority of Pentecostal support, but they may be a further indication of the increasing participation of Pentecostals in public life, albeit on the more conservative side of the political spectrum.
Many forms of African Pentecostalism have liberated Christianity from the foreignness of European cultural forms. A sympathetic approach to African life and culture, fears and uncertainties, and an engagement with the African world of invisible forces, have been major attractions of these churches to people oriented to a world of both evil and good spirits. This is accentuated in the South African Black townships today, where rapid urbanization and industrialization have thrown people into a strange, impersonal, and insecure world where they are left groping for a sense of belonging. Pentecostal churches, with their firm commitment to a cohesive community and their offer of full participation to all, provide substantially for this universal human need in a positive response to the problems of modernity. They give solutions to basic human problems, especially healing from sickness and deliverance from a seemingly malevolent and capricious invisible world. Above all, they offer a baptism of power that enables a person to overcome the threatening world of unpredictable ancestors, spiteful sorcerers, and inherently dangerous witchcraft. The spirituality of Pentecostalism was in fact a new and holistic approach to Christianity that appealed to the African imagination more than older forms of Protestant Christianity had done. The bestowal of spiritual power was the means by which ordinary people could become part of an egalitarian community where social distinctions on the basis of theological elitism became blurred, and where (in some cases) the social distinctions were further leveled by the use of universal uniforms worn by all the faithful. The Pentecostal experience of the power of the Spirit is a unifying factor in a still deeply divided society, the motivation for social and political engagement, and the catalyst for change in the emergence of a new order. It has become the means by which Pentecostals imagine the triumph of good over evil in all areas of public space. But the question remains to what extent has the rather ambiguous Pentecostal vision of equality and freedom been integrated with a concern to see these ‘good’ forces invade and subjugate the evil ones of political elitism and greed? The future will tell, for Pentecostals in South Africa will continue to be a force to be reckoned with.
This article appears in a modified form as “Public Space and Invisible Forces: Pentecostals and Politics in South Africa,” André Corten & André Mary (eds)Imaginaires Politiques et Pentecôtisme: Afrique/ Amérique Latine, Paris: Karthala, forthcoming.
Another 30% of the population belonged to Protestant churches and 12% were Catholics. Percentages given are very approximate estimates, based on available statistics, and do not include the numbers of people in Protestant and Catholic churches who would be “Charismatic.” See Allan Anderson & Samuel Otwang, Tumelo: The Faith of African Pentecostals in South Africa, Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 1993, 3-9, 14-5.
Walter J. Hollenweger, The Pentecostals, London: SCM Press, 1972, 120; Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century. London: Cassell, 1996, 246; Allan Anderson, Zion and Pentecost: The Spirituality and Experience of Pentecostal and Zionist/Apostolic Churches in South Africa. Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 2000, ch. 1.
For recent information on South African Pentecostalism as well as historical detail, see Anderson, Zion and Pentecost.
Allan Anderson, “The prosperity message in the eschatology of some new Charismatic churches in South Africa,” Missionalia 15:2, 1987, 72-83.
Allan H. Anderson, Zion and Pentecost; Allan H. Anderson & Gerald J. Pillay, “The Segregated Spirit: The Pentecostals,” Richard Elphick & Rodney Davenport (eds), Christianity in South Africa: A Political, Social & Cultural History. Oxford: James Currey & Cape Town: David Philip, 1997, 227-41; Allan H. Anderson, “Dangerous Memories for South African Pentecostals,” Allan H. Anderson, & Walter J. Hollenweger (eds), Pentecostals after a Century: Global Perspectives on a Movement in Transition. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999, 89-107; BGM Sundkler, Zulu Zion and Some Swazi Zionists. London: Oxford, 30, 51-3; BGM Sundkler 1961, Bantu Prophets in South Africa. Oxford: Oxford, 1976, 48; C. Peter Watt, From Africa’s Soil: The Story of the Assemblies of God in Southern Africa. Cape Town: Struik, 1992, 20-1; Chris R. deWet, “The Apostolic Faith Mission in Africa: 1908-1980. A case study in church growth in a segregated society,” PhD thesis, University of Cape Town, 1989, 64.
Martin West, Bishops and Prophets in a Black City. Cape Town: David Philip, 1975, 2; JJ Kritzinger, Die Onvoltooide Sendingtaak in die PWV Gebied. Pretoria: University of Pretoria, 1984, 170; Central Statistical Services, Pretoria Population Census 1991. “Summarised results before adjustment for undercount,” 1992, 121-3; Allan H. Anderson, Bazalwane: African Pentecostals in South Africa, Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 1992, 58-9.
DeWet, 34, 38-9, 161, 311; IS van der Merwe Burger, Geloofsgeskiedenis van die Apostoliese Geloofsending van Suid-Africa 1908-1958. Johannesburg: Evangelie Uitgewers, 1988, 167, 175; Allan H. Anderson, “The Lekganyanes and Prophecy in the Zion Christian Church,” Journal of Religion in Africa, 29:3, 1999, 285-312.
Anderson, Bazalwane, 78-82.
Watt, 22, 39, 57; Anderson, Bazalwane, 85-8.
Anderson, Bazalwane, 38-9.
Watt, 112, 178; Allie A. Dubb, Community of the Saved: An African Revivalist Church in the East Cape. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1976, 119-20.
DeWet, 69-70, 143.
Joseph Kobo, Waiting in the Wings. Milton Keynes: Nelson Word, 1994.
Edward L. Cleary, “Introduction: Pentecostals, Prominence, and Politics,” E.L. Cleary & H.W. Stewart-Gambino (eds), Power, Politics, and Pentecostals in Latin America. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997, 13.
Comaroff, 254, 261.
Paul Gifford, African Christianity: Its Public Role, London: Hurst, 1998, 197.
Matthew Schoffeleers, “Ritual Healing and Political Acquiescence: The Case of the Zionist Churches in Southern Africa,” Africa 60 (1), 1991, 5.
Anderson, Bazalwane; Anderson & Otwang, 59, 64, 144, 152. The survey of 1992 is the latest available indication of political preferences, as there have not, to my knowledge, been any soundings of the vote of Pentecostals in the two national elections of 1994 and 1999.
JRL Rafapa, “Consistency in the ZCC,” in The ZCC Messenger 22, 1992, 6.
Anderson, “The Lekganyanes,” 294-5.
Piet Meiring, Chronicle of the Truth Commission. Vanderbijlpark: Carpe Diem Books, 1999, 275-7.
Jean Comaroff, Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance, Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1985, 166.
Anderson & Otwang, 58-62.
Anderson & Otwang, 62-3.
Frank Chikane, No Life of my Own, Johannesburg: Skotaville, 1988, 49, 77, 182; Ron Sider, “Interview with Rev Frank Chikane,” in Transformation 5(2), 1988, 9-12; Anderson, Zion and Pentecost.
J Nico Horn, “The Experience of the Spirit in Apartheid South Africa,” Azusa 1(1), 1990, 31.
Rustenburg Declaration: National Conference of Churches in South Africa, Pretoria: National Initiative for Reconciliation, 1990.
 “How the opposition parties fared,” Daily Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, December 23, 1999 [www.mg.co.za/mg/news/].
Anderson, Allan, ‘The prosperity message in the eschatology of some new Charismatic churches in South Africa,’ Missionalia 15:2, 1987, 72-83.
Anderson, Allan, Bazalwane: African Pentecostals in South Africa, Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 1992.
Anderson, Allan & Otwang, Samuel, Tumelo: The Faith of African Pentecostals in South Africa, Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 1993.
Anderson, Allan & Pillay, Gerald J., ‘The Segregated Spirit: The Pentecostals,’ Richard Elphick & Rodney Davenport (eds), Christianity in South Africa: A Political, Social & Cultural History. Oxford: James Currey & Cape Town: David Philip, 1997, 227-41.
Anderson, Allan, ‘The Lekganyanes and Prophecy in the Zion Christian Church,’ Journal of Religion in Africa, 29:3, 1999, 285-312.
Anderson, Allan, ‘Dangerous Memories for South African Pentecostals,’ Allan H. Anderson, & Walter J. Hollenweger (eds), Pentecostals after a Century: Global Perspectives on a Movement in Transition. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999, 89-107.
Anderson, Allan, Zion and Pentecost: The Spirituality and Experience of Pentecostal and Zionist/ Apostolic Churches in South Africa. Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 2000.
Burger, IS vdM, Geloofsgeskiedenis van die Apostoliese Geloofsending van Suid-Africa 1908-1958. Johannesburg: Evangelie Uitgewers, 1988.
Central Statistical Services, Pretoria, Population Census 1991. ‘Summarised results before adjustment for undercount,’ 1992.
Chikane, Frank, No Life of my Own, Johannesburg: Skotaville, 1988.
Cleary, Edward L., ‘Introduction: Pentecostals, Prominence and Politics’, E.L. Cleary & H.W. Stewart-Gambino (eds), Power, Politics, and Pentecostals in Latin America, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997, 1-24.
Comaroff, Jean, Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance, Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Cox, Harvey, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century. London: Cassell, 1996.
DeWet, Chris R., ‘The Apostolic Faith Mission in Africa: 1908-1980. A case study in church growth in a segregated society,’ PhD thesis, University of Cape Town, 1989.
Dubb, Allie A., Community of the Saved: An African Revivalist Church in the East Cape. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1976.
Gifford, Paul, African Christianity: Its Public Role, London: Hurst, 1998.
Hollenweger, Walter J., The Pentecostals, London: SCM Press, 1972.
Horn, J. Nico, ‘The Experience of the Spirit in Apartheid South Africa,’ Azusa 1(1), 1990, 31-6.
Kobo, Joseph, Waiting in the Wings. Milton Keynes: Nelson Word, 1994.
Kritzinger, J.J., Die Onvoltooide Sendingtaak in die PWV Gebied. Pretoria: University of Pretoria, 1984.
Meiring, Piet, Chronicle of the Truth Commission. Vanderbijlpark: Carpe Diem Books, 1999.
Rafapa, JRL, ‘Consistency in the ZCC,’ The ZCC Messenger 22, 1992, 6-7.
Rustenburg Declaration: National Conference of Churches in South Africa, Pretoria: National Initiative for Reconciliation, 1990.
Schoffeleers, Matthew, ‘Ritual Healing and Political Acquiescence: The Case of the Zionist Churches in Southern Africa,’ Africa 60 (1), 1991, 1-25.
Sider, Ron, ‘Interview with Rev Frank Chikane,’ in Transformation 5(2), 1988, 9-12.
Sundkler, BGM, Bantu Prophets in South Africa. Oxford: Oxford, 1961.
Sundkler, BGM, Zulu Zion and Some Swazi Zionists. London: Oxford, 1976.
Watt, C. Peter, From Africa’s Soil: The Story of the Assemblies of God in Southern Africa. Cape Town: Struik, 1992.
West, Martin, Bishops and Prophets in a Black City. Cape Town: David Philip, 1975.
© 11 September, 2000 , Allan H. Anderson