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Religion scores over democracy

The mixture of Christian religious fundamentalism and traditional African authority is becoming controversial in the run up to a new national constitution.
James Hall

"Although the whole world is preaching democracy, it does not mean we have to follow them," Swaziland’s ruler, King Mswati told 400 pastors assembled at Engabezweni royal village, 25 km east of Mbabane, the capital, recently.

He had just heard religious leaders preach in favour of an absolute monarchy, and in this spirit he described democracy as a "fashion" that has taken hold of the world, but which has no place in his kingdom.

Reverend Mkhuluza Zwane was one of the most forceful speakers condemning democracy, and like other religious leaders he quoted chapter and verse to make his point. "There is not a single verse in the Bible which says there should be a president ruling a country," he said. Zwane was one of the pastors from the dozens of religious sects in this small country that combine fundamentalist Christian tenants with traditional African spiritual beliefs.

Religious leaders of mainstream Christian denominations, who were not invited to the prayer meeting, tended to roll their eyes later at the pronouncements that arose from the royal village. "It was a political rally, not a prayer session," noted one Catholic priest. "As for the simplistic ‘theology,’ the Bible does not mention presidents in the same manner the Bible does not mention television or automobiles "these did not exist at the time of the scripture writers."

Reverend Zwane did indeed sound more like a politician supporting a cause when he declared before the king, "When people are given the right to choose, they always choose evil. There are people who are sponsored to dethrone you, Your Majesty, and these are the people who advocate for democracy."

Talk of conspiracies to dethrone a monarch is always alarming at any palace, but another key speaker, Reverend Khayeni Khumalo, went even further when he told King Mswati that citizens of democratic states will be surprised to find that they will be denied admission to heaven. "A king links a country with God. A president cannot communicate with God because God does not know how he was installed," Khumalo declared. "Presidents are power-hungry people who are like rapists, they break in and rule. They are imposed. Many presidents are going to hell, together with their people, no matter how many they are," he said.

In reply, King Mswati seemed pleased that his manner of governance had found endorsement in Holy Writ. He told the pastors, "It is good that you have quoted verses from the bible which do not support multi-party democracy." In conclusion, the king said, "Democracy is not good for us because God gave us our own way of doing things."

The meeting of religious leaders who head Christian sects that represent the monarchy’s key grassroots support was important for its timing. During a trip to London, the king announced a new national constitution would be presented in June. Overdue by five years, the constitution is being written by royal authorities in the name of the Swazi people, and by all accounts it will permanently enshrine the governing powers of the Swazi king.

Pro-democracy groups have already decried the imminent constitution as a "non-starter" but their numbers are overwhelmed by a peasant majority and members of religious sects. The pastors, in their support of the monarchy, will be pressing the case for the new constitution to their followers. The palace has always welcomed such support, which is founded on the sects’ gratitude to royal authorities for ensuring their existence.

According to historian JSM Matsebula, British colonial authorities wanted to ban "Christian/Zionist African" sects in the 1930s, believing they were not truly Christian at all, but practiced animist and cult beliefs under the guise of Christianity. Indeed, speaking in tongues and ancestral worship comprise part of the sects’ theology today.

The sects attend the most important and sacred event of the Swazi calendar, which is shunned by mainstream religious leaders: the Incwala pageant. The Incwala is held at the beginning of summer, and is also known as the Rite of the First Fruits. The king goes into seclusion for a month, and elaborate rites are conducted to petition the national ancestral spirits (emadloti) for good rains and national prosperity. The ancestors are also asked to endow the king with wisdom. In Swazi culture, the king embodies the Swazi nation in an almost mystical manner.

During the recent prayer summit at Engabezweni royal village, several pastors discovered passages in the Bible that they said endorsed the Incwala pageant. It was King Sobhuza, King Mswati’s father, who convinced British colonial authorities to leave the burgeoning Christian sects alone. Most members of the royal household consider themselves practicing Christians, although they devotedly lead the Incwala observations.

King Sobhuza overturned the Independence constitution in 1973, and assumed ultimate governing powers for himself and his descendants. He did so in the name of Swazi culture, which emerged transcendent from a century of colonial rule. Recently, King Mswati has employed the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, as postulated in some biblical passages, to explain the source of his governing power. The meeting with national pastors reinforced this doctrine, as several religious leaders found evidence in biblical text to support this view.

The meeting was controversial, however. The Swaziland Democratic Alliance, which is comprised of banned political parties and labour organisations, released a statement saying the pastor’s outlook was outdated and theologically unsound. Mainstream religious leaders stayed out of the political fray.

"Whilst it is good for them to have freedom to associate and form multiple denominations of their own choosing, they have the audacity to condemn multiplicity of political views, and the forming and joining of political parties," said Jan Sithole, secretary general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, in a statement. The independent press was also critical of the pastors, who in the past had condemned Roman Catholic Bishop Ncamisa Ndlovu when he made pro-democracy pronouncements based on the teachings of Jesus Christ.

With regard to the constitution, pro-democracy and human rights groups feared King Mswati’s statements against democracy and in favour of the Divine Rights of Kings clearly indicated the content of the national governing document soon to be released. On previous occasions, King Mswati said the constitution, currently being written by his brothers after years of delay, would be formulated in accordance with Swazi custom.

With the additional authority of the pastors’ views, which will be widely communicated to their congregations when the constitution is released, the Swazi king, who is already popular with his subjects, is setting the stage for public acceptance of the new constitution.

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