Churches ruthlessly exploit insecurities

Failures by mainstream churches to find answers to the causes of African angst have pushed people into the hands of avaricious charismatic churches.

Charismatic and evangelical African churches and “pastors” have become astonishingly profitable businesses, cashing in from ordinary Africans’ disillusionment with the mainstream churches, politics and traditional institutions.

Charismatic and evangelical church leaders such as Nigeria’s TB Joshua are cleverly exploiting a deep sense of “existential insecurity”, the pervasive, deep-seated and persistent feelings of anxiety or angst, insecurity and vulnerability felt by many ordinary Africans across the continent.

Such deep-seated angst comes from several sources. One is the continued legacy of the terrifying, destabilising impact of slavery, colonialism and apartheid, which destroyed the “familiar and trusted social benchmarks” that anchored individuals, communities and societies and gave individuals a sense of self-worth.

For many Africans, slavery, colonialism and apartheid have induced the “feeling that the self has no foundation” any more. These terror regimes left generations of broken individuals, with a destroyed sense of self.

The post-independence chronic poverty, insecurity and persistent and violent threats to individuals, families and communities – persistent threats of genocide, arbitrary official violence and family destruction – under African governments which were expected to bring a new post-independence sense of serenity reinforced the angst.

Rapid mass industrialisation and technological change to which many African societies – most of which had been pre-modern societies – had to adapt to reinforced the process of “dislocation” – whether cultural, individual or social, and compounded the African sense of “existential insecurity”.

Day-to-day life for most Africans is a struggle to make sense of a world that has disappointed them in every sense imaginable. How does one raise children, have relationships and earn a living when life is precarious, the future uncertain and where loved ones can be killed on a whim at any moment by authorities, bandits or criminals?

Sadly, Africa’s political movements and leaders have been unable to provide leadership in the context of chronically insecure communities and individuals.

In fact, most African political movements and leaders have ruthlessly exploited such “existential insecurities” to enrich themselves, stay in power for life, and brutalise individuals and communities, by creating “bogeymen”, such as the threat that former colonial regimes – the cause of “existential insecurity” – could return.

Or they have often climbed the greasy pole by mobilising their “own” ethnic group to support them politically on the basis that “other” ethnic groups are the new post-independence source of potential insecurity or “threat”.

Leaders have spectacularly failed to provide leadership in the context of broken individuals and societies that suffer from the legacy of pervasive “existential insecurity”.

Most have lacked the imagination, well-roundedness and emotional intelligence for what Reuel Khoza, the Nedbank chairman, rightly calls the ability to be attuned to their own “feelings of rage and impotence” and yet be able to overcome this – in order to lead broken individuals and societies.

But African traditional institutions and leaders have also failed the continent – and have mostly, like their political peers, also exploited the feelings of “existential insecurity” of their “subjects” to enrich themselves and entrench their control over them. Some have achieved this by pushing for a nostalgic return to a mystical African pre-colonial cultural nirvana, based on selective African “traditions, customs and cultures” that often conveniently reinforce their power over their “subjects”.

Many African post-independence leaders have used morphed parts of African culture to entrench their rule, oppress their people, attack critics and enrich themselves just as colonial or apartheid powers did.

President Jacob Zuma says Zulu culture dictates you can see by the way a woman sits that she wants sex. This is a despicable insult to Zulu culture and all African culture and is typical of the use by many African leaders of invented African “culture” to entrench their rule, whether it be Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe or Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh.

Aspects of African “custom” have become irrelevant to the modern and complex problems faced by Africans – and ancient ones, such as “ubuntu” (kindness to others) and “lekgotla” (consulting widely before making decisions) are often discarded by supposedly vocal political supporters of African “culture” who are happy to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor.

Collectively, colonialism, apartheid and African post-independence misrule since World War II have plunged millions of Africans into spiritual poverty as well.

Since the end of colonialism, there has been a spectacular failure by mainstream churches – of Western origin and indigenous African ones – to provide relevant answers to the causes of African angst. Not surprisingly, many Africans have sought refuge in religious fundamentalism, whether Islam or evangelical, to overcome their angst.

Unscrupulous fundamentalist leaders – Christian and Muslim – have exploited this. The brilliance of many African evangelical pastors, such as Joshua, has been to understand this African spiritual poverty and pervasive “existential insecurity” and to make money out of it.

In some cases, the void of spiritual poverty and pervasive angst has been filled by the obsessive pursuit of material possessions.

What can be done? Our challenge is to infuse traditional African institutions, customs and cultures, and religious practices – Christian or Islam – with new democratic values, gender and social equality and make them accountable.

To reduce calls for discarding aspects of African culture that oppress individuals, entrench inequality and abuse women and embrace only democratic and humane ones, to a battle between so-called “modernists” and “traditionalists”, or “Western civilisation versus African traditions”, or as an attempt to “denigrate” African cultural beliefs is just silly.

African citizens and civil society must vigilantly point out where traditional culture and institutions and religions are being opportunistically manipulated to oppress other Africans, for self-enrichment and to cover up wrongdoing. Africans in churches and mosques will have to push through progressive strands on the issues of the day.

Liberation theology remains a viable option for Africans, in evangelical churches, in mainstream churches of Western origin and in those that are indigenous African.

Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has led the way in putting forward progressive views in the global church.

The idea of gender-equal, non-sectarian mosques is inspiringly progressive.

As individuals, Africans need a new sense of purpose. One way to achieve this is for Africans across the continent, whatever their parties, to work for the common good, to overcome “existential insecurity” with the pursuit of democratic cultures, morals and values, by the best (most democratic) elements of traditional, religious and spiritual values – and by supporting those leaders who adhere to these.

*This article appeared in the Sunday Independent and can be viewed here. 

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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