Throughout its 97 years of existence, the African National Congress has always celebrated and supported diverse beliefs in its broad membership and support base.
The history of the ANC and the church in South Africa is inseparable. The ANC derived its moral vision and values from the church and other spiritual sources. The interactions amongst political activists, church and cultural leaders gave birth to the ANC and its moral vision. These church leaders included missionary, independent and indigenous African faith leaders.
Our icon and founding President of the democratic Republic of South Africa uTata Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela traces the relationship between the ANC and the Church to the 1870s when the Ethiopian Church Movement was formed as a response to the rapid land dispossession from the 1800s.
The African Clergy sought to free themselves from the fetters of the missionaries by establishing African Independent Churches that came to be known as Ethiopian Churches. The leaders and products of these churches were among the founders of the various Native Congresses which were formed during the first decade of the twentieth century.
These congresses culminated in the formation of the South African Native Congress (SANNAC) in 1912 which was renamed the African National Congress (ANC) in 1923.
It is in this sense that uTata Nelson Mandela traces the seeds of the formation of the ANC to the Ethiopian Movement. The founders of the Congress Movement also equally received spiritual support and guidance from Zionist and Apostolic churches founded during the beginning of the twentieth century.
The founding President of the ANC, Dr John Langalibalele Dube was a Priest and self-confessed Ethiopian Christian who was profoundly influenced by the African American leader Booker T Washington. Reverend Henry Reed Ngacayiya, the first Chaplain General of the ANC and Charlotte Manya-Maxeke, a lay preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, were amongst the founders of the ANC.
In 1906, Sefako M. Makgatho, who became President of the ANC in 1917, founded the United Native Congress Church.
When agreement was reached to form the ANC in 1912, the founders spontaneously sang "Lizalise indinga lakho Thixo Nkosi wenyaniso" (God of truth fulfill your promise).
The ANC National Anthem, which was composed by Reverend Enoch Sontonga and is shared with other countries in Southern Africa, is a prayer. The historical association of the ANC and the church cannot be doubted and so are the roots of the ANC moral vision in the Church.
One of stalwarts for liberation and freedom, Oliver Tambo captured this association of the ANC and the church in the following remarkable words: "The African National Congress has a long history of association with the Church. Our founders were churchmen and women. Throughout the years that link has never been broken."
It is this historical association that enabled the church to contribute to the development of the ANC moral vision and values. Addressing the National Presidential Religious Summit in November last year, President Jacob Zuma called on faith communities to structure themselves in all Provinces so as be inclusive, service-oriented and partners with government.
He openly embraced religious faith and proceeded to invite faith communities to join hand with the government in its sense of urgency in tackling service delivery issues that have been prioritized.
The introduction of the National Interfaith Leaders Council (NILC) is one of the offshoots of this historical relation between the ANC and the religious sector.
Its formation follows a long process of consultation, which culminated with religious leaders and workers from all Provinces meeting at O.R Tambo International Airport on 27 July 2009 to adopt a motion to pave way for its formal foundation. This was in response to the call by President Zuma to the religious community to partner with Government to establish a cohesive and caring society including an enabling environment for sustainable development.
At the meeting between the President and NILC delegation at the Union Buildings on 11 August 2009, the President welcomed the formation of the NILC and was very pleased with the appropriation of the interfaith concept as it denotes exclusivity and co-operation amongst the people of faith. Religious leaders also agreed to continue to mobilize all the faith-based groups and communities to join the NILC at all levels.
The NILC will become a true engine of service delivery and resist the temptation of reducing itself into an unproductive talk shop. Religious infrastructure will now also be utilized for public education and social development and places of worship will now be used as community spaces during the week to address illiteracy and promote educational programs for the common good to all.
In pursuit of partnerships for reconstruction, development and progress called for by the President during his inaugural address, we believe that the NILC is well placed to be the key driver for social education and moral regeneration for sustainable development. We wish to join the President in welcoming the NILC as a non-partisan interfaith structure which is rooted amongst the people and represented by substructures at provincial, regional, local and ward levels. We believe that the NILC will be the best custodian for Moral Regeneration Movement programmes.
We hope that parliament will evolve formal mechanisms to interact with the interfaith sector in general and the NILC in particular as part of its machinery on the promotion of moral regeneration, social cohesion and religious tolerance as well as the creation of cohesive, caring and sustainable communities.
>> Dr Mathole Motshekga is an ANC NEC member and Chair of the ANC Commission on Religious Affairs