by Grant Tungay SJ

The Jesuit Institute organised a round table discussion last year in August concerning what role Faith Based Organisations (FBO’s) should play in public discourse. The round table resulted in a lively discussion about the need for FBO’s to engage meaningfully in public discourse. In the light of economic, political and social challenges facing South Africa, the group was unanimous in its opinion that FBO’s need to be more outspoken about their faith positions on these challenges. This makes sense. FBO’s want to see the values they hold so dear to be practically expressed in our society through government initiatives, social programmes and laws which protect such values. But what if the government were to seek FBO support of its political agenda in exchange for any support it gives to FBO concerns?

This was the question I was faced with this week as I attended a meeting organised by the Executive Mayor of the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality. The meeting was organised by the City of Johannesburg as a way of strengthening relations between the City and FBO’s in this region. Spiritual leaders of different faiths were present, as well as representatives of organisations which have faith as their inspiration. What I expected to find was a forum where representatives from the City were present and open to listen to the concerns of FBO’s. I was expecting the City to let FBO’s know how they could work more effectively with local government so that the government and FBO’s could work towards social transformation together. However, two presentations took me a little by surprise.

There was a presentation by Dr Motshekga, an ANC MP, detailing the historically close relationship which the ANC has always had with FBO’s. In fact, Dr Motshekga emphasised that the Christian faith constituted a vital ingredient to the political fervour of the ANC. There was also a presentation from a representative from the Young Religious Leaders, a group which in name says it represents a wide spectrum of young leaders from different faith backgrounds. However, the message was that FBO’s needed to understand their Christian roots and ANC affiliations. Moreover, after these two presentations we were left with no uncertainty as to who the presenters expected us to vote for.

The shocking thing about these two presentations was that this was meant to be a meeting between different faith groups, but Christianity was given prime space. Also, this was meant to be a meeting between the City of Johannesburg and faith groups, but these two presentations gave one the impression that it was a meeting between the ANC and its supporters. They assumed that the agenda of FBO’s and the agenda of one particular political party was one and the same.

In working for social transformation, faith groups have to collaborate with the government of the day. However, in doing so we must be careful that our faith group does not become the mouth piece of any one political party. The word of God must take precedence over political agendas.