‘Bad churches’ pose a huge threat to SA
From making congregants eat grass to organising Ponzi schemes and the mushrooming of dubious churches, there is a problem in the religious sector in South Africa. And it has to be tackled.
The study by the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities is an attempt to deal with the problem – and we should see it as such.
Putting aside the differences religious leaders had with the commission about its approach, South Africa must clean up its religious organisations before we have a fullblown crisis and, dare I say, threats to our national security.
Let me say upfront that I am a firm believer in the separation of the church and state. Government must have a legitimate secular purpose. I say this as a Christian, conscious of the fact I would not like a government that has the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting my religion, or any other religion for that matter.
Excessive entanglement of government and religion should be discouraged in a free, open and democratic society.
But let me stress that this separation does not mean that those who are in government should not hold religious views or subscribe to particular religious beliefs. However, they should desist from dictating and controlling religion.
Critically, it should not be seen as entanglement – excessive or otherwise – when government requires religious organisations to comply with the laws of the country.
There are laws that govern how religious organisations, as institutions, must be registered and conduct their affairs. Ditto companies. The latter have to be properly registered and held to account by their stakeholders – shareholders, employees, government and society – for their actions or lack thereof.
This is so because, all too often, one company’s actions and assets become liabilities and risks for other parties – taxpayers, businesses and the environment.
To the extent that a religious organisation’s actions or a lack thereof can affect the welfare of other parties, they must be held accountable.
We have seen this with the collapse of the church building in Nigeria last year in which 81 South Africans died. The head of the church, TB Joshua, and two engineers who reportedly approved the structural integrity of the building are now facing criminal negligence charges. So they should.
But the impact of the actions of religious organisations is not confined to its members.
Religious organisations can prejudice the state and the welfare of society. For example, there is a practice in the church world of paying honoraria to guest speakers. There’s nothing wrong with that. When the speaker is from outside the country, the expenses can run into significant amounts.
But churches have an obligation to notify the SA Revenue Service about these payments and get a directive about how much to withhold for tax purposes. Not doing so prejudices the state and taxpayers. If religious organisations are going to collect money from the public and not pay tax, they must register as public benefit organisations and apply for tax exemption status. This is important, especially in light of the number of churches being established by foreigners in South Africa – an element one feels is missing in the commission’s current study.
Are these churches tax-compliant? How does the state ensure they are not being used for other purposes, which undermine South Africa’s sovereignty? We don’t need to have a tragedy for South African authorities and local citizens to start asking these questions.
Stories have been reported in some parts of Africa about how religious leaders with names like General Overseer, Daddy, Papa and Mummy train young ministers, pay them good salaries and send them to establish branches of their churches in a foreign country – not to necessarily spread the gospel, but to generate an income.
These ministers are then asked by their churches to collect the offerings and tithes and send this money to church headquarters.
In most instances, these priests are sent to a country with a booming economy so they can send good returns back home. Could this be what informs the mushrooming of churches in our inner cities that are headed by foreign pastors? The commission must tackle this elephant in the room.
While it does so, local religious leaders must clean up their act by adhering to the laws of the country.
Mona is former deputy CEO of the Rhema Bible Church (North)