14 July 2021
Dear President Ramaphosa and Minister Dlamini-Zuma,
RE: THE ADJUSTED LEVEL 4 REGULATIONS PERTAINING TO RELIGIOUS GATHERINGS
1. We refer to the Adjusted Level 4 Regulations pertaining to religious gatherings, published in Government Gazette No. 44772 on 27 June 2021.
1.1. In terms of Regulation 21(3) of these Regulations, a complete ban was (again) imposed on all faith-based gatherings across the country until 11 July 2021, after which this provision would have been reviewed.
1.2. In addition, and in terms of Regulations 21(22) and (23) respectively, it was made a criminal offence to either convene or attend a faith-based or religious gathering.
2. In terms of Regulation 21(2) read with 21(1A) of the subsequent Regulations published in the Government Gazette No. 44838 on 11 July 2021, the complete ban imposed on all faith-based gatherings across the country was extended for a further two (2) weeks until 25 July 2021, after which it will be reviewed. In terms of Regulations 21(19) and (20), respectively, of the July Regulations, it remains a criminal offence to either convene or attend a faith-based or religious gathering
3. In this regard, firstly, we noted the statement during your address to the nation on the evening of 27 June 2021 (i.e. prior to the promulgation of the Adjusted Level 4 Regulations later that evening) that “religious leaders” had been consulted.
4. We record that, despite having been included in two previous consultations (on 2 September 2020, and 17 March 2021 respectively) between the Presidency and religious stakeholders with regard to COVID-19 and the Lockdown Regulations, FOR SA – regardless of the large constituency that we represent – was (again) not included in the consultation with religious leaders prior to the promulgation of either the Regulations of 27 June 2021 or on 11 July 2021 (if any consultation took place at all).
5. Had we been given the opportunity to consult with you, Mr President, we would have been able to alert you to the growing frustration across the faith community, with regard to the continued restrictions on religious gatherings – including the recent complete ban on religious gatherings, coupled with the criminalisation of any person who dares convene or attend such a gathering, effective since 28 June 2021.
6. As a result, various faith leaders in different provinces have called for peaceful protest against the closure of churches and have further threatened civil disobedience if Government does not accede to their demands for churches to be opened up to at least 50% of the capacity of their venue, subject of course to the observance of all health and social distancing protocols.
7. The already growing frustration amongst the faith community has been heightened by the most recent Regulations of 11 July 2021, which have extended the complete ban on (and criminalisation of) religious gatherings for a further two (2) weeks, while allowing restaurants, gyms and fitness centres to re-open up to a maximum of 50 people.
8. Many view this as irrational and unfair – particularly in light thereof that people take off their masks to eat at a restaurant, and restaurants operate seven days a week twelve hours a day. In contrast, most religious gatherings services are normally held on a weekly basis only, and congregants are expected to keep their masks on for the duration of the service. For this reason, religious gatherings constitute considerably less risk than going to a restaurant (or a gym for that matter). All the while, airplanes, buses and taxis continue to operate at 100%.
9. In the circumstances, and with a view to avoiding the increased risk of civil disobedience, Government has left us no choice but to write to the Acting Deputy Judge President of the Johannesburg High Court (as we have done yesterday), to request that our court application challenging the complete ban on religious gatherings which has been pending since January 2021 when religious gatherings were first banned, now be heard as a matter of urgency.
10. Mr President, we need not remind you of the spate of violence and looting, and the tragic loss of lives and livelihoods, that our country has witnessed – particularly in Gauteng and KZN – in the last few days. In the face of this anarchy, Government has called upon religious leaders to condemn the criminality and to help call for calm, and for peace and order to be restored.
11. While religious leaders from across the faith spectrum certainly share Government’s sentiments in this regard, many of them are asking how they are to do that when they cannot even meet with their people in person during this time (bearing in mind that millions of people in South Africa do not have access to modern technology and/or data to meet online)? In fact, various of them have voiced the sentiment that we should not be surprised at the chaos and anarchy that ensue when a Government turns its back on God, inter alia, by closing churches while commercial enterprises are allowed to continue.
12. Right now, our people need voices of calm and reason, we need unity and prayer. Yet, our churches and other religious institutions who have typically been at the forefront of uniting our people in prayer and calling for the restoration of peace and order in our communities, are closed at a time when this is most needed.
13. In this regard also, we understand that a meeting was convened between yourself and religious stakeholders last night (on 13 July 2021), to discuss – and call for calm in the midst of – violence and looting. As we anticipated the current closure of churches and other religious organisations to be a focal point of the discussions, FOR SA specifically requested your office yesterday afternoon to be included in the meeting and was told that we would receive an invitation shortly. We were thereafter informed via e-mail from your office however, that “FOR SA will be invited to engagements that deal with COVID-19 and not all meetings. The invited leaders are part of the Interfaith Working Group which was set up in 2019.” As a result, FOR SA – and our constituency of religious leaders representing approx. 18 million people from across the faith spectrum (including 10 million people from the African Indigenous and Spirituality Churches) – was again left out of the conversation regarding the closure of churches and other religious organisations, and deprived of the opportunity to make any contributions in this regard.
14. In conclusion, and as repeatedly stated in previous correspondence and engagements with you, FOR SA – and indeed the constituency we represent – want to work with (rather than against) Government to find joint solutions for the health, and now also political, challenges ravaging our nation and our people.
15. Against this background, we invite you, Mr President, to hear the cries of the 18 million+ people whom we represent in this matter of COVID-19 and the impact of the Lockdown Regulations on the religious community, and, in particular, to re-consider the ongoing closure of churches and other religious institutions (which, on the evidence, pose less risk than restaurants or gyms) – or potentially lose them forever.
You remain in our prayers, Mr President – may God give you great grace and wisdom as you lead our country and our people through this difficult time.
Adv Nadene L. Badenhorst
Legal Counsel, FOR SA