Open Letter to the Religious Community of South Africa

by Daniela Ellerbeck
18 May 2020

By Michael Swain, Executive Director of Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA)

Many pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and people of faith are deeply and understandably concerned that their freedom to worship in accordance with the tenets and traditions of their faith has, as a result of President Ramaphosa’s declaration of a state of national disaster and the lockdown regulations that have followed, been removed or severely limited.
Although the vast majority of the religious community were in favour of the initial lockdown period, it was on the understanding that this sacrifice (and even its extensions) were expressly designed to give Government the opportunity to ramp up the South African health care systems to cope with the anticipated influx of people infected by the COVID-19 virus.  However, as time has passed, hard data collected from across the world reveals that the virus is significantly less deadly than originally feared.  As such, the rationale and the justification for a “hard lockdown” is fast evaporating in the face of the disastrous impact this is having, amongst other things, on the economy and the lives of millions of South Africans.  Governments around the world are now focusing on incrementally returning to “normal”, with many countries also allowing religious gatherings to take place with proper social distancing and other hygiene and sanitation protocols in place.
As a precursor, it is important to note that although the Government has the right to limit fundamental rights and freedoms, it can only do so within the limits specified in Section 36 of the Constitution.  This states that any limitation of these rights must be both reasonable and justifiable, having regard also to the rationality (whether there is a rational connection between the means and the ends) and proportionality (whether the restriction only goes as far as is absolutely necessary) of the particular restriction.  
Although multiple areas of our society and economy are adversely affected by the regulations, one which has received very slight (if any) consideration by our Government is the religious community. Given that a person’s faith – and the expression thereof – is central to their dignity as a human being, the total ban, even at the lowest Level 1, of any form of religious gathering (except for a limited waiver for funerals) is increasingly difficult to justify. Given that even air travel and accommodation will be permitted at Level 1, a continued moratorium on religious gatherings is clearly a material omission and is grossly unfair and prejudicial to worshippers. We believe that it is wrong to classify the unique contribution of the religious community to the fabric of our society with that of a night club or a sporting event. 
Although the President in his speech on Wednesday 13th May mentioned that we must find “new ways of worshipping”, this clearly cannot mean that no religious meetings or gathering will be allowed for the foreseeable future. Some form of public gatherings to celebrate faith is a central tenet of many religions and, while there was agreement for this to be temporarily suspended to “flatten the curve”, no one agreed that the religious community should be locked down until either a vaccine or a cure is found or natural “herd immunity” is achieved.  This will take many more months and even years, potentially putting people of faith in the worst possible position of having to choose whether to obey God, or man.  
Efforts to engage with Government
In this regard, FOR SA has been working tirelessly with many other senior religious leaders (currently representing approx. 20 million people from a broad cross-spectrum of the religious community) to formulate a reasonable and responsible proposal on behalf of the religious community. This Proposal would allow the religious community, in a phased approach, to return as soon as possible to increasing levels of normal functionality, subject of course to the necessary social distancing, hygiene and sanitation protocols. This Proposal (which is also in the form of a Petition) has been submitted to the COGTA Parliamentary Portfolio Committee, the Presidency, COGTA Minister Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Deputy Minister Parks Tau, the “Nerve Centre” and to the Speaker of Parliament.  However, to date, other than the odd “delivery” or “read” receipt, we have had no substantive engagement with our submission from Parliament or Government on any of the questions and issues raised.
Nevertheless, the pressure on Government continues to grow.  Members of Parliament (MPs) from various political parties are intending to raise questions for clarification on the Government’s current treatment of the religious community.  FOR SA has engaged with the platform set up by the Western Cape Provincial Government to hear the views of (and communicate with) faith based organisations and leaders in the Province in relation to the COVID-19 related challenges.  We have also participated in various forums with religious groups to give information and to answer questions.
To highlight this issue, FOR SA is increasing our efforts to gain media coverage on this critical issue. To this end we have sent out an “Opinion Piece” to highlight the fact that scant attention has been given to the religious community by Government, and to challenge the narrative in the media which tends to blame the Church in particular as a spreader of infection.  We have already been interviewed on national television as well as Radio 702, with several other interviews lined up and the story featuring on several on-line media platforms.  We are also liaising with the South African Council of Churches (SACC) (whose views and work we respect but who do not, in this matter, represent the view of the entire religious community in South Africa) and other groups to keep open lines of communication. 
It should be clearly understood that we have collectively taken an approach based upon respect for Government and a commitment to support efforts to curb the spread of the virus. We are therefore exhausting every available avenue to persuade them to hear our concerns and views.  At the same time – and in the event that they remain unresponsive – we are concurrently building up a case for legal action.  To this end, FOR SA is also consulting with various advocates and lawyers to discuss and develop a legal strategy should it be necessary to take this matter to the next level.
We are thus writing to assure all people of faith in South Africa that your concerns are valid, and that we are doing everything we can to present them to the relevant authorities and to protect and promote your constitutional rights to freedom of religion and all that this entails.  We trust that what we have written is helpful, informative and even encouraging. Should you want to get in contact with us – either to obtain more information, or to add your voice to the growing number of concerned religious leaders – please do not hesitate to get in contact with us at the details below. 
We look forward to further serving the cause of religious freedom in our nation.  See here for how you can assist us in this task.

Michael was raised in England, graduating from the University of Bristol with an honours degree in Law before immigrating to South Africa in 1983. He has been a successful businessman as well as having spent over 30 years in ministry in South Africa, Europe and the USA. He serves as the Executive Director of Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA).

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