The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL) produced in 2017 a strange anti-cult (and anti-TRSH) report.
by Massimo Introvigne and Rosita Šorytė
Successful spiritual movements normally have enemies. While during our visit to The Revelation Spiritual Home (TRSH) we regarded most of what we saw as admirable, and noted how devotees voted with their feet continuing to attend the services in massive numbers, what we found in South African media about the movement was often critical, and reminiscent of anti-cult stereotypes we were all familiar with, used to slander movements labeled as “cults” in Europe, Eastern Asia, and North America.
We were all aware that not all spiritual movements play a positive role (I have coined myself the expression “criminal religious movements,” noting that they exist among both “old” and “new” religious traditions). South Africa is no exception, and the media there are happy to reports incidents where self-styled prophets persuade their followers to eat grass or engage in other forms of bizarre behavior.
Religious abuse also exists in mainline churches, as evidenced by the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church and other large institutions. Abuse is certainly not protected by religious liberty. However, it is an entirely different matter when governments try to take advantage of the abuses and use them as a pretext to impose a generalized control on minority religious and spiritual organizations, or deprive them of their tax-exempt status. Not surprisingly, governments are always interested in extending their control and raising more taxes.
While in other parts of the world campaigns against minority religions are carried out according to the ideology of the so-called anti-cult movement, South Africa has a special history. The infamous apartheid policy also included a spiritual apartheid. Christian and other mainline churches were regarded as “legitimate.” Those established by Africans were called “independent” (a label that is today regarded as derogatory) and “problematic.” African indigenous spirituality was slandered as “witchcraft” and even as “demonic.”
The African elite that replaced the white government in South Africa had been mostly educated according to a Western paradigm (or in Marxist universities in the Soviet Union), and shared a prejudice against non-mainline religion, if not against religion in general. We often heard from TRSH and other non-mainstream religionists the comment that “in matters of religion the black government is anti-black.” Conversely, members of the professional and political elite may be disturbed by beliefs and rituals they see as backward and an obstacle on South Africa’s path to become a modern regional political and economic power armed with cutting-edge technology.
In 2002, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL) was established as an independent institution under Chapter Nine of the South African Constitution. In 2015 it decided, somewhat arbitrarily, that its mandate extended to checking whether religious institutions were beneficial or harmful to South African communities. It started holding hearings on “the commercialization of religion and abuse of people’s belief systems,” on which in 2017 it produced a report.
The terminology itself showed the influence of European and American anti-cult ideology. The commission and its chairperson, Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, candidly admitted in the report that they had originally taken their information from “controversial news reports and articles in the media.” Not only in South Africa, media bias against minority spiritual groups is well-known to scholars of the field.
The CRL expressed its concern about “false churches” (without clarifying how a “false” church can be distinguished from a “true” one) and claims by spiritual leaders to an authority they did not in fact possess. Again, which standards the CRL required to “prove” spiritual authority was unclear. The CRL also wanted religious and spiritual organizations to disclose to the commission their budgets and bank accounts.
As the leader of one of the fastest-growing spiritual movements in South Africa, IMboni was summoned to appear and bring TRSH’s accounts. He refused, claiming that the investigation and the requests were against the South African Constitution, and went to present his complaints against the CRL to the Parliament. As a result, Mkhwanazi-Xaluva depicted IMboni as rebellious and created a media campaign against him. She also accused a member of TRSH of having insulted and tried to intimidate her. She managed to have the man sentenced, but her attempts to have IMboni himself incriminated failed.
The aim of the CRL was to create a system of state control of religion, which would be unprecedented in democratic countries. The final report suggested legislation under which all religious and spiritual organizations should have leaders (with a temporary exception for founders) and treasurers democratically elected by the members (obviously, this does not happen in mainline organizations such as the Catholic Church, where the bishop is not elected by the church members).
All religious and spiritual organizations, the CRL proposed, should affiliate themselves with umbrella organizations, which would in turn be under the supervision of “peer-review committees” established for each religious tradition (Christians, African Religion, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Rastafari) that would report to the CRL Commission itself. Individual religious practitioners and places of worship should also be registered with one of the CRL-supervised umbrella organizations. As the report clearly stated, “the CRL Rights Commission will remain the final arbiter in all matters” concerning religion and spirituality.
When I first read the report, my immediate reaction was, “Where did I see all this before?” I happen to be a scholar of religion in China, and this is precisely the Chinese system. In China, there is a centralized administration of religious affairs, and five umbrella organizations (for Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, and Taoists), to which all religious groups should belong. Those that refuse to become part of one of the umbrella organizations are declared illegal and persecuted.
A few weeks ago, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) joined many others institutional and scholarly voices in denouncing the Chinese system of the mandatory umbrella organizations as a tool of oppression and an egregious violation of religious liberty. It would be a scandal if a democratic country such as South Africa would adopt the Chinese model. So far, the government has agreed that the CRL’s recommendation should in fact not be adopted. But the fight is not over.
Are there black sheep in the world of South African religion and spirituality? Yes, as everywhere else. But when they commit crimes, these may be punished by using the existing laws, without the need of putting all religious and spiritual organizations under a totalitarian state control.
As for TRSH, scholars who study South African new religions often share the prejudices of the local establishment. Sometimes, scholars of new religious movements from abroad may contribute a different look. Yet, I agree with Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon when he wrote in 2013 in his chapter for “Writing Invisibility: Conversations on the Hidden City” (a book published by the Johannesburg “Mail & Guardian,” a newspaper that has published itself slanderous articles against TRSH), that to reduce the success of the movement to “commercialization” of spirituality is just “too simple.”
If TRSH is successful, the scholar wrote, it is because “It speaks to a hope that the failed aspirations of the city can be restored, that its pollutants can be cleansed, and that the people and things lost in its streets will return safely home, wherever that may be.”