Aides say South African president was attacking western culture, not religion, after ‘gravely misleading’ report

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Source: The Guardian
Jacob Zuma addresses a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Umkhonto WeSizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress, in Soweto last week. Photograph: Itumeleng English/AFP/Getty Images

Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, has become embroiled in a row over the impact of Christianity on African culture after reportedly blaming the religion for the breakdown of traditional communities.

Zuma said Christianity – introduced by European missionaries mainly in the 19th century – had destroyed the safety net for orphans, elderly people and the poor, according to South Africa’s Times newspaper.

The front-page report prompted criticism from church leaders but was described as “gravely misleading” by presidential aides, who claimed that Zuma had been referring to “western culture” and not singling out Christianity.

Speaking at the launch of a road safety and crime awareness campaign in his home province, KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma was quoted as saying: “As Africans, long before the arrival of religion and [the] gospel, we had our own ways of doing things.

“Those were times that the religious people refer to as dark days but we know that, during those times, there were no orphans or old-age homes. Christianity has brought along these things.”

Zuma is South Africa’s first Zulu president and a devout follower of tribal custom including polygamy: last year he married his third wife after paying lobola, or bride price, at a traditional ceremony featuring singing, dancing and the wearing of leopard skins.

But like many South Africans, he balances indigenous ancestor worship with the Christian God‚ or at least gives that impression publicly. Zuma was ordained as an honorary pastor at a meeting of independent charismatic churches in 2007 and has been linked to the influential Rhema church in Johannesburg. He once declared that the African National Congress (ANC) “will rule until Jesus comes” in South Africa.

The South African Council of Churches said it was “deeply disappointed” by his remarks this week. Reverend Mautji Pataki, the council’s general secretary, said: “We do not understand why the president, whom we have always counted as one amongst us Christians, would find the Christian faith to be so hopeless with regard to building humanity.”

Reverend Kenneth Meshoe, leader of the African Christian Democratic party, added: “Firstly, the president needs to be rebuked for hypocrisy because for him to blame Christianity when he knows churches were at the forefront of the struggle is disappointing, and he knows that what he said is not true, having claimed to be a Christian himself. READ MORE