No doubt to the alarm of his minders and keepers, President Zuma deviated from the prepared text of his speech yesterday to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Giyani, Limpopo. His speech should have been suitably innocuous - with a nod to the older generation on International Grandparents Day, exhortations to the youth and the expression of justifiable pride in the fact that the number of children infected with HIV within the East and Southern African region has more than halved in the past 10 years. There was only one reference to "apartheid colonialism" - and for the rest, the tone of the speech was suitably presidential.
However, few politicians are impervious to the invective of their critics and the slings and arrows of unflattering cartoonists. President Zuma evidently is no exception and, no doubt, swept up by the religious fervour of the occasion, decided to depart from his prepared text to theologise on the nature of the relationship between the church and state.
According to media reports he said that "If you don’t respect authority, then you are bordering on a curse". "Whether you like it or not, God has made a connection between the government and the church. That is why He says you as a church should pray for it".
According to the reports the President also asked the church to pray for politicians who insult leaders - "because if you allow them to insult those in authority, you are creating a society that is angry with itself".
So much for unkind speculation regarding president Zuma’s reading habits. It is quite clear that he has been immersed in Romans 13, which expresses similar views. It says: "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God" and goes on to warn that "Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation." (I have quoted from the King James Version - because King James knew a thing or two about the divine right of kings.) The president would presumably number among those who "resisteth the power" the many critics who "insult" him because of his handling of Guptagate; his retirement home at Nkandla and the manner in which the independence of the National Prosecuting Authority has been compromised.
However, the president has evidently not been reading the Constitution, which does not recognize any connection between the government and the church. The Constitution rightly guarantees the freedom of religion, belief and opinion - but carefully avoids any connection between church and state. There is also no prohibition on insulting those in authority since freedom of expression - including the right to criticise government - is expressly recognised. There is also the underlying idea that respect for authority should be conditional on authority’s respect for citizens and for the Constitution.
When political leaders deviate from their prepared speeches their remarks often provide a much clearer insight into their real views than the carefully vetted and anodyne texts written by their speechwriters. The image of our president that emerges from his off-the- cuff remarks at Giyani is of a leader who has been deeply hurt by the "insults" of his critics; who feels that, as president he is entitled to respect because of the office he holds - rather than because of his actions; who believes that God is on his side; and who has only a limited commitment to the principles underlying our Constitution.
King James I - and his hapless son Charles I - held similar views - in Charles’s case with the most unhappy consequences.
By Dave Steward, Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation