CUD, KAS, CRL Rights Commission Roundtable 3

Chair: Ms Zohra Dawood (Director: CUD)
KAS representative: Ms Nancy Msibi
Keynote Speaker: Ms Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva
Respondent: Professor Pieter Coertzen

On 14 September 2017, the Centre for Unity in Diversity (CUD) in cooperation with the CRL Rights Commission and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) hosted a roundtable discussion on Balancing Religion, Custom and Constitutionalism.

The discussion came against the background of a recent Report by the CRL Rights Commission on the “Commercialisation of Religion and Abuse of People’s Belief Systems”. This timely discussion was chaired by the Director of the CUD, Ms Zohra Dawood.

In her introductory remarks, Ms Zohra Dawood provided a background to the CUD and emphasised that while South Africa had a very fine Constitution, it seemed something in our recent economic, social and political fabric that has pushed some people to gravitate toward so-called religious preachers and practices that may offer comfort and/ or harm.

Ms Nancy Msibi introduced the KAS to the meeting and also emphasise the point that the challenge of finding the right balance between religion, custom and the South African Constitution was key going forward.

Keynote speaker and Commission Chairperson, Ms Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, elaborated on the issues raised in the Commission’s Report and outlined instances of religion-based violence, and what steps must be undertaken to prevent further instances of abuse. Ms Mkhwanazi-Xaluva outlined the current challenges posed by religious leaders who abuse peoples’ beliefs for the purpose of their own enrichment. It is these new, more aggressive forms of religious practice and changing dynamics within the religious sector based on extreme racism, misogyny and hate speech that according to the Commission require not only a new understanding of religious practices, but also applicable laws and regulatory institutions to deal with potential abuses.

Referring to the Commission’s recent “Report of the Hearings on Commercialisation of Religion and Abuse of People’s Belief Systems” Ms Mkhwanazi-Xaluva went on to highlight the findings of the CRL Rights Commission. Since the Report indicates a high number of unregistered religious institutions and a continuing surge of local and foreign religious practitioners, the lack of a coherent database requires a more sophisticated approach towards a baseline study that can provide more accurate numbers. The commercialisation of religion and the financial abuse of practitioners by dubious leaders under the guise of religious freedom is one the most critical features in assessing the current religious landscape, which is being followed and accompanied by highly unconventional preaching styles and cult-like organisational structures. Gender bias and abusive religious experiences – with young children and women as its main victims – are the most visible results that are bred within these systems. After an excursion into the constitutional and legislative framework which lays the groundwork for the CRL Rights Commission’s actions, Ms Mkhwanazi-Xaluva made recommendations for further steps which are also outlined in the Report itself.

In discussing the lack of data with regard to religious practitioners, registration of all religious churches must be made universal, which also involves a clear-cut definition of what constitutes Worship Centres in order to avoid misconceptions. Umbrella organisations responsible for establishing codes of conduct should guide religious leaders in their spiritual work. They themselves should be overseen by Peer-Review Committees, which should each cover a particular religion and “ensure that there is religious self-regulation and accountability”. The CRL Rights Commission would administer and preside over this process. Ms Mkhwanazi-Xaluva reiterated the concern that the CRL Rights Commission is aware of the role of the state venturing into the sphere of religious freedom but “freedom of religion may be limited in order to protect millions of people”.

Respondent Professor Pieter Coertzen, Extraordinary Professor in Comparative Church Law at the Catholic University of Louvain and at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Stellenbosch, and Chairperson of the Council for Religious Rights and Freedoms, responding to the recommendations laid out by the Commission, criticised the “number of issues seen as a threat to religious freedom [in South Africa]”. In putting demands on religions the measures proposed by the Commission would, according to Coertzen, jeopardise the current cooperative relationship between state and religion. Instead of the regulatory structure demanded by the Commission, he is therefore advocating for a reformulation of the proposal. This should only include a moral code for religions in South Africa, which should inspire religious congregations and be therefore based on self-regulation.

A robust discussion ensued that highlighted the role of the state in regulating religious freedom and freedom of association. Additional areas of concern centred around the role of the CRL Rights Commission in “peer reviewing” religious organisations. The prospect of self-regulation by religious groups/entities was also discussed.

Several CRL Rights Commissioners present clarified the terms of reference of the Report, in addition to emphasising its view that the CRL Rights Commission was not promoting itself as a peer review mechanism.

While viewpoints were contested and sometimes heated, the meeting agreed that this was a first opportunity for civil society organisations to gather and debate the contents of the CRL Rights Commission’s recent Report. The CUD was asked to convene an additional meeting to discuss the detail of the theme, particularly the most contentious being that of the role of the state in religious freedom.

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