Churches want fairness as new regulations loom
DURBAN - RELIGIOUS leaders have called on the government to be consistent in its application of Covid-19 restrictions, saying it was not fair to impose tough restrictions on churches while there were massively huge gatherings elsewhere.
Catholic Church Cardinal Wilfrid Napier was commenting following growing speculation about the possible announcement of more stringent restrictions ahead of the Easter weekend.
Speaking to The Mercury last night, Napier said churches had noted with concern funerals being held with large numbers of people, many of whom were not wearing masks, while churches were only allowed a “ridiculous number” of worshippers.
Although President Cyril Ramaphosa recently relaxed lockdown restrictions to level 1, religious gatherings are permitted under restrictions of 100 people indoors or 250 outdoors.
“What is the rationale for being so hard on churches, which are more disciplined in terms of adhering to safety regulations, while the government is very easy on shopping malls and casinos where you find thousands of people at any given time?” Napier asked.
“You find aeroplanes fully laden with passengers. You find a train carrying a full load of people travelling between Durban and Johannesburg or Cape Town for up to two hours, but the churches are restricted to 100 worshippers in an 800-capacity cathedral. This is not fair,” said Napier.
“We will be submitting our input as churches, calling on the president to allow us at least 50% of the capacity of any church building.
“With the current reduced numbers, we are battling to generate revenue to pay salaries for the many people who are employed by the church,” he said, adding that if restrictions remained stringent, the government would have to consider financial support for religious organisations.
Reverend Andries Burger, of the Pinetown Reformed Church, said while they abided by the restrictions imposed, communion among worshippers had been adversely impacted by the reduced number of congregants.
“We would appreciate it if the numbers were kept to no less than 50% of the church building capacity,” Burger said, adding, however, that their medium-sized church organisation was not as badly battered as the organisations operating with much larger congregations.
“We would adhere to any regulations because the Lord calls upon us to obey the powers that be because they have been called by the Lord to lead us. But we would appreciate it if the numbers are kept at least at 50% of the worshipping space,” he said.
Bishop Malusi Mpulwana, the general secretary for the SA Council of Churches, said celebrating religious holidays while physical distancing and wearing masks had been surreal.
“We may have thought that we would be ‘back to normal’ in 2021 (but) this is clearly not the case and we have to reconcile ourselves with once again celebrating a socially distant Easter,” he said.
“These restrictions, particularly on people coming together to worship, have had a negative impact on mental health. The sense of isolation from the community (of congregants) that people have come to rely on for emotional sustenance has given rise to what is being referred to as the second pandemic – that of a mental health crisis,” said Mpulwana.
He added that the Covid-19 safety protocols aimed at safeguarding oneself from infection were necessary to ensure safety for everyone.
Sneliswa Ndlovu, a branch leader at St Paul’s Anglican Church in Melmoth, said to accommodate the large number of congregants expected, a marquee would be erected outside the church building to ensure that the restrictions on capacity were adhered to.
She expected an increased number of worshippers during Easter, citing yesterday’s Palm Sunday which she said had attracted a larger number of people than in the recent past weekends.
Members of the council had done a good job in ensuring strict safety protocols such as wearing of masks, sanitising and keeping an arm’s-length distance from each other, she said.
Pastor Delani Ndlovu, of the Nkwenkwe-based Faith Mission, said the church leadership had cancelled a scheduled regional conference in an attempt to avoid what would have been a massive gathering.
“In case we get an escalation in the number of congregants, we would have to place others, especially children, outside,” Ndlovu said.
ANOTHER ban on alcohol would be the end of the tavern sector as we know it, Liquor Traders Formation convener Lucky Ntimane said yesterday.
He joined other industry organisations which argued that the alcohol industry had yet to recover from the almost 19 weeks of non-trading since Covid-19 lockdown began, he said.
Under current level 1 lockdown restrictions, alcohol sales take place at normal pre-Covid 19 trading hours, but media reports yesterday said that the National Coronavirus Command Council last week discussed banning alcohol sales over Easter and increasing the size of gatherings, among a raft of other suggestions to prevent a third wave of viral infections.
The industry claims to have already lost about R36.3 billion in revenue due to previous bans, and was dealt a further blow last month when Finance Minister Tito Mboweni slapped an 8 percent increase on alcohol product tax.
Wine producer representative organisation Vinpro said that earlier this month struggling farmers were barely over the relief from the partial lifting of the third alcohol ban on February 1 before being told they had to pay a 16% ncrease in minimum wages, a 15 percent increase in electricity costs and an 8 percent increase in excise duty. South Africa Liquor Brandowners Association chairperson Sibani Mngadi said the only outcomes that they could expect from the decisions to increase gatherings and ban alcohol sales was the hastening of the onset of the third wave of Covid-19 pandemic “while further collapsing the struggling economy”.
“If this unfortunate talk is followed by yet another alcohol ban by the president, it will be a confirmation on his part to say he doesn’t care about the livelihoods of taverns and shebeen permit holders,” said Ntimane.
The alcohol industry supports more than 1 million jobs. The industry also generates R6bn annually in export earnings while supporting over 34 500 township businesses.
Ntimane said that since the country went on lockdown from March 26, 2020, the tavern sector understood it had a role to play in supporting the government’s efforts to fight the pandemic and the request for a halt on the sale of liquor for 21 days was welcomed by all liquor traders as some form of patriotic duty.
“Fast-forward to 2021, the alcohol industry finds itself with a possibility of a fourth ban … the lack of consultation by the government has been the hallmark of the non-existent relationship that defines the leadership approach taken by powers that be,” he said.
Vinpro said it was proceeding with a court case to be heard in the Cape High Court at the end of April to argue that the decision-making regarding a potential liquor ban should take place at provincial level in future, as opposed to the blanket bans that were imposed by the national government.