Picture: Phill Magakoe/African News Agency (ANA)

Johannesburg - The historical role of the clergy - especially the office of the chaplain-general - in the liberation movement that is now the governing party, has come into sharp scrutiny after the unfortunate patriarchal utterances of the incumbent, Reverend Vukile Mehana, went viral on social media.
In a taped telephone conversation between Mehana and another elder of the Methodist Church, the chaplain-general of the ANC is heard making plainly disparaging remarks against the role of female priests in the church.

In a statement, the party quickly moved to distance itself from Mehana’s views, after it had “noted with disappointment” the utterances attributed to Mehana. The statement continued: “The derogatory remarks about women have no place in our country, where our Constitution encourages all of us to work for a truly non-sexist society.

“The ANC has informed the presiding bishop of the Methodist Church of South Africa, Bishop Zipho Siwa, that Mehana will not officiate at the January 8th celebrations planned for next week. The Methodist Church appealed for space to deal with this matter internally.”

True to form, Twitter was aflame with opinion, from the likes of Anda Bici who was quick to locate the clergy inside the ANC: “My brief understating is that at the formation of the ANC in 1912 or shortly before, the first assignment of the ANC was a prayer that came from the Bloemfontein conference where the ANC was conceived as a movement. Then that became the tradition since then.”

Bici said: “One of the things that is unsaid is the father of non-racialism is Reverend Tiyo Soga.

“Importantly, it is Reverend Soga who composed Lizalis’ idinga Lakho Thixo Wenyaniso.”

The isiXhosa hymn was the first to be sung at the opening of the conference that founded the ANC in 1912 in Mangaung. It has since been elevated to the status of a Struggle hymn.

Bici argued that “we should also remember that the ANC was an organisation of the elite and not the masses. Part of the acceptance of elitism was an appreciation of chaplaincy that will, in part, open major events by a prayer”.

He noted: “Bishop Maison, among others, was a chaplain of the ANC for the greater part of the exile years. He used to do this work. So was General Fumi Gqiba.”

The broad church had since grown to accommodate other faiths, Bici acknowledged.

Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, general-secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) said: “The principle of the chaplaincy is related to the fact that it was people of Christian commitment who stood up in 1912.”

Mpumlwana postulated that Reverend Ngcayiya was the first chaplain of the ANC appointed by then-president Sefako Makgatho.

But Reverend Ngcayiya of the Ethiopian Church was elected deputy chaplain at the founding conference.

Asked for comment, Mehana would not be drawn on what exactly the chaplain-general did other than officiating at major party events.

It is almost sensationalist to speculate that Mehana’s role could be pastoral, by ministering to those among the “flock” burdened by sin like Mbulelo Goniwe, Marius Fransman, and the latest phallus-wielding pair of Malusi Gigaba and Pule Mabe.

“The chaplaincy took different forms from the time of exile and following the return of the ANC in the country,” said the Reverend Frank Chikane.

He advised that the reporter “talk to a person at Luthuli House who is responsible for the chaplaincy”, which turned out to be a task in the mould of looking for a needle in a haystack.

“I would say talk to Reverend Mehana as well. There is also Ambassador General Gqiba.”

The ANC said it should be the Methodist Church that sanctioned Mehana through its internal processes.

The church, through the office of its Presiding Bishop Zipho Siwa, has already issued a statement condemning Mehana’s comments, and said “the matter is receiving attention”.

Mpumlwana seemed to recall that the Methodist Church had resolved that its members not take up positions as chaplains of political parties.

Understandably, the SACC would have no hold over Mehana or any other Chaplain.

Mpumlwana said: “The SACC has no relationship whatsoever with the chaplaincy of the ANC or any other political party. Church ministers belong to member churches, not to the SACC.

“It would not be possible for the SACC to have any say on the ministers of those churches - be it in the defence force, police, or political parties.

“That is a matter between the church concerned and its ministers, in case of Mehana, the Methodist Church.”

Sunday Independent