The ANC has marginalised the SACC in favour of Pastor Ray McCauley’s National Interfaith Leaders’ Council because it refuses to cosy up to the ANC.

The ANC has marginalised the South African Council of Churches in favour of Pastor Ray McCauley’s National Interfaith Leaders’ Council because it refuses to cosy up to the ANC, SACC leaders said this week.

Two SACC sources told the Mail & Guardian that the council felt it was being punished for its refusal to become a formal ally of the ruling party, its failed attempt to intervene over former president Thabo Mbeki’s “recall” last year and its failure to endorse the ANC before this year’s elections.

The ANC’s Commission on Religious Affairs, led by ANC MP Mathole Motshekga, is said to have met the SACC at Luthuli House last year and urged it to strengthen its relationship with the party in the form of an alliance. The SACC was also asked to provide the ANC with a database of its members and their contact details.

Motshekga refused to comment on the claim that the ANC had invited the SACC to be an ally.

SACC president Tinyiko Maluleke said the council had held many meetings with the ANC and he could not remember the details of each of them. Maluleke said the SACC still valued its working relationship with the ANC, but insisted that it would be inappropriate for the council to form an alliance with the ruling party: “We prefer to have a relationship of critical engagement, not only with the ruling party, but with other parties, because our membership cuts across the political spectrum.”

He said the SACC wanted to be “free to differ” with the ANC. “When we agree with them, it should not be because they tell us to.”

A senior SACC staff member said the National Interfaith Leaders’ Council (NILC) had filled the space that the SACC had refused to occupy before the election.

“[The ANC] was very frustrated with us because they really needed that support. That’s where Ray McCauley came in. We created that space by refusing to say who we supported for the presidency.”

The SACC also believes it lost favour with the ANC because it tried, unsuccessfully, to broker a solution to the party’s internal conflicts that would have saved Mbeki the embarrassment of being recalled.

“We asked them to act with cool heads, to find ways of dealing with issues other than taking a step that would affect all South Africans,” said a senior SACC staffer.

The staffer asked to remain anonymous because the SACC was likely to discuss the rupture with the ANC on Friday. “I don’t think our attempt to intervene was appreciated.”

The SACC also slammed the party’s “poor handling” of the succession debate in the lead-up to its Polokwane conference. At that time it stated publicly that it would not take sides.

The SACC had previously been viewed as an ANC ally because it was dominated by such pro-ANC figures as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Frank Chikane, Brigalia Bam and the late Beyers Naudé—all former SACC general secretaries—and Congress of the People (Cope) leader Mvume Dandala, its former president.

Another SACC source said that although the council was seen as an Mbeki ally, the NILC appeared to have formed its own pact with Jacob Zuma’s ANC.

“This is why the NILC was so hurriedly put together. They took an uncritical position on the ANC and related to its more conservative tendencies under Zuma.”

The NILC includes representatives of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, paganism and traditional African beliefs.

Last week the M&G reported that the NILC is seeking to roll back legislation that offends the religious right, including laws legalising gay marriage and abortion.

A source close to government and the NILC told the M&G this week that relations between the ANC and the SACC had deteriorated because of suspicion that the SACC was becoming “a springboard” for the opposition—Cope, in particular.

In addition to Dandala, SACC members include Cope leaders such as Allan Boesak and Stellenbosch vice-chancellor Russel Botman.

“The view is that these people emerge from the woodwork when the ANC has said something ­controversial,” the government source said. When Zuma told ANC supporters during the election campaign that the party would rule “till Jesus comes”, for example, the SACC reacted by saying Zuma was “confusing matters of the secular world with matters that are considered to be sacred”.

Maluleke said suspicions about political bias in the SACC were unfounded: “Because Chikane was in Mbeki’s office when factions started some people assumed that we were in the same camp as him. Perceptions were created that we could be supporting Cope, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

Other reasons for the ANC dumping the SACC, the government source said, were that the council had lost its relevance after 1994. It had not been sufficiently active on moral issues such as prostitution and taxation of the churches.

“All these things informed the formation of the NILC,” the source said.

Grassroots and charismatic churches needed to be recognised because they had mobilised people to vote for Zuma, said the source. The SACC and the National Religious Leaders’ Forum (NRLF)—“an extension of the SACC”—had failed to give due recognition to churches that were regarded as informal.

The NILC’s founding document states that it plans to carve “a niche for itself in the space of national religious work that is occupied by peer organisations such as the SACC and the NRLF”. It would serve as “the official point of contact and dialogue between the office of the state president and the broader religious sector in the country”.

Zuma’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, said Zuma was not behind the formation of the NILC, but the group was “responding to the president’s call” for religious bodies to organise themselves into proper structures. He said government would not provide financial resources for the NILC.

Magwenya said that although the presidency acknowledged the “important role” played by the NRLF in the previous administration, the organisation had conceded in discussions with the President that there was a need to transform its interaction with the ruling party.

Maluleke said that, despite being excluded from the formation of the NILC, the SACC wanted cooperation among religious groups.

“It’s embarrassing and humiliating for religious bodies to fight one another because they want government attention or the ruling party’s attention,” he said.

The SACC participates actively in the NRLF and is concerned that the NILC might replicate the work of the NRLF, the SACC said in a statement.

Motshekga said the ANC’s working relationship with the SACC was long-standing and that unity among all faith communities was “paramount”.

“It is only through greater cohesion and united effort that even the toughest of society’s challenges can be defeated. It is thus our view that all these organisations must work together.”

The ANC’s religious commission would meet the SACC on Friday to discuss “a formula for cooperation”, Motshekga said.

Mmanaledi Mataboge is senior politics reporter for the Mail & Guardian.