Monday, January 12, 2015

Neither God, Nor Master

 “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Marx

Charismatic and evangelical African churches and “pastors” have become astonishingly profitable businesses, cashing in from ordinary Africans’ disillusionment with the mainstream churches, politics and traditional institutions. Failures by mainstream churches to find answers to the causes of African angst have pushed people into the hands of more avaricious churches.

Church leaders such as Nigeria’s TB Joshua, founder of the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos, Nigeria, are cleverly exploiting a deep sense of “existential insecurity”, the pervasive, deep-seated and persistent feelings of anxiety or angst, insecurity and vulnerability felt by many ordinary Africans across the continent. He exploits the spiritual poverty and brokenness of people. Day-to-day life for most Africans is a struggle to make sense of a world that has disappointed them in every sense imaginable. How does one raise children, have relationships and earn a living when life is precarious, the future uncertain and where loved ones can be killed on a whim at any moment by authorities, bandits or criminals? Collectively, colonialism, apartheid and African post-independence misrule since World War II have plunged millions of Africans into spiritual poverty.

The continued legacy of the terrifying, destabilising impact of slavery, colonialism and apartheid, which destroyed the “familiar and trusted social benchmarks” that anchored individuals, communities and societies and gave individuals a sense of self-worth. For many Africans, slavery, colonialism and apartheid have induced the “feeling that the self has no foundation” any more. These terror regimes left generations of broken individuals, with a destroyed sense of self. The post-independence chronic poverty, insecurity and persistent and violent threats to individuals, families and communities – persistent threats of genocide, arbitrary official violence and family destruction – under African governments reinforced the angst. Rapid mass industrialisation and technological change to which many African societies reinforced the process of “dislocation” – whether cultural, individual or social, and compounded the African sense of “existential insecurity”.

African political movements and leaders have ruthlessly exploited such “existential insecurities” to enrich themselves, stay in power for life, and brutalise individuals and communities, by creating “bogeymen”, such as the threat that former colonial regimes – the cause of “existential insecurity” – could return. Or they have often climbed the greasy pole by mobilising their “own” ethnic group to support them politically on the basis that “other” ethnic groups are the new post-independence source of potential insecurity or “threat”.

African traditional institutions and leaders have also failed the continent – and have mostly, like their political peers, also exploited the feelings of “existential insecurity” of their “subjects” to enrich themselves and entrench their control over them. Some have achieved this by pushing for a nostalgic return to a mystical African pre-colonial cultural nirvana, based on selective African “traditions, customs and cultures” that often conveniently reinforce their power over their “subjects”. Many African post-independence leaders have used morphed parts of African culture to entrench their rule, oppress their people, attack critics and enrich themselves just as colonial or apartheid powers did.

President Jacob Zuma says Zulu culture dictates you can see by the way a woman sits that she wants sex. This is a despicable insult to Zulu culture and all African culture and is typical of the use by many African leaders of invented African “culture” to entrench their rule, whether it be Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe or Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh. Aspects of African “custom” have become irrelevant to the modern and complex problems faced by Africans – and ancient ones, such as “ubuntu” (kindness to others) and “lekgotla” (consulting widely before making decisions) are often discarded by supposedly vocal political supporters of African “culture” who are happy to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor.

There has been a failure by mainstream churches – of Western origin and indigenous African ones – to provide relevant answers to the causes of African angst. Not surprisingly, many Africans have sought refuge in religious fundamentalism, whether Islam or evangelical, to overcome their angst. Unscrupulous fundamentalist leaders – Christian and Muslim – have exploited this. African evangelical pastors, such as Joshua, has been to understand this pervasive African spiritual poverty and to make money out of it. His net worth in excess of $15 million.

Africans need a new sense of purpose. One way to achieve this is for Africans across the continent to work for the common good, to strive for common ownership and to pursue democratic socialism. A land that has been dry for long will reject water. But small drops of rain will give it moisture, we are the droplets, and we are already witnessing a trickle. In time there will be a flood of us.

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