News / Opinion / Columns

William Saunderson-Meyer
3 minute read
20 May 2017
5:35 am

I’ll take the Muslims, Jews, Christians and Hindus over the bureaucrat

William Saunderson-Meyer

If the majority of students in a school want to religious values to be reflected in their daily activities, what business is it of the state?

Picture: Thinkstock

There’s the ancient tale of Jonah and the whale. Now, there’s a modern twist, about Jonathan and the crocodiles.

Pastor Jonathan Mthethwa of the Saint of the Last Days Church in White River, Mpumalanga, tried last Saturday to replicate the biblical account of Jesus Christ walking on water. That is, until three crocodiles ate him. And unlike Jonah’s whale, Jonno’s crocs didn’t spit him out.

The report was carried in an array of mainstream publications, around the world. It was, however, fake news, a joke story published months ago on a satirical website.

It is not the failures of the media that is the most interesting aspect of this. It is that the item went viral because of a simple human trait: we all select information that accords with our beliefs and prejudices.

Non-Christians and atheists wanted to believe the report because it accorded with their opinion of Christians as naive dupes. The developed world wanted to believe it because it accorded with their view of Africans as backward. The rest of Africa perhaps wanted to believe it because it mocks those arrogant South Africans. And Christians of the mainstream faiths would have seen it as a timely parable illustrating the dangers of fundamentalist literalism.

It is this reality, that we have to pick our way through a world of fiercely contesting ideologies and faiths, that forms the backdrop to a case before the High Court in Johannesburg.

Fedsas‚ the Federation of Governing Bodies for SA Schools‚ is defending the right of six Afrikaans state schools to have Christian assemblies‚ hold Christian prayers and to advertise themselves as having a “Christian ethos”. It cites research that religious teaching – presumably any religious teaching – plays an important role in the psychosocial development of children.

Trade union Solidarity supports Fedsas and says the application reflects the convictions of 95% of South Africans who identify themselves with a religion, of which about 85% are Christians. This is a saga that is set to run. Whatever the high court ruling, the issue is likely to go all the way to the Constitutional Court, since the judgment will define what cultural values future generations will be exposed to.

SA is constitutionally a secular state. That does not mean, as some mischievously assert, that it is an atheist state. Our secularism is not an attempt to suppress religion, but to prevent any faith from using institutional structures to dominate another faith. By that measure alone, the Fedsas defence seems doomed.

But the constitution also protects the individual’s right to freedom of association and belief. If the majority of students in a school want to have Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Judaic values to be reflected in their daily activities – as long as this does not exclude or penalise those of another or no faith – what business is it of the state?

As Solidarity’s Dr Dirk Hermann points out, persuasively: “There is no such thing as neutral education … Even a secular approach constitutes a certain world view that is to be enforced.”

At the end of the day, it comes down to who would you best trust to devise a moral framework for your children. A pastor, a rabbi, an imam or a priest? Or an ostensibly impartial department of education bureaucrat? Personally, I’d rather have contesting faiths, no matter how self-serving each might be.

Morality, like truth, is best served by input from a variety of voices.

William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer