Tuesday, 23 July 2019 02:46 GMT

How Pentecostalism explains Jacob Zuma's defiance and lack of shame

(MENAFN - The Conversation) Jacob Zuma, South Africa's former president, has long been known as a man who lives beyond his means. Interestingly, this has made him a much-admired figure in the country's neo-Pentecostal circles.

Media exposés have laid bareZuma's massive debtsand the financial burden of his large family. Taxpayers footed a multi-million Rand bill for unlawful upgrades to hisprivate residence . Zuma has featured prominently in a number ofstate inquiries . One of them is a commission probing the 'capture'of the South African state for the financial gain of his family and hisassociates .

While Zuma has avoided any convictions, his detractors have been outraged at hislack of shame . He's also been defiant in the face ofvarious criminal charges . Instead of shame, Zuma has often boasted of God's divine support when matters went his way and complained of dark plots whenthey did not .

While mainline Christian churches were uncomfortable withsuch claims , neo-Pentecostal church leaders generallysupported Zuma . Whenever he faced political scrutiny for a growing number of scandals, they offered their pulpits as his political platforms. They also held protest marches to show their support.

Zuma's religious utterances presented a conundrum for scholars. That's because many poor South African Christians supported his moral claims, and celebrated his defiance. Outside the courts where Zuma faced criminal charges, supporters often likened him to Jesus, decried his 'crucifixion' and convenedprayer vigils .

What lies behind such adulation? And why were these supporters not outraged at Zuma's private extravagance, profligacy and brushes with the law?

Zuma and the prosperity gospel

While academics have looked at various dimensions of Zuma's public support, few have taken its religious dimensions seriously. A number of critics have dismissed his religious utterances as mere political populism; another shameless tactic to avoid taking responsibility for his supposed moral decrepitude.

My chapter in the newly publishedbook , 'Conspicuous Consumption in Africa', deals withZuma's 'shamelessness' and his continued political support. It takes a closer look at theprosperity gospelto which he has so often referred.

Zuma is well versed in this gospel. Apart from his longstanding membership of various neo-Pentecostal churches, he was ordained as an honorary pastor in the Full Gospel Churchin 2007 . I make no judgements about his personal commitment to neo-Pentecostal values. Nevertheless, my research shows that members of these churches recognised in Zuma's reckless spending behaviour, his uncompromising fight against dark 'enemies' and his political invincibility, the marks of a 'blessed' man.

A very specific neo-Pentecostal religious ethic can be recognised in Zuma's unapologetic conspicuous consumption and how he and his supporters have reacted to his travails. Unlike the Puritan (productionist) ethic that often informs critiques of conspicuous consumption, the neo-Pentecostal ethic is consumerist in its focus.

It's an ethic that demands of its subscribers that they consume conspicuously and without 'shame' as'blessed' Christians . At the same time, they have to wage spiritual war on those who undermine their 'good fortune'.

Neo-Pentecostalism found enormous traction in many African countries from the late 1970s onwards. It's also popularbeyond Africa . But it was only after apartheid that South Africans started flocking to these churches. Precise figures are lacking, but aPew Forum poll in 2006suggested that over 30% of urban South Africans subscribed to neo-Pentecostalism. Thirteen years later, that figure is much higher.

A Pentecostalised public space

As Zuma increasingly fudged the lines between his political and spiritual struggles, his fellow politicians responded in increasingly 'religious' ways. Political lackeys sympathised with his 'persecution' and saw it as the dark work of invisible forces andevil conspirators .

Even Zuma's political enemies increasingly claimed that his continued rule was due tooccult powers . Thus the public space in South Africa, as inother African countries , became increasingly 'Pentecostalised'.

As African studies scholar, Adriaan van Klinken, hasnoted , charismatic Pentecostal Christianity is a 'public religion par excellence'. As it engages with social and political issues, it reshapes the public sphere as the scene of a spiritual battle between God and the Devil.

Neo-Pentecostalism in Africa

Zuma's public life has much in common with flamboyant political leaders and former leaders on the continent who have publicly declared their membership, leadership or support of Neo-Pentecostal churches. These leadersincludeTeodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, of Equatorial Guinea, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Jerry Rawlings, Ghana's former long-term military ruler.

On the close alliance between some African leaders and neo-Pentecostal churches, Paul Gifford, a professor of religion and philosophy, has remarked that this 'domesticated Christianity', was not'concerned with a renewed orderor a 'new Jerusalem'.

Neo-Pentecostals are thus unlike previous Christian movements such asblack liberation theologythat advocated for social justice and the alleviation of poverty. Instead, they individualise the causes of material and political suffering. Followers are urged to fight the Devil rather than push for radical reform. This makes them deeply conservative political subjects.

In the case of Zuma, a specifically neo-Pentecostal ethic has emboldened him to celebrate his conspicuous consumption and political invincibility. This, as scores of his religious followers aspire to similar feats of spiritual accomplishment.

    Jacob Zuma
    State capture
    The Guptas
    Charismatic Christian leaders
    Religion in Africa
    Christianity in South Africa


How Pentecostalism explains Jacob Zuma's defiance and lack of shame

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