Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, a tough act to follow

Will the new CRL Rights Commission chair be as fearless as Mkhwanazi-Xaluva when it comes to abusive religious leaders and traditionalists who want to maintain male dominance?

Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva gained a few enemies during her time as chairperson of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, otherwise known as the CRL Rights Commission. They were mostly ardent traditionalists, angry that a woman had meddled in the affairs of male initiation, and religious followers.

“You are often dealing with emotive issues, which are heavily tied to the fabric of a person,” she said, but “you have to stand up when you feel that the rights of people are being infringed upon.”

As her tenure drew to a close at the end of February, Mkhwanazi-Xaluva told New Frame that although it was not an easy job, the commission under her leadership had shown valour and stood its ground in protecting citizens.

“The work of protection is very difficult work … People would rather we do promotional work … because more often than not, sometimes you need to protect people from themselves or from people that they value,” she said.

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Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, who was born and raised in Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal, said upending the CRL Rights Commission to be more reflective of the changing needs of society came with its dangers. Despite this, the commission remained undeterred in its endeavours.

“There are thousands of people who are abusing others because they believe in God or ancestors. They are exploited, violated and abused,” she said.

Mkhwanazi-Xaluva may have made enemies among male traditional leaders and cultural activists, but the commission made great strides in ensuring that the initiation space is not dominated by men despite it being a traditionally and historically male-dominated space. Breaking down these barriers is a big achievement for her.

“Now they want me to come and talk about initiation. Before, MPs [members of Parliament] who were women were not allowed to sit in while initiation was being discussed, they would be asked to leave. We have made a breakthrough, I don’t feel anyone should still be saying that this is a man’s story. There is serious groundwork that has been done in terms of moving into new territory,” she said.

“I have also been surprised at how people’s minds have been arrested by certain religious leaders,” said Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, reflecting on her tenure.

Religious leaders have a dignified status, she said, and it is regarded as intrusive and out of place to warn people about these powerful leaders that they revere so much. Some pastors benefit from their congregants standing up for them, because this protects their profits, she added.

“The system becomes abusive and, as a nation, we need to find a mechanism to protect people in those circumstances. Churches are becoming a nightmare, revelations about sexual abuses … How do you deal with that?”

Religion employed for ungodly purposes

The commission launched an investigation into the commercialisation of religion and found mountains of incontrovertible evidence showing that there are many who use religion to take advantage of others.

“At some point, it got very dangerous,” said Mkhwanazi-Xaluva. Despite layers of security, including a metal detector and security guards, someone made it into her office and threatened her for investigating a particular religious leader. The man is now serving a prison term.

“As we push for regulations in this sector, you are up against serious resistance. Not to mention that Parliament has also confused itself. They are saying the state should be removed from the church and the CRL should not be interfering in the church.”

Although her impasse with Parliament was not resolved, she said members missed an opportunity to show leadership in the case of the Mancobo brothers. From Ngcobo in the Eastern Cape, the brothers called themselves the Seven Angels during their testimony to the commission.  

The Seven Angels were accused of running a cult-like church that required its members to give their worldly possessions to the church, excommunicate themselves from their communities and live in the church compound. Women were held captive in rooms and children were forced to quit school because education was seen as a root of evil.

In February last year, attackers entered the Ngcobo police station and killed five police officers and a soldier before fleeing with ammunition and a police van. The police got a tip-off that the suspects were hiding at the church but were met with a hail of bullets when they approached. The result was a bloodbath in which police officers and congregants died or sustained injuries.

A number of women and children were rescued from the church following the incident and one of the Mancobo brothers appeared in court for sexual crimes, including rape and sexual grooming.

The CRL Rights Commission maintains that it alerted Parliament to the imminent danger but that its warnings fell on deaf ears, resulting in preventable deaths.

Exploitative religious leaders

Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said it would have been uncharacteristic of the commission to ignore exploitative religious leaders. “Political heads are not being guided by legislation but by people on the line with people telling them what to do,” she said, explaining that some wait for instructions from superiors instead of using the prescripts of the law.

“Parliament is reluctant to be seen to be taking a stance against the religion itself. They want to sit on the fence and think that we will all be happy. But this is a time for leadership, it’s time to say what is difficult to say.”

Mkhwanazi-Xaluva’s concern is that those not arrested but still associated with an unsavoury incident or person can continue to run a church because there is no law stopping them, despite it being clear during their testimony to the commission that they are not fit to run a church.

“Our impasse is that we need legislation and we need it fast. We need the [Constitutional Court] to explain to us whether freedom of religion doesn’t have limits, because there are limitations to every freedom. There must be accountability and, right now, who is holding them [the religious sector] accountable?”

She said religious peers should be, but aren’t holding each other accountable – and it is the ultimate responsibility of the state to protect its citizens.

“Constitutionally, the only space where this is protected is the CRL commission. All we are doing is being a secretariat of the peer review,” said Mkhwanazi-Xaluva.

The commission’s report detailed the first time the commercialisation of religion has been investigated and the religious sector asked to account for its actions. Some testified that they were only accountable to God as he had appointed them.

“Our response has always been, if it’s unconstitutional, then it’s wrong … The doctrine should not be unconstitutional and if it clashes with the Constitution, the Constitution should be paramount,” said Mkhwanazi-Xaluva.

She said that in most of the churches they investigated, women were being taken advantage of while men held high positions.

Leaderless and unable to forge ahead

The institution Mkhwanazi-Xaluva headed has 12 commissioners and has been active since 2013.

It helped the active participation of citizens in nation-building, pursued criminal charges against those hiding behind religion and encouraged people to come forward about abuse in initiation and traditional healing schools and sexual violations occurring in churches.

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Through the work of the CRL Rights Commission, sexual abuse survivors such as Cheryl Zondi, who spoke out against Nigerian pastor Tim Omotoso, were able to come forward about their experiences.

“The country has moved to a stage where people are ready to say if something untoward is happening in these churches and in these cultural settings, which I think five years ago people weren’t willing to name it and identify it. One thing we have achieved as the CRL is to get the nation talking and to start questioning and to start being more alert,” she said.

The constitutionally mandated body has been left without a chair or commissioners for the past three months, pending an appointment by President Cyril Ramaphosa. As such, all investigations have been paused as section 7 of the CRL Act states that a meeting cannot be convened without the presence of a chair and commissioners.

Ramaphosa spokesperson Khusela Diko referred New Frame to the Department of Co-Operative Governance and Traditional Affairs for comment on when the appointment would be made, as it has to supply the president with a shortlist of candidates. Department spokesperson Musa Zondi told New Frame that the process was in its final stages, with vetting taking place.

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