Religious freedom plays an important role in a person’s life. During trying times, faith allows a person to find solace, as they search for meaning in the world.
Such is the importance of religious freedom, the South African Constitution states that everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.
But can South Africans truly practice freedom of religion without being judged? Can we truly express our beliefs? And can people from different faiths find a common ground for the greater good of mankind during these troubled times?
The Newcastillian – Online Daily News looks at three diverse faiths in search of an answer.
Hendro van der Walt is a Christian Reform Theologian. A man who prides himself on being a devout Christian. However, what are his thoughts on religious freedom in South Africa?
“Freedom of religion is one of the most important things in our country. Everyone has the right to worship in the way they see fit. But, as a Christian, I believe and view things in a certain way.”
With this in mind, Hendro says that sadly, the government has censored faith in certain ways.
“Regardless of what a person’s faith says, the government still dictates what should be done and does not look at faith first.”
He says one just needs to look at how leaders and Christians often compromise their ethics, in order to see how certain aspects of political correctness has had a devastating effect on the Christian Church.
“A person should not compromise their faith and simply go along with the government and society. Just look at how Christianity is being attacked in America. This is because certain faiths have an issue with Christianity.”
Hendro adds that Christianity is being swept aside in America and he believes South Africa is following the same path.
“In a large way, America is dictating to our youth and the church should stand up,” he says.
As Hendro believes Christianity is being swept aside, what are his thoughts on the establishment of the South African Satanic Church and the growing number of Pagans?
“The Satanic Church is an extension of the things that have gone unchecked by the Christian Church and the religious community. Paganism is also making a comeback and people have chosen to follow another set of beliefs. It is all a matter of now seeing the truth and the moral implications,” Hendro says.
He adds that atheism is also adamant in denying the existence of God. But he believes the more atheists do this, the more they prove God exists.
“One can just look at the old South American tribes, they were worshipping their gods without any outside influence. In general, you just have to look at the world to know there is something bigger out there.”
Furthermore, Hendro believes that as people stray away from their faith, making ethical decisions becomes more difficult.
“How can you make a moral or ethical decision if there is no faith behind that decision? Every single decision must be based on faith,” he emphasises.
He adds that the 10 commandments found in the Christian Bible and Jewish Torah form a strong basis of every country’s legal system. “These ethics come from God. The God that we should worship.”
As the world changes, what does Hendro feel are some of the biggest misconceptions around Christianity?
He says one first needs to ask the question, what is Christianity? “It is not a religion, but rather a way of life. You cannot fit it into a box, and you cannot express the essence of God.”
Another misconception that exists, Hendro says, is that people believe they are Christian or someone else is Christian, simply because their families are Christian.
“You are only a Christian when you have a revelation and accept that Christ is your saviour. Also, if you allow society and culture to influence you, you are not a Christian.”
During these trying times in the world, does Hendro feel Christianity can work alongside other belief systems for the greater good?
“According to the reform faith, I feel you should not just accept God’s word and Jesus Christ’s salvation, but you should rather live it.”
Adding to this, Hendro says one should look at 2 Timothy 3, verses 1 to 5, which states:
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
“In society, to function in a humanistic way, it is important to hold hands and work together but we can’t work together in a religious way. It is difficult to work with someone who does not share your beliefs.”
What is one of the most valuable life lessons Hendro has learned through his faith?
“It is that Christ calls the biggest sinners to the road of redemption. I just look at where I was as a person and God took everything from me. He just let me live and showed me there was more to the world than physical life. I have learned it is important to be humble before God and to be a warrior before him.”
Damon Leff, the founding director of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA), explains he self-identified as a Pagan in his early 20s, while serving a six-year community sentence as a conscientious objector to military service in apartheid’s SADF.
“My personal Pagan religion is Witchcraft, and I identify as a Pagan Witch, not as a Wiccan. My religious influences are derived from ancient European magical systems, religions and folklore, not from Gerald Gardner or British Wicca,” he explains.
Whilst most Pagans identify as polytheists, Damon says he does not. “I am an animist and a pantheist. Like Epicurus, I believe the gods exist in some form or another, but not in the same way a polytheist might believe in their spiritual existence or material influence.”
Throughout his journey, what does he feel are some of the biggest misconceptions about his belief system?
“Paganism is not a single religion or even a single religious philosophy. Modern Paganism is composed of several clearly defined and distinct philosophies, belief systems, and both new and reconstructed pre-Christian pagan religions,” he begins explaining.
He says most observers misconstrue modern Paganism as Wicca. However, Wicca is only one modern religion embraced under the umbrella of Paganism.
“There are many others, including reconstructed and revived Roman and Greek classical religions, Norse religions such as Asatru and Heathenism, or the Celtic religion of Druidry. Modern Paganism also draws on the long history of Western Occultism and Western Magical traditions. Paganism is therefore not a single faith, but many faiths.”
Where do some of these misconceptions stem from though?
“For as long as I can remember, religious leaders in South Africa have defamed minority faiths as “dangerous”, “violent”, and “harmful”. This narrative has become an established institutional assumption with politicians, educators, counsellors, social workers and police officers. It has effectively denied and prevented members of minority faiths from voluntarily participating in larger inter-religious and inter-faith dialogue and engagement. We are simply denied access. This narrative still serves to marginalise members of minority faiths by denying them true social equality and dignity.”
Amidst the misconceptions around his faith, what are some of the most valuable life lessons he has learned during his spiritual journey?
“From my own faith, I have learned that the notion that people are somehow separate from Nature, or that some people are separated from others because of the colour of their skin, or their choice of sexual orientation or gender, or their choice of religion (or absence of one), is an altogether false and poorly manufactured societal consensus.”
Furthermore, as an animist, Damon says he must acknowledge that all life forms are interdependent for our common survival and well-being.
“As a pantheist, I must acknowledge the inherent unity of all matter and energy. I choose to identify that unity is ‘divine in nature’ in the sense that the All is not simply a sum of its parts, but something greater than the sum of its parts.”
He adds that these implicit acknowledgements determine how, and why, he must engage with others.
“For me, they affirm our own country’s Constitutional and legal approach to the recognition and protection of individual, socio-economic and environmental rights and obligations. We have a common duty to care for, to cooperate with, and to participate equally in our unfolding existence on planet Earth.”
Does Paganism have a large following in South Africa?
Damon explains this is a question which has vexed Pagans for many years.
“There is no official or credible poll on numbers. Various Pagan leaders have offered their own either over-inflated or under-estimated figures over the last 20 years. I currently estimate no more than between 10 000 to 15 000 actual self-identifying Pagans in South Africa.”
He adds that his estimate is based on his long observation of social media interaction between Pagans across the country.
“Most South African social media groups (which range in participative membership of between 2000 and 8000 people – and not all South Africans) are composed of largely the same members. Existing Pagan organisations are often composed of the same members. Known Pagan groups, whether covens, lodges, nemetons, study groups or some other form of a congregation of adherents, tend to remain small (well below 100 actual participants each). All or most in-person Pagan contact is also online.”
How does Damon think freedom of belief has developed in South Africa? Does he feel those who belong to minority belief systems are still victimised? Or does he feel people are becoming more accepting?
“Several court judgements have developed and are developing in South Africa’s jurisprudence with respect to religion – including establishing its rights, protections and limitations. This emerging process has a long way to go still,” Damon explains.
He says it is a necessary progression and extension of promoting a new culture of equality and dignity for all.
“30 years ago, religious privilege was reserved for the few. One might think that because of notable Constitutional Court decisions affirming the right to religious choice and equality, that we now live in a society that acknowledges, embraces and protects religious diversity. This is not true. In practice, custody battles involving at least one parent who identifies as a Pagan, still revolve around assertions concerning the alleged harmful nature of that parent’s religion on the well-being of their children. In practice, teenagers who grow up in Christian homes and who choose to convert to a Pagan religion are marginalised by educators and ostracised by parents and peers.”
Furthermore, he adds that in practice, Pagan religious marriage officers, appointed in terms of the Civil Union Act, still have to field often hostile discrimination and religious prejudice from Home Affairs officials opposed to both same-sex marriages and heterosexual marriages conducted in terms of the CU Act, and / or opposed to working with Pagans.
“Of course, the complete absence (through deliberate exclusion) of Pagan religious leaders from high profile Inter-faith panels such as the National Interfaith Council of South Africa (NICSA) serves merely to marginalise any and all emerging religious minorities. Without interfaith dialogue, there is no opportunity for either transformation of existing institutionalised bias against religious minorities, and no opportunity for the development of true equality in the expression of religious diversity.”
Damon believes this institutionalised bias is still shared by a majority of South Africans.
“We see it in its ugly idiocy in the mindless commentary by ordinary people on social media every day.”
Furthermore, not many know, but the South African Police Service once had a unit designated for the Occult. The SAPS Occult Related Crimes Unit was established in 1992 during the final years of apartheid by born-again Christian, Kobus Jonker, prompted by former Minister of Law and Order Adriaan Vlok.
Jonker joined the SAPS in 1969 and was previously head of the Port Elizabeth Murder and Robbery Unit.
As late as 2006, SAPS defined occult-related crime on the Occult Related page of their website as follows:
“Occult-related crime means any human conduct that constitutes any legally recognized crime, the modus operandi of which relates to or emanates primarily from any belief or seeming belief in the occult, witchcraft, satanism, mysticism, magic, esotericism and the like. Included in the scope of occult-related crime are ritual muti/medicine murders, witch purging, witchcraft-related violence and sect-related practices that pose a threat to the safety and security of the Republic of South Africa and/or its inhabitants.”
— SAPS, Objectives of the Investigation and Prevention of Occult-Related Crime by the General Detectives
With a unit such as this once in existence, does Damon feel the unit contributed to the way people see minority belief systems?
“The ORC played a key role in both advocating religious fear, hatred of religious diversity and cementing overt discrimination against religious minorities. This institutionalisation of bias against religious diversity, a product of apartheid itself, continues to influence the way in which the SAPS handles matters of religious diversity. I have long called for the eradication of the ORC, and the South African Pagan Rights Alliance has actively lobbied against the work of the ORC for many years.”
Damon says SAPRA takes some pride in having been responsible for scuppering the re-emergence of the specialised unit under Attie Lamprecht, after its new mandate was leaked to the organisation.
“Whether others choose to recognise and credit our work and our advocacy against the ORC’s existence and influence is immaterial. We will continue to keep a close eye on members associated with the defunk unit, as well as on those members of the SAPS who left the force after Jonker’s retirement to found Christian spiritual warfare groups aimed specifically at Occultists, Witches and other Pagans. We have no intention of allowing them or their organisations to ever discriminate against religious minorities again.”
In a time of turmoil, does Damon feel different belief systems should find common ground for the greater good and help people?
“Yes, I do. Without interfaith dialogue and cooperation, there will be no opportunity for either transformation of existing institutionalised bias against religious minorities, or the development of true equality in the expression of religious diversity. Pagans seek mutual dialogue on equal terms though. We are not, and will never be silent or subservient observers of the religious agendas of other faiths.”
Does Damon think that different belief systems can work together?
“I do believe that religious diversity is an inevitability. Different faiths have more than enough commonality, as human beings, to be able to shift disagreements on theological matters aside for the sake of mutual cooperation and action. It has to start however with removing the ‘gatekeepers of bias who remain intent on keeping those theological differences alive – front and centre – in order to hold the doors to mutuality and cooperation firmly shut for religious minorities.”
Riaan Swiegelaar and Adri Norton have made national headlines, after establishing a church that has captivated the attention of millions of South Africans.
As the co-founders of the South African Satanic Church, the duo has found that religious freedom is not an easy path in South Africa.
Adri began her journey in Satanism two years ago. She explains that while she was not looking for anything specific, she was on a spiritual journey which led her to Satanism,
“When I read the Satanic Bible by Anton LaVey, I found myself in it. Satanism is about being responsible for your own actions, accepting there are consequences for these actions. It was as if something just clicked inside me.”
Riaan began his journey in Satanism just over five years ago and his reasons are similar to those of Adri’s. “I was a pastoral councillor, before making my way onto different spiritual paths. When I read the Satanic Bible, I saw a lot of myself in it.”
For decades, Satanism has been viewed with fear and cynicism. Out of this, a great number of misconceptions were created.
Adri explains that one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the belief system is that Satanists worship the devil.
“We see Satan as an archetype of who we are and our human nature. We do not refer to Satan as a him, as that could be seen as a being,” Adri explains.
In fact, one of the nine Satanic statements reads as follows:
Satan represents man as just another animal, sometimes better, more often worse than those that walk on all-fours, who, because of his ‘define spiritual and intellectual development’, has become the most vicious animal of all!
Another misconception is that Satanism condones and performs animal and human sacrifice, while also participating in mass orgies. Yet another misconception is that Satanism is involved in child trafficking.
This according to Riaan is the furthest thing from the truth.
“It is unsatanic to do anything harmful to humans or any animal. We honour all living beings. As Satanists and as human beings, we are responsible for their care,” he emphasises.
As for the orgies, Adri says while sex plays an important role in human nature, the way Satanism views sex is a far cry from the rumours surrounding the belief system.
Both Adri and Riaan believe the occult unit has also played a major role in the way people view Satanism.
“I have a lot of literature on the Occult Unit and the way they were trained. They played a big role and started a lot of the misconceptions,” Riaan explains.
He said this was sometimes done by the unit going to schools, making uninformed accusations, even going as far as to print a book on what to look out for.
One of the most popular urban legends around Satanism, is if people played music backwards, they would be able to hear the devil.
“If you look at the way people saw the police and the dominees back in the 80s, compared to now, what they said back then was taken as the gospel. But now with all the available information and the Internet, things are changing,” Riaan says.
Adri explains it is also important to highlight, the Satanic Church does not convert people. Neither do they intend to convert children. In order to become a member of the church, a person has to be 18 or older.
With plenty of misconceptions surrounding Satanism, Riaan and Adri explain they have learned valuable life lessons on their journey.
“One of the most valuable life lessons I have learned is taking responsibility for your actions, owning up to your mistakes, apologising and fixing the problem. You can’t deny what you have done and you have to learn from your mistakes.”
She says Satanism has also allowed her to get to know herself better, studying herself and seeing what her talents and weaknesses are and bettering herself from there. “Satanism is about wisdom of self.”
Riaan says as he comes from a middle-class Christian home, one of the most valuable life lessons he has learned is that he is his own salvation. “We do not have a saviour and we can’t expect others to take responsibility for our actions. I have to take responsibility for myself, for my business. Satanism is about constant self-study.”
Since establishing the South African Satanic Church, they explain there is a large Satanic following in South Africa.
However, it is only now that Satanists have a platform, that they are able to come forward and practice their beliefs on.
“It shows that people are questioning their beliefs and are evolving. There will always be people who follow mainstream religions and it is good, as it does play a role in society,” Adri explains.
While the Satanic church is still relatively new in South Africa, there are certain challenges which they are facing. These stem from the misconceptions surrounding the belief and the way people view and respond to Satanists in general.
How do they feel freedom of religion has changed in South Africa?
Riaan explains that due to the constitution allowing for freedom of religion, people are not able to discriminate against various religions openly.
“People are not that eager to discriminate against us openly, although they might still ostracise others or talk behind their backs,” he says.
However, the two explain at times they are met with hostility and a certain degree of hate due to people being uneducated on Satanism and what it truly stands for.
Do Adri and Riaan feel people from different faiths can work together for the greater good?
“I want to say yes, as, in an ideal world, Christians would come to us and learn more about us, but mainstream religions often stop their members from learning about us. They don’t even want their members to come onto our website, because they are worried people will become possessed by demons,” Adri says.
Riaan adds that he would like to see people from different faiths uniting for the greater good. “In terms of worship, we can’t. But we can all do our bit for others.” This, he says, can only be done if the massive divide is closed and people can start working together.
With different outlooks on life and the world as we see it, religious freedom still has a long journey ahead of it.
As per many diverse cultures found across the world today, mainstream religions tend to be favoured, or better yet, accepted and are generally seen as more palatable by the vast majority of society. This tends to stem from a lack of knowledge surrounding the various religions (including mainstream religions) and appears to be the gleaming problem.
In a world demanding equality across various human-related variables such as race and religion. It is highly imperative that religious leaders and institutes set aside the 1700’s mentality towards each other’s beliefs and look at a forward-thinking solution in promoting equality and unity, by encouraging their congregations to further their knowledge by learning more about each other, as opposed to dividing each other through made-up, hearsay stories and harshly incorrect facts.