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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

A history of saints and the lure of a presidential throne

Jameson Maluleke - 2009-03-26

When Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu handed over the national leadership to former President Nelson Mandela soon after the latter's release from a prolonged imprisonment in 1990, the whole nation was stunned. Nobody had ever imagined that the courageous cleric would decline an opportunity to serve the country as a cabinet minister, or a deputy president for that matter. Tutu had gone through hell and damnation at the hands of the oppressors during the struggle. The whole nation thought it would be a fitting tribute if he was accorded a high government position.

Responding to the shocked nation, Tutu made it be known that he became a national leader by default as Mandela and the host of national leaders were languishing in jail. Perhaps Tutu had made a covenant with God to remain true to his calling as the Lord’s servant to the end of his days on earth. Perhaps he had a vision not to dabble in politics. Either way, Tutu never became a politician, though his detractors dubbed him a political priest.

In a striking contrast with Tutu, the new generation of clerics is fascinated by ambition, fame, eminence and a ruthless search for the god of profit. In the early days of our democracy, a diehard priest had accepted an appointment as a deputy minister in Mandela’s cabinet in defiance of his church, which was against its priests serving in the government as administrators. In later years comrades accused the holy man of being autocratic (whenever a comrade’s feathers no longer dazzle his/her fellow comrades, such a comrade is declared to be autocratic). The defiant priest was forced to disappear into thin air (ie take early retirement). His defiance shows that today men of cloth are not prepared to go Tutu’s way.

The arrival of the erstwhile Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, Mvume Dandala, in the political arena is yet another sign that more and more priests are lured by the ambition to inhabit the corridors of power. Dandala’s entry into politics took the country by storm. Almost overnight tongues started wagging. His admirers called him a “Messiah”, while rival politicians dubbed him a “hired priest” purportedly to fill the leadership void caused by a power conflict within the COPE’s leadership.

His newly chosen career also evokes memories of other Methodist Church bishops who abandoned their service to the Almighty to venture into politics. Images of a pint-sized Bishop Abel Muzorewa keep on jumping to this author’s face whenever the issue of bishops and politics avails itself for discussion. Billed as the first black prime minister of a coalition government in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia in 1979, the good bishop was hailed by Ian Smith’s government as the true liberator of the bleeding land. Sadly, the liberation movements dismissed the bishop’s fragile reign as an expressed intent by the colonial masters to prolong minority rule.

Under Zimbabwe's new constitution former Methodist Bishop Canaan Banana became the first (ceremonial) president in 1980. It is not clear why Banana was anointed as the first black president of Zimbabwe. Perhaps Mugabe was anxious for a spiritual searchlight such as Banana to guide the nation to democratic maturity. In the years that followed, Mugabe hurled Banana off the presidential throne and later detained the priest for allegedly sodomising several young men.

Back home, the Methodists' former presiding Bishop Montlenyane Stanley Mogoba had failed to use his bishopric skills to unite warring factions in the Pan African Congress (PAC) on being appointed president of the party. The PAC became more divided during his tenure than at any time in its colourless history. He was forced to retire without any meaningful contribution to a party riddled with internal strife.

A word of warning is necessary before we proceed with our heart-to-heart discussion. This essay is not intended to be a comparative study of bishop presidents or to put Dandala’s name in a negative light. Let us face it: Dandala is a leader of world repute. He has been a cleric for more than thirty years. He rose through the ranks of the Methodist Church until he was appointed the church’s presiding bishop. He has just returned from Nairobi in Kenya where he served as general secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches for five years. He is also reputed to be a skilled negotiator and a peacemaker.

But why would COPE go out of its way to recruit a cleric who spent several decades behind the pulpit to be its presidential candidate? The sensitive but troublesome question keeps on popping into the heads of all those interested in the development of the new party. Having gone through the baptism of fire as a United Democratic Front (UDF) activist, Dandala later chose a career as a man of God than rather than as an activist or freedom fighter. His protracted sojourn in religion has left him with no training in the rough and tumble of politics to boast of. Let it also be said that activism does not qualify one to lead a fast-growing political party. Such a person needs years of experience in political leadership, and to climb steadily through the ranks until he/she reaches the top.

Are Terror Lekota and his lieutenant and companion-in-arms Mbhazima Shilowa so short-sighted that they are incapable of guiding their own brainchild through the labyrinth of the pending elections and beyond? For all his being allegedly autocratic, Lekota is a seasoned leader who has been an activist, a Robben Island prison graduate and a civil servant. He is one man who can handle Zuma. He is not afraid of Msholozi (Zuma’s clan’s name), and he is always ready to tumble with him in the mud. Like Lekota, former unionist Shilowa is a veteran politician whose skills are in the field of strategic organisation.
In politics, as in social life, anything is possible, hence the saying that politics makes strange bedfellows. A bosom friend today may become a formidable foe tomorrow. An arch-rival may turn out to be a sponsor in due course. Years ago, our parents thought apartheid was eternal. It was with a great disbelief that they learned of the demise of the hated system and the advent of democracy. The act of appointing Dandala to lead a newly established party whose custodians have spent many sleepless nights building and consolidating its power base should not have come as a surprise, as we are all aware that probabilities and possibilities are the lifeblood of politics.

Shakespeare reminds us: “In my stars I am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em.” A total stranger from the backwoods of South African politics trampled on every ambitious politician to occupy the highest position in a political grouping for a simple reason: some have greatness thrust upon them; and the word "impossible" is found only in the dictionary of fools, as General Napoleon used to tell his valiant and loyal soldiers.

The mere fact that Dandala has been projected as a stainless steel leader - blameless, as opposed to the ANC's president, Jacob Zuma – does not augur well for his newly chosen career. Politics is a dirty game which does not regard morals as part of its being. A very thin membrane divides the rights and wrongs in politics. Some politicians can be as ruthless as a serial killer as long as their callousness boosts their chances to achieve a goal. This kind of a behaviour is prohibited in a democracy such as ours, but the temptation is there.
Dandala comes across as far too gentle and forgiving for a leader of a party which seeks to unseat the ruling party. When he meekly pointed out the other day that Mandela belongs to all South Africans, he was quickly shunted into submission by no other than Zuma. When the ANC leader roared that Mandela belongs to no other party but the ANC, Dandala never roared back – he didn’t respond. If he is to survive in politics, he must be prepared to be dirty - learn to roll and tumble in the mud of politics. A toughie, that is what politics expects a leader to be. Dandala is in for a big surprise if he does not want to discard his priestly gentleness.

Well, the good bishop entered into politics well aware that power corrupts. His priestly predecessors set a good example for him not to allow power to go to his head. The whole nation is behind him; we are praying for daily for his success, and that he should choose Tutu’s leadership style rather than that of Muzorewa and his friends. However, whether he would succeed as a president or not would also depend on his prowess as a navigator. Let him lead like a Moses with the wisdom of King Solomon.


Bishop Abel Tendekayi Muzorewa, Methodist bishop and nationalist leader, was prime minister of the coalition government called Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, which failed in its attempt to create a biracial government to end the civil war in the formerly white-controlled Rhodesia.

Reproduced, with permission, from An African Biographical Dictionary, 1994, edited by Norbert C Brockman, Santa Barbara, California.

Bishop Stanley Mokgoba was a Methodist bishop and PAC president.

Canaan Banana, Methodist priest and first president of Zimbabwe - from Wikipedia

From Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, 1601:

Malvalio: In my stars I am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em.