Don’t bring God into politics, Mr President

Jacob Zuma is an embarrassment to his country – and to all who fought apartheid.

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Hitherto, it seemed almost impossible that Jacob Zuma, South Africa's notoriously priapic president, could bring further ignominy to an office only lately occupied by the world's most admired statesman, Nelson Mandela. But he's managed it – by claiming at a voter registration drive over the weekend that his party has a mandate from God.

"When you vote for the ANC," he said, "you are also choosing to go to heaven. When you don't vote for the ANC you should know that you are choosing that man who carries a fork, who cooks people. When you are carrying an ANC membership card, you are blessed. When you get up there, there are different cards used but when you have an ANC card, you will be let through to go to heaven."

After various opposition groups protested over his language, an ANC spokesman helpfully clarified the matter thus: "The figurative weekend expression by the president remains figurative and metaphoric. We are, therefore, in agreement with the president that not voting for the ANC is tantamount to throwing your vote in hell."

Leave aside the ANC's historic alliance with the South African Communist Party and its participation in the current government – one presumes the comrades, if they dare speak out against the increasingly intolerant ANC, have little time for such shameless God-bothering. Skate over, too, the fact that a man with "19 children, three wives and a girlfriend", as one commentator put it (though that may be out of date – it seems agreed that his progeny now number 20), hardly seems the best person to hold forth on the favours that the Christian God may issue or not.

But deities of any kind shouldn't come into it at all. Zuma's words step so disgracefully over the boundaries of where religious views may legitimately impinge on political discourse – over matters of conscience to do with life and death, for instance – that one can only feel sorry for the generation of dignified ANC leaders who fought the whites-only regime for so long. The spectacle of such a buffoon leading their country must be unendurable.

This is not the only case of politicians in democracies declaring there is a religious obligation to vote one way or another that I've come across recently. In a by-election just gone in Malaysia, the opposition Islamist PAS told Muslim voters that it was "haram" – religiously forbidden – to cast their ballot for the governing coalition. Thankfully, the tactic appeared to backfire (not least because it was hardly music to the ears of one its allies, the left-leaning, secular and almost entirely non-Muslim Democratic Action Party). Who, however, has the stature – and the will – to stand up to Zuma?

At first, on coming across this story, one my favourite First World War poems, by C J Squire, came to mind:

God heard the embattled nations sing and shout:

"Gott strafe England" – "God Save the King" – ,
"God this" – "God that" – and "God the other thing".
"My God," said God, "I've got my work cut out."

But then I had second thoughts. Squire's gentle send-up of Great War patriotism isn't remotely appropriate, for there is nothing funny about Zuma's behaviour. It would be wrong to ask if this is what anti-apartheid campaigners struggled so nobly for over many decades.

South Africans have every right to vote for whomever they please. Those who took such pleasure in that country's deliverance from apartheid, however, are entitled to their disappointment. Not just that the Rainbow Nation has chosen a bullying clown as its president, but that it has selected one who seems so willing to trample over the distinction between church and state and misappropriate religion for his own ends.

Most democracies regard that separation as a cherished safeguard of their liberty. Do South Africans just not care?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman