Unbelief in South Africa

by Christo Roberts | Oct 27, 2017

Unlike countries such as Britain and the United States where organised opposition to religion has long been the norm and a colourful history of unbelief exists, South Africa has only recently, particularly after 1994, experienced an upsurge in the formation of organisations of unbelievers. One important reason why freethinkers in this country did not dare come out of the closet before the advent of universal franchise was that unbelief was inextricably linked to the racial politics of the time.

As David Tribe points out in his book 100 Years of Freethought (1967), in the nineteenth century the the British National Secular Society strongly supported the rights of Blacks in South Africa. That made any unbelieving individual suspect in the eyes of the rulers of the two independent states (Transvaal and the Orange Free State) as well as the two British colonies (the Cape Colony and Natal). The other reason why unbelievers were few and far between, was the intense religiosity of South Africans generally and the attempts by the authorities to stamp out any religious dissent by labeling it blasphemous. The only freethinker of note in the nineteenth century was Olive Schreiner (1855 – 1920). In her book The Story of anAfrican Farm (1883), she critically examined religion, among other things. Her view on the subject is described by Wikipedia as follows: “Although she may be called a lifelong freethinker, she continued to adhere to the spirit of the Christian Bible and developed a secular version of the worldview of her missionary parents, with mystical elements.”

The plight of unbelievers did not improve after the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. Organisations of freethinkers existed briefly during the first years of the Union but soon disappeared in the hostile environment of the time. The views of the Dutch Reformed Church became very influential throughout the whole country and Sunday observance laws were for instance passed at their behest. During this time the only reported prosecution for blasphemy in South Africa took place namely R v Webb 1934 AD 493.That happened as a result of a story that was published in a newspaper. In it a nun hallucinated that she was having sex with Jesus. Although it was argued on appeal that the Common Law crime of blasphemy had fallen into disuse, the Court wouldn’t hear of it and justified the existence of the crime on the basis that it prevents a “…breach of peace.” Relying on Common Law authorities of long ago, the Court, moreover, expressed the view that blasphemy also consists in denying the existence of God.

When the Nationalist Party came to power in 1948, its politicians relied on the theologians of the Dutch Reformed Church to provide the intellectual rationale for Apartheid while the crime of blasphemy was supplemented by a number of statutory offences of a similar nature. In addition to section 2(1) of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1909 which already made the use of blasphemous language in a public place punishable, parliament passed section 35(e) of Act 70 of 1957 criminalising blasphemous language on the South African railways as well as section 94(c) of Post Office Act of 1958 which made it a crime to send blasphemous material through the Post Office. The most important piece of legislation of this nature, though, was section 47(2)(b) of the Publications Act of 1974 which empowered the State to ban any publication, including film, deemed to be blasphemous or offensive to the religious convictions of any section to the South African population. This provision was employed to declare the film Mohammed, Messenger of God undesirable in 1977.

In these circumstances any organisation devoted to the critical examination of religion was bound to face an uphill battle. Despite this, Edward Roux, professor of Botany at Wits, founded the Humanist Association of Johannesburg in 1953 but two years later changed the name of the organisation to the Rationalist Association of Johannesburg. Roux tried his level best to promote evolution at a time when Biblical fundamentalism reigned supreme but, as may be expected, his efforts came to naught. What complicated things for Roux (and his organisation) was the fact that he had been a member of the Communist Party of South Africa some time ago . Although he subsequently resigned and co-founded the Liberal Party, this change of hart did not impress the authorities in the least. As far as they were concerned, he was still a dangerous radical who had to be closely watched by the security police for subversive activities. What proved to be Roux’s undoing was the decision of the Rationalist Association to publish Bertrand Russell’s essay “Why I Am not a Christian” despite the the fact that it had been found to be “blasphemous” and had accordingly been declared an undesirable publication. (The ban was later lifted.) From 1964 onwards an increasing number of banning orders were served on Roux prohibiting him to lecture, write and attend meetings. Needless to say, the Rationalist Association could not continue under these circumstances and it had to disband. Roux himself died in 1966.

As far as I am aware, it was only in the early 1980’s that an attempt was again made to establish an organisation of unbelievers. The Humanist Association of South Africa (HASA) was founded and led by Marian Lazerson (later Lurie) and headquartered in Johannesburg. It had a small number of members and I doubt whether it ever exceeded thirty. Although the membership was open to all, politics made this difficult and the association was accordingly lily white. It’s sister organization, The Association for the Rational Investigation of the Paranormal (ARIP) was simultaneously active in the Johannesburg area and many members of HASA also joined ARIP. I was one of those and I attended meetings of both organisations on a regular basis and also lectured at some stage on “African Witchcraft and the Law”. A number of prominent persons addressed us. One was Michael Arnheim, professor of ancient history at Wits and the author of Is Christianity True? (1984) and another was Leon Louw of the Free Market Foundation who, to my surprise, turned out to be an unbeliever.

Although we not harassed by the authorities, we were keenly aware of the fate of Roux and the defunct Rationalist Association and were at pains not to set a foot wrong. Still, I couldn’t help feeling anxious. I was after all a State Advocate and a member of the Attorney General’s Office in Pretoria. The nature of my duties not only required me to work closely with the Security Police, I was also one of a team of prosecutors who had been instructed to prosecute certain members of the United Democratic Front in the so-called Delmas Treason Trial in the 1980’s. (They were arraigned on charges ranging from treason to advancing the aims of the then banned ANC.) It would have created quite a stir if I had been arrested. I couldn’t help imagining the newspaper headlines : “Member of the Office of the Attorney General Arrested in terms of the Internal Security Act.” Fortunately, it never happened.

All the problems that unbelievers experienced over the years with blasphemy disappeared with the adoption with the new Constitution. New groups of freethinkers sprang up and flourished. The reason why blasphemy was no longer a threat was that it had been abolished by the Constitution without it specifically saying so. Commentators were quick to point out after it’s promulgation that Section 9(3) of the Constitution, Act 108 of 1996, which prohibits unfair discrimination on the basis of religion, renders the Common Law crime of blasphemy unconstitutional because it discriminates by only protecting the Christian religion. I doubt whether the negotiators at Codesa realised at the time what the implication of section 9(3) is, but it is at least a relief for those of us who hold Christianity in contempt to know that we need no longer feel threatened by the State if we make adverse comments about it. Some Christians, however, were very upset when they discovered that their religion is no longer protected and brought pressure to bear on the government to remedy the situation. Relying inter alia on the provisions of section 16(2)(c) of the Constitution which states that the right of freedom of expression does not extend to the “…advocacy of hatred that is based on…religion and that constitutes incitement to cause harm”, the government decided to prepare new legislation and consequently published the Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill for comment. After the cut off date for comments on 1 December 2016 had passed , we were told that these provisions would soon be enacted. This has not yet happened, but the Bill is, however, still available on the Internet. See here.

It will be seen that the relevant clause in the Bill is clause 4. It creates a multitude of crimes, but what is important for us is it states that an offence is committed if a person intentionally brings the religion or beliefs of another person or group of persons into contempt or ridicule. The requirements in the Constitution that there must be an “advocacy of hatred” and that it must be accompanied by an incitement to cause harm were simply disregarded in creating the offence. While it may seem very noble to protect the religious feelings of believers in this manner, it is already done by the Common Law crime of Crimen Iniuria which protects the so-called dignitas of a person and is wide enough to encompass the self-respect and feelings of chastity and piety that people may experience. As I see it, the reason why this piece of legislation is being prepared is that it recreates the crime of blasphemy in a new guise and sanctions outrageous and draconian sentences, far in excess of that which use to be imposed for either blasphemy or Crimen Iniuria. A prescribed sentence of up to ten (10) years imprisonment may now be imposed for the crime in terms of clause 6(3)!

A similarly objectionable provision in the Bill is clause 9 which enjoins the Minister of Education to prepare a program to “educate” school children and university students not to make themselves guilty of hate speech. To me it sounds suspiciously like the “re-education” camps of the communists where non-conformists were indoctrinated to become good communists. What, I wonder, prevents the minister from doing likewise and “educate” young people to become religious?

It is under the circumstances not strange that a number of commentators have expressed the view that if the bill becomes law in it’s present form, it will not pass constitutional muster. We will have to wait and see what the future holds. I find it ironic though, that just when we thought that we are out of the woods as far as blasphemy is concerned, we find ourselves confronting this new danger. How do the French say? “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – The more things change, the more they stay the same.