Dear Mr Kate
I am writing to you in your capacity as the Municipal Manager of the town where I was raised, for which I care, and to which I recently returned after an absence of more than ten years. I understand your appointment as Municipal Manager is a recent one. Congratulations, and I wish you well as you lead your colleagues along the challenging journey before you and work beside the municipality’s elected office bearers.
On 11 November, amid Makhanda’s ongoing water crisis, the Makana Municipality Communications Office sent Makhanda residents a message via social media updating us on the progress that was being made regarding the municipal water supply. I understood the message as an official communication sent on the municipality’s behalf and with your office’s knowledge and authority.
As a Christian who cares deeply about good governance, I was struck by the fact that the message relating to municipal governance and the challenges to water supply, in particular, on two occasions, referred to prayer.
After starting the social media note with positive feedback on activities relating to the re-establishment of Makhanda’s water supply, the author concluded the introductory passage: “We are only praying that it keeps on like that.” The second passage of the same correspondence read, in brackets, “praying that there won’t be any further major disruptions.”
I believe firmly in the power and necessity of prayer, and if I have understood correctly, what you said in an interview with Rod Amner of Grocott’s Mail shortly after your appointment, you also have an appreciation for engaging in conversation with divine power.
However, the social media message in question raises several issues. You and your colleagues should be aware that references to prayer or the communication of any religious orientation in official correspondence encourage Makhanda’s more critically-minded residents to ask, “Why are they citing prayer instead of doing their jobs properly?”, “Who are they praying to?” and “What does the God they are praying to say about governance?”
I must caution the municipality and its officials against including religious references in official communication. Residents are more interested in whether public servants are getting the job done and less in whether they are praying. Let government communication relate to governance, not religion. The communication sent out on behalf of the municipality originates from an official office. Such communication must, therefore, be reflective of that office and not the religious convictions of the person or persons who happen to be occupying that office.
Were the references to prayer a politically expeditious attempt by the municipality to assuage the residents of a town otherwise known as ‘The City of Saints’ and that happens to be located in a deeply religious country? If referring to prayer in the message in question was a political tactic, I want to encourage the municipality and its officials against using religion to deflect accountability or to build political capital. Human history is replete with examples of this. Apartheid South Africa is just one. When political leaders or government officials use religion for political purposes, they inevitably do so to the detriment of citizens and residents because they prioritise the maintenance or accumulation of power over the need to serve people.
When government officials really pray, and irrespective of who or what they may be praying to, I believe at least two conditions must be met. One, prayer must happen during work breaks (teatime and the designated lunch hour) and/or outside of official work hours to avoid distraction from the important work for which both religious and non-religious residents pay their rates and taxes. And, two, while prayer can (and from my faith perspective, should) occur in tandem with human effort, it shouldn’t be a substitute for human agency and responsibility, work ethic, and scientific method. Therefore, I appreciate the saying, “Work as though it all depends on you, and pray as though it all depends on God.” For work to be truly productive and meaningful, it must be founded on scientific inquiry and evidence.
Furthermore, I believe in a practical God: “One event that particularly stands out was the time when He raised a young girl from the dead – and then advised her family to give her something to eat!” I agree, therefore, with what you have said concerning the many challenges facing Makhanda. You believe, “It will take a human effort to push back those problems and find solutions.”
Local government’s claim to be praying or to communicate a religious orientation is an invitation to be held accountable according to more than just legislation or policy prescripts. It is an invitation to be held accountable according to the standards or measures set by religious doctrine and, in the case of my Christian faith, the Holy Scripture. So, who or what exactly were municipal officials praying to while trying to manage Makhanda’s water supply challenges on 11 November? If I were to assume that you and your colleagues fall within the 80+ % of South Africans who profess to be Christian, and assume, furthermore, as a result, that you were praying to the God of the Holy Bible, Jesus Christ, what does His word have to say about Christian behaviour in the context of governance?
Firstly, several biblical scriptures apply to every follower of Christ, across occupations or professions, including Christians who are government employees. I cite only a limited number of these scriptures below with the important qualification that although some may have been written in specific geographical, cultural and historical contexts, they each speak to transcendent values. These values are as applicable today in Makhanda as they were in Grahamstown and when the scriptures were written in their various ancient locations and cultures. Among these values are the following.
Integrity and goodness (Proverbs 11:3; Galatians 6:7-9; Titus 2:7; 2 Peter 1:5)
Justice and truth (Proverbs 11:1; 2 Timothy 2:15; Luke 16:10; Philippians 4:8; and Ephesians 4:25-32)
Wisdom (Ecclesiastes 10:10)
Steadfastness (James 1:4)
Competence and excellence (Proverbs 22:29; Daniel 6:3; and 1 Thessalonians 4:1)
Diligence (Proverbs 6:6-11; 10:4,13:4,14:23,18:19, 21:5, 21:25; 24:30-34; Acts 20:35)
Mutuality and reciprocity (Luke 6:31)
In the governance context, as in any other, love is supreme before the handful of values I have cited above. You may already know that the Church places significant value on prophecy. Yet, in 1 Corinthians 13:1-2 we read, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
More importantly, when asked which is the most important of all the commandments, Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31). One might ask, ‘But who is my neighbour?’ I recommend you read this commentary by the Theology of Work Project. Its author argues, and I agree, that our neighbours are people other than ourselves. This means everyone.
In 1 John 4:8, we read, “God is love”, and in Matthew 20:28, we read that Jesus “came not to be served but to serve.” Servanthood, therefore, is central to God’s character and, by implication, a fundamental component of the love that Christians, whether inside or outside of government, are commanded to exercise. Service is also, fundamentally, what should characterise the work of a public servant, irrespective of what religion they may follow, if any. Moreover, Christians who are public servants will do well to heed the scriptures above and the values they communicate if they are sincere in their desire to obey God and serve those created in His image (Genesis 1:27).
As I conclude my letter and continue with the assumption that if municipal officials on 11 November were praying, they were praying to the Christian God, I must also share my concern over the potential for the communication in question and messages like it to do damage to the Christian witness.
In this regard, please think of me as a faithful family member who does his best to encourage his kin to do what is right, just and ethical to establish and protect the credibility and reputation of the family name. Simultaneously, I must check my own behaviour and allow my kin to hold me to account so that what I do and say does not bring the family name into disrepute. In this sense, therefore, I must strive to bear good witness to my family name, or, put differently, I must be an ambassador on behalf of my family in a manner that reflects the values it holds dear.
Durrwell defines the Christian witness as bearing “witness to a person.” This person is Jesus Christ. Therefore, anyone professing to be a Christian is responsible for reflecting the character and living out the commands of God. No one can do this perfectly, but it is the ideal towards which every Christian must strive. It is the journey that every professing Christian must travel. This is a high standard and is, therefore, why my earlier questions about whom municipal officials were praying to on 11 November and what the being they were praying to says about governance are significant.
Having read a summary of the report drafted by Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) following its visit to Makana in September (available here), I think it fair to say that misalignment exists between how Makana Municipality has been performing and the values I have listed above – values that every professing Christian should be applying in their day-to-day living.
The report strongly suggests that even if municipal officials and employees are praying to the Christian God, they are not working according to the values evident in His word. Using words from the summary of the Portfolio Committee report, this not only has “consequences [that]substantially harm the citizenry,” but also questions the credibility of any religious claims or references contained in official municipal correspondence – references and claims that shouldn’t exist in the first place. This includes the reference to prayer in the social media message of 11 November.
For the sake of all involved – and I believe you will agree that many lives are affected – I hope that you, with the support of trusted colleagues, can ‘turn the ship around’ so that Makana Municipality’s performance reflects more and more the values that happen to be evident in Christian scripture.
Those involved in this push for improved governance need not be religious, but they must have an appreciation for the values that ultimately free people to pursue their purposes in an environment that is stable and secure. I want to encourage your colleagues who are religious to please be sure that when they profess their faith, be it directly or indirectly, they do so outside of official government communications. Furthermore, those who happen to be Christian (you may be among them – I don’t know) must be sure that when they profess the Christian faith, they are certain of their Christian witness.
Thank you for taking the time to read my lengthy letter. Please know I am available to assist in any way that I can. If nothing else, I will be praying.