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Guidance for Christ-followers: Voting in the South African Elections

By Alexander F Venter, April 2024. 

I’ve been asked for my view as a Christ-follower on how to vote in the South African (SA) elections on 29 May 2024. I write in my personal capacity. In A to D, I give brief practical guidelines. E & F gives the biblical/theological motivation and reasoning for background reading. 

A.  Where are we at, as a nation, in terms of our socio-political-economic situation? 

Let me be blunt. We’re (still) in a mess. The 10-year Jacob Zuma rule (2009-2018) raped the nation. SA is broken & impoverished. We hoped Cyril Ramaphosa’s rule (2019-2024) would prosecute corrupt officials as per the Zondo Commission findings, and defeat corruption, nepotism, mismanagement, and regain political confidence & economic growth. That hasn’t happened. The political will to make it happen is not there, for various reasons. The ANC (African National Congress) is responsible for the mess – a failed state. Will SA become a gangster state controlled by criminal syndicates? The result is complete broken public trust, a credibility vacuum that all the new political parties are trying to fill. We’ll have an unprecedented three pages of parties on the ballot sheet. Who will you choose? All this is beside the lack of a just and equitable resolution of long-standing issues such as the land, crime & violence, the crises of infrastructure, energy, water, poverty, unemployment, and job creation, with regular emigration resulting in a radically reduced tax base.

B.  What do we do? How do we respond to the above context? 

People in general, let alone Christ-followers, respond in various ways. Moan and groan. If privileged, we can emigrate or withdraw into a ‘safe’ enclave and live past our societal reality as far as possible. Or give up. Live in denial. Become corrupt. Resort to violence. Or turn to God, rising with faith and hope to engage our socio-political context as citizens of SA. Believers know God is still ultimately in control, with plans for a preferred future for our land and people. God’s will is for the good of our nation to be realized by a critical mass of people of good will. That comes down to our worldview and beliefs, which motivate our response to reality. It raises for Christ-followers…

C.  What are our guiding beliefs re the Church-State relationship, as in biblical teaching?(I answer this in E & F below.  Though it should come before what now follows – beliefs always precede and determine practice – I place it later due to length).

D.  As followers of Jesus, how do we decide for whom to vote? 

Evaluate the political parties and their key leaders by the following order of criteria. We must pray, then vote (don’t abstain or destroy your ballot paper) and work for “just and righteous” rulers; i.e. for credible, accountable, ethical, competent governance, for peace and prosperity in society as Paul taught in 1 Timothy 2:1-6. The criteria for leaders and rules are found in 1 Samuel 8, Psalm 72 & 82, Isaiah 28:6, 32:1-2. Righteous rule and justice for the poor feature highly. And note God’s judgement on leaders who fail. God will hold all authority accountable, sooner or later.

  1. Character:  Most important. What is in the heart, what has formed our character, comes out in our attitudes, words, and behaviour (Matthew 12:33-37, 15:16-20). That is the fruit of a person’s (and the political party’s) life and leadership, showing who they are for better or worse. The ‘Big Three’ tests of character for leaders/rulers are money, sex, and power: who is trustworthy & safe with material resources (not corrupt), and with people (relational integrity, or use & abuse), and with political power (re their unmet ego needs)? Use this to evaluate the top-tier leaders of political parties in terms of character. The Zondo commission has shown the ANC is morally bankrupt, endemic with corruption. Check their list of candidates: if there are any implicated in wrongdoing/corruption, do not vote for them. That applies to all parties. The bible shows how spiritual powers work in/through leaders & parties via a) corrupt character for evil or ethical character for good, AND b) in their ideologies and power structures for good or evil. Discern the powers behind leaders & parties, for better or worse, then vote accordingly.

  2. Beliefs, Values & Policies:  It’s NOT what leaders SAY their policies are, it’s what they actually DO – their track record. What they give time, energy & money to reveals what they believe and value. Don’t be deceived by right sounding rhetoric. Discern & reject populist rhetoric for votes. Compare the party manifestos against each other, and against the lifestyle and behaviour of their leaders, and their policies and implementation, or lack thereof.  Many parties mouth and promise similar things. It comes down to balancing the weight of trust and credibility in their track record and implementation, against the degree of ideological loyalty we give to leaders and their values & policies. In a liberal democracy such as ours, no one party has all the ‘right’ values & policies – it’s a very mixed bag of compromise with the lessor of evils. You can google the list of parties, each with their manifestos & policies, to inform yourself.

  3. Skill & Competence:  Leaders and parties must also be evaluated by their competence & skill in governance. This is seen, again, in terms of track record of actual delivery on policy and promises. The crisis of incompetence & mismanagement, beside corrupt character in leadership, is choking SA to death. The poor suffer the most. Those in power enrich themselves. What must we do? PRAY AND VOTE THEM OUT OF POWER! If the national, and especially local government (where we feel it most) is incompetent and corrupt, don’t curse them at dinner tables, don’t resort to violence by burning tyres, libraries, schools, and trains… VOTE THEM OUT OF POWER. Vote for the next most likely competent and least corrupt party.   

  4. A strategic vote:  If you find the above in one party, you vote from positive conviction. But it’s a mixed bag – no one party satisfies all the above criteria – for various reasons. Thus, a strategic vote is in order, being “wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16). By common analysis, the ANC will again win the election, but with a reduced majority. We need a stronger opposition to hold the ruling party accountable and work constructively on issues of common good for SA. We need a real balance of power, with a credible coalition of opposition. Voting for a small splinter party won’t make much difference. A strategic vote is a compromise of ‘the lessor of evils’, as it is said, to hold the ruling party accountable for the sake of good governance in SA. 

E.  Guiding beliefs re the Church-State relationship, as per biblical teaching. 

The Church-State relationship shifted in Church history from ‘separation-in-tension’ with Jesus and the Early Church;  to ‘enmeshment’ of Church & State with Constantine (4th Cen onwards), called Christendom;  to ‘radical separation’ of Church & State by Anabaptists & Pietists (17th Cen onwards), being apolitical (above politics).  Viewed from Jesus’ Kingdom message & ministry, called Kingdom Theology, we can map these beliefs and positions on a spectrum or continuum:

Kingdom now:  The Kingdom has come in Jesus, so Christians are called to rule & reign in life (Rom 5:17). That is interpreted as socio-political engagement to not only influence government & society, but to Christianize the nation. Take leadership of ‘the seven mountains’ (main spheres) of society. We must remove ungodly policies and implement godly policies. The Bible must rule. This is Church-State enmeshment – Old Testament (OT) theocracy with ‘court prophets’ – in forms of triumphalist Christendom, as in Dominion Theology, Reconstructionism, Christian Nationalism, Christian political parties. This belief produced the evil of Apartheid by a ‘Christian government’ in a ‘Christian Nation’ with ‘Christian Education’. Forming a Christian political party (like Islamic, or Hindu, or Jewish party) is well-meaning, but theologically wrong. “Christian” attached to a political party totally politicizes the Church’s witness in the public mind, as it was with Apartheid.

Kingdom not yet:  The belief that Jesus taught separation of Church & State: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). Pietists (also Baptists & Puritans) interpreted it to mean the Church belongs to God and the socio-political arena belongs to the State. God ordained governmental institutions to rule the nation with authority in socio-political matters (Romans 13), and the Church with authority in spiritual-religious affairs. So, Christians must be apolitical, “don’t mix religion & politics”. Church involvement in socio-political issues can bring a political spirit into the Church. So, we keep holy, separate, till Jesus establishes his Kingdom on earth. So, just pray (for leaders) and be good Christians and preach the gospel. God will take care of the rest. You can vote but it’s between you and God. This is escapism from civic responsibility, handing the nation on a silver plate to whatever (spiritual & political) powers rule at the time.

Kingdom-in-tension (now & not yet):  In the gospels, Jesus & his first followers had a relationship of ‘separation-in-tension’ with society & the powers, the Jewish & Roman authorities. God’s Kingdom already came in Jesus, in principle & power; but not yet in fullness & finality as it will when he returns. This sets up a tension of ‘dual citizenship’. Being in the already Kingdom, we are “citizens of heaven” (Philip 3:20), witnessing to God’s rule on earth to the degree we do his will as it is in heaven (Matt 6:10). The not yet means we remain citizens of society till we die, or Jesus comes. We are in the world but not of the world (John 17:14-18). Therefore, be responsible SA citizens, but with full allegiance to President Jesus, seeking first his government of righteousness/justice in all things (Matt 6:33). It means we engage with the state & society for the common good – not with/for party-political allegiance – but with/for prophetic witness to Kingdom justice. John the Baptist and Jesus, like OT wilderness prophets, modelled this consciousness, this theology & praxis. Not like the court prophets who ruled through, in collusion with, the political powers of the day.Jesus taught we are salt & light (Matt 5:13-16). Salt doesn’t dominate food. Nor is it absent – it flavors and preserves. This echoes “the salt of the covenant” (Lev 2:13): our prophetic presence makes society & government palatable to God by restraining moral decay through righteous actions (human nature defaults to sin & corruption). If good people do nothing, evil triumphs. Our ‘saltiness’ stings the conscience of the state & society with ethical accountability. Then we don’t come into God’s judgement, “thrown out and trampled underfoot”, having “lost (our) saltiness” (Luke 14:34-35). “Trampled underfoot” is from Isaiah 26:6, the anarchic violence of the oppressed poor. Light does not banish all darkness. Nor does it allow darkness to reign. Light pierces the darkness, exposing disorder & wrongdoing, showing the way of living God intended. By proactively doing “good works”, the Church shines like “a city on a hill”. We model to the powers God’s alternate society, as witness to his Kingdom in principle and power, anticipating the day when all darkness will be fully and finally banished. The Church is, has always been, God’s end-time NOTICE to all national & local governments: “Your rule is temporal, you’re accountable to God, your end is coming”. Jesus’ way is not the above two either/or, now/not-yet polarizations, with their practices. He holds opposites in tension:  BOTH critical detachment AND prophetic engagement of Church & State. We work with the powers when they do good and speak truth to them when they do injustice, non-violently resisting them. This applies in constitutional democracies in a multi-party state. It doesn’t mean individual believers cannot pursue a calling in politics or be a member or leader of a political party. That is needed in the political arena. We’re called to serve in all spheres of life, it all belongs to God. But the Church (a Church) must not publicly align herself with a political party, for integrity of witness, even if it’s a ‘Christian party’. If we do, we are co-opted by ideological-political power, thinking the party promotes our agenda. The Church must equip/disciple believers in/for political engagement of whatever kind, as a presence for justice advocacy in the context of moral-ideological-spiritual battle. Thus, we must be BOTH the proactive light of truth & justice AND the reactive salt of conscience (whistle-blowers) inside and outside politics and parties.

F.  What then, as Christ followers, is our practical role in society & the state?

Pray:  First and foremost, our role is prayer. Don’t underestimate its power as our primary means of working with God in unfolding his purposes. Daniel’s 21 days of persistent prayer & fasting caused war in the heavenlies, shifting the powers behind empires (Dan 10). Paul says, “First of all, pray for all people, for presidents and all in authority”, for good governance and peaceful society (1 Tim 2:1f). Pray for competent character leaders to be elected as “God’s servants for your (society’s) good” (Rom 13:4). Pray for proper accountability, for corruption to be exposed and defeated, for God to discipline and remove corrupt leaders from power. Pray for a genuine revival. 

Presence:  We pray our living; we must also live our praying. Our presence, as active participation in society, is being the answer to the prayers we pray. Our presence & participation in all spheres of society, modelling good citizenry, will be the critical mass of change. God would have saved Sodom if he found just 10 righteous people there (Gen 18:32). Therefore, pay taxes (Rom 13:6-7), submit to and respect authorities for the common good (1 Pet 2:13-14), and “do good works” both as (local) Church and individual believers at all three levels of social engagement:  mercy ministry (relief of poverty, hunger, etc.),  justice advocacy (working with root causes, engaging policies and political structures), and community development (skills training, job creation, upliftment, etc.).    

Proclaim:  In our doing, we are the good news. But we also proclaim it. We preach the gospel, which is not ‘just’ personal spiritual salvation. The gospel is the power of God for wholistic salvation. It is God’s truth to/in all of life as God intended life to be lived. That truth, if known, sets people free (John 8:31-32). Always be ready to give reasoned answers to all who ask about the truth we speak (1 Pet 3:15). So, proactively proclaim God’s truth: gossip the gospel! We’re called to disciple and teach the nation(s), in the fierce ideological-spiritual battle over truth, in a secular post-truth-fake world.

Prophesy:  Our role in society is not only to be the truth (being truthful in all we do and say), but to fearlessly speak truth to power when needed. The Church must prophetically challenge and call local and national authorities to account, for good governance, for the sake of society, for the voiceless (the poor & marginalized). Christ-followers stand in the tradition of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, who lived and spoke the truth in self-sacrificing martyrdom. That defeated the evil powers behind the people and political systems that perpetrate wrongdoing. Christians should be, especially in political parties and in business, the ultimate whistle-blowers. Jesus’ light/truth shone so bright, exposing the darkness, people had to either repent and join him, or kill the light!   

Protest:  We speak truth to society and power as God’s prophetic community in forms of protest when needed. At times, Jesus and the prophets enacted their message in public demonstrations (e.g., Mark 15:11-18). We submit to government, but when they do wrong and refuse to see reason and change, we disobey them, submitting to the consequences. At certain points, on certain issues, “we must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29). Prophetic protest can take the form of marches, conscientious objection, civil disobedience, and non-violent resistance of all kinds. 

Peace-making:  We are called to be peacemakers for all who cry for justice, where there is hatred, hostility, division. We don’t ‘keep the peace’ but intervene to make peace based on justice. Jesus’ Beatitudes teach our role in society:  be dependent on God, humble, merciful, justice-seeking, pure in heart, peacemakers… that WILL result in believers being persecuted (Matt 5:3-11).


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