— Department of Health (@HealthZA) January 6, 2021
Government was quick to put a stop to, among other events, religious gatherings, after consultations with religious leaders. The country was confirmed to be continuing on the path of an adjusted level 3 lockdown set of regulations, with most indoor and outdoor gatherings not being permitted.
— Department of Health (@HealthZA) January 11, 2021
The danger of religious gatherings due to the close proximity of congregants was a lesson learnt the hard way last year, with many losing their lives while attending church services.
In May 2020, experts warned that gathering people in close proximity means a significantly higher probability of Covid-19 infections. This is especially due to congregants singing and talking while in close proximity.
And in March, a mass prayer breakfast at the Divine Restoration Ministries in Bloemfontein was the main driver for a sharp increase in Covid-19 cases in the Free State. At that point, 1,462 people tested positive in the country, and 82 new cases were being discovered daily.
As of Tuesday night, South Africa had 13,105 new cases and 1,259,748 positive cases.
— Department of Health (@HealthZA) January 12, 2021
South African Council of Churches (SACC) general secretary, Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana told The Citizen that since level 3 was reinstated, many churches have “barely opened, and most certainly with very small numbers returning to regular worship for fear of infection.”
“In any case, the prohibition [of religious gatherings] has only been for two Sundays in essence, so far,” Mpumlwana said, adding that the SACC is not a regulatory body.
This year, police have had to disperse one gathering of congregations flouting level 3 regulations so far, who arranged an illegal gathering at a church in Sebokeng.
Approximately 250 congregants were ordered to disperse, who allegedly threw chairs at police officers.
Rubber bullets and stun grenades had to be fired, and two male church elders, as well as an elderly woman were arrested.
Police said that so far, the Gauteng province, one of the country’s prime Covid-19 hotspot areas, “have done well” and continue to report incidents of non-compliance.
The SACC called for faith-based gatherings to be allowed again just before President Cyril Ramphosa extended current regulations, with Mpumlwana comparing churches to restaurants, and arguing that if they are allowed to operate, so should religious institutions.
After Ramaphosa’s decision was made, Mpumlwana said that churches “may not like government decisions, but we cannot opt-out and be an alternative society.”
“Churches are not exempt from the law of the land. We now have a democratic government which you can disagree with on many things but cannot be said to be illegitimate in its governmental decisions.”
In saying this, Mpumlwana did point out some inconsistencies that churches are considering.
These include funerals being allowed to be attended by 50 people, and have been found to be a significant source of Covid-19 infections.
Mpumlwana expanded on his take on restaurants, explaining that due to restraints being allowed to host patrons, “this leads to a spirit of rebellion” within church communities.
This is especially rife within churches where pastors depend on weekly collections for their personal upkeep and do not receive a central stipend done in “more established churches”.
“Churches are supposed to meet for worship; so, that is our requirement, except for under extreme circumstances. For example in a state of war with bombs flying around, no one would strenuously protest against a government prohibition of churches and all organisations gathering. No one would take the government to court demanding to go to the beach!”
But Mpumlwana said that Covid-19 is “a much more deadly war”, pointing out that in World War II, 11,000 South Africans were killed, but to date, Covid-19 has claimed the lives of “three times that number and rapidly counting.”
The increased death, illness and anxiety experienced by citizens brings about for Mpumlwana the “real question for churches”, which is how to keep people positive and hopeful.
“Who knows, it might just be that God will respond to the collective individual prayers of all of us and the nation rewarded with a more listening ear, and a greater Covid discipline that defies infection spread rather than defy sensible regulations to prevent infections!”