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A statistical and qualitative analysis of the application of the 1972 Societies’ Act


Wim van Binsbergen

homepage | index page Botswana state and churches | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV |

4. Conclusion: Beyond acquiescence

Already Sundkler pointed out that the narrowly political perspective (in the sense of the churches’ alleged challenges of the state) with regard to the African Independent churches is far from fertile. His pronouncements on this point have formed the starting point for much perceptive research ever since:

 ‘Claims that “political” reasons are behind the Separatist Church movement miss the mark. The few instances of radical party affiliations of certain Ethiopian or Zionist groups do not offer sufficient proof of any definite political trend; and even admitting the existence of much outspoken anti-White propaganda in most Independent Churches, one should not forget that the attitude of the leaders and masses of these Ethiopians and Zionists has on the whole been loyal, not least during the trying experiences of war. (Sundkler 1970: 296)

Writing on the Rolong Tshidi who straddle the Botswana/South African border and whose ethnic cousins are the Rolong of Matsiloje and Moroka — the cradles of independency in the Francistown area — , Jean Comaroff in her recent Body of Power Spirit of Resistance, adds a new note to this discussion. Acknowledging a certain indebtedness to my own analysis of the Lumpa church and Zambian religious change in general (van Binsbergen 1981), she situates the specific local form of the Zion Christian Church in the context of overall symbolic change under the impact of capitalism and the modern state:

 ‘The purposive act of reconstruction, on the part of the nonelite [ sic ] , focuses meaningly on the attempt to heal dislocations at the level of experience, dislocations which derive from the failure of the prevailing sign system to provide a model for their subjectivity, for their meaningful and material being. Their existence is increasingly dominated by generalized media of exchange — money, the written word, linear time, and the universal God — which fail to capture a recognizable self-image. These media circulate through communicative processes which themselves appear to marginalize people at the periphery; hence the major vehicles of value have come to elude their grasp. In these circumstances, efforts are made to restructure activity so as to regain a sense of control. Repositories of value, like the Zionists’ money, are resituated within practices that promise to redirect their flow back to the impoverished, thus healing their affliction.’ (Comaroff 1985: 253)

                        The attention for symbolic reconstruction, and its undercurrent of political and class struggle, will be intuitively appreciated as illuminating and profound. However, the matter must be even more complicated than that, for Comaroff’s reading of the churches as symbolic protest would politically amount to a rejection of the state and the modern economy, of which very little can be found in the material brought together in the present paper. Her analysis immediately invoked the critical reaction of another writer on Botswana churches, Richard Werbner (1986), who points out that in actual practice the Zionist churches’ tacit support for the apartheid state constitutes a major hindrance to socio-political reform in Southern Africa. Werbner’s views converge with those of Matthew Schoffeleers in the Netherlands (1991).

                        Schoffeleers views the relationship between African Independent churches and the state in the perspective of political acquiescence,[1] claiming that these churches’ emphasis on healing would re-orientate the actors’ attention from the national and political to the individual plane when it comes to these actors’ conceptualizing and redressing of sources of evil in life and society. The present argument complements this approach, by looking at the organizational and legal aspects of church/state interaction. By concentrating, as the acquiescence perspective does, on the world-view propounded by the African Independent churches, we risk to overlook the fact that the bureaucratic organizational form of these churches in themselves requires serious study in its own right. Having grown up and functioning in a society where formal bureaucratic organizations are the principal structural format of society, North Atlantic academic observers may be accused of myopia when they have, with few exceptions, failed to problematize the successful implantation, rapid spread, and creative adaptation and transformation of the imported model of the formal bureaucratic organization on African soil since the end of the nineteenth century, both in a state context (the colonial and post-colonial state, its executive apparatus, and state-controlled institutions such as schools, hospitals, marketing boards etc.) and outside the state: voluntary organizations including churches, recreational and professional bodies etc. These fundamental societal forms, which have so revolutionarized the pattern of social organization existing in Africa before the colonial period, ought not to be taken for granted. They are not the mere organizational vehicles for power and ideology generated elsewhere, outside their scope: they are the increasingly widening beddings of social life in Africa, where power and ideology are being generated in their own right, as a reflection or a result of organizational processes rather than as an external influence upon such processes.

                        The emerging picture turns out to be somewhat more complex and less uniform than the acquiescence approach would lead us to suggest. The African Independent churches appear to form what Sally Moore (1978) so aptly called a ‘semi-autonomous field’ with regard to the state, and our data suggest a number of possible ways in which this field can be linked to the state. Those emphasizing acquiescence and seeking to explain it in terms of individual healing emphasis, are primarily interested in how the churches interfere, or rather do not interfere, with the state. Throughout my present argument my emphasis, by way of compensation, has been on how the state interferes, or fails to interfere, with the churches. But in fact these two questions are but two sides of the same coin.

                        The state with its universalist legal apparatus on the abstract level takes for granted that the churches fall under its control, and on the practical political level does seek to bring the churches under its hegemony. Yet in actual fact it is clear that the power of the state over the churches is far more limited. When it comes to the larger cosmopolitan churches, their early registration and easy exemption suggests an eagerness, on the part of the state, to co-opt the support of these formidable, internationally well-connected organizational bodies, which constitute such a vital part of the civil society. But also with regard to the larger African Independent churches we have seen how the state — e.g. in the case of the Spiritual Healing Church — readily adopts a Christian idiom of expression, so that in a secular constitutional democracy like Botswana a high-ranking government official offers a formal governmental statement which sounds like a fully-fledged sermon. Here the state seeks to co-opt non-state-derived organizational powers in society without the slightest insistence on its own prerogatives or hegemony. A term like ‘acquiescence’ would not quite do justice to this situation, since it is not the church which keeps aloof from the state, but the state which adopts an extremely accommodating attitude vis-à-vis the church.

                        Taken to its extremes, we have the situation of Guta ra Mwari, where the state fails to confront even suspected criminal acts, and practically admits its incapability to impose its control. The case makes clear that ultimately the legal, bureaucratic authority as embodied in the state (in other words, a secular, impersonal and democratically-controlled premise of power) is defeated in confrontation with a time-honoured premise of power that revolves on notions of supernatural intervention and election, sorcery, secrecy, and the manipulation of humans for economic gain, — provided this premise is articulated in an effective organizational form whose public manifestations (feign to) emulate the very forms of formal bureaucratic organization which the state has taken itself and which the state seeks to impose on churches. Superficially one might characterize the Guta Ra Mwari position as acquiescent — after all, the state is not openly challenged, but simply ignored, from a position of secure non-state-derived power. But in fact the position of this church is far too cynical and manipulative vis-à-vis the state to be called ‘acquiescent’. Nor is this a case of nativistic or traditionalistic withdrawal: in its emphasis on ritual means (admittedly an application and transformation of an ancient local repertoire) alleged to ensure entrepreneurial success in a thriving modernizing economy, the church seems to be largely an attempt to generate power independently from the state, and thus to organize modern life along modern goals but by-passing the state. This position is reminiscent with that of such writers as Bayart ( 1988) and Geschiere (1986, 1990) who see in contemporary sorcery in Africa — largely outside a formal church contexts — a popular mode of political action, in which the post-colonial state is challenged. In the awareness of people in Francistown, Guta Ra Mwari stands out as a rather unique case, which tends to inspire the majority (the non-joiners) with a great deal of fear and avoidance. One wonders if the case is really so unique. The pursuit of economic gain through drastic ‘magical’ means forms, besides healing and the need for spiritual advice ,one of the main concerns of clients consulting non-Christian ritual specialists in contemporary Botswana; one would therefore be surprised if Guta Ra Mwari would be the only case of this concern spilling over into the domain of African Independent Churches. Perhaps we should make a more rigid distinction, in this connexion, between healing, on the one hand, and intercession for economic success, on the other; although Guta Ra Mwari professes to offer healing along the same lines as other African Independent churches, its manifest concentrating on success intercession might be interpreted as a departure from the healing idiom which would render the acquiescence-through-healing argument no longer applicable.

                        The amazing success of Guta Ra Mwali, in terms of membership, economic assets and freedom in the face of the state law shows that state-church dynamics in Botswana has to be understood, partly, as a dialogue over premises of power and their effective organizational articulation in the civil society. In this dialogue the state can afford to occasionally adopt the idiom of established churches and larger African Independent churches like the Spiritual Healing Church: their basic premises of power (articulated in formal bureaucratic organization) converge, and whatever theocratic inspiration the church may have nurtured originally, is given up in exchange for formal state recognition and protection, which makes it possible for these churches to appeal to the state when they need arbitration in their own ranks, and when they seek to expand in the wider society in terms of assets (such as church plots, raffles, training institutes) which only the state can provide or legitimate.

                        In independent Botswana, new African Independent churches typically emerge in a penumbra beyond direct state interference, and our statistical analyses have shown that as long as they remain very small and do not seek a more than minimal and local impact on society, they may subsequently wax and wane, without the state even noticing. The majority of these churches however move out of this penumbra towards the state centre, seek registration, and in the process (against the background of an authoritarian attitude towards African Independent churches dating back to the colonial era) are subjected to far greater state interference with regard to their doctrine, organization and therapeutic practices, than would be stipulated by the letter of the law. Are they on their way to join the cosmopolitan churches and established African Independent churches? Or are many more only seeking cover under the appearances of acquiescent, while in fact following a track that would bring them closer to the Guta Ra Mwali position? Or is there, in addition to this symbolic challenge under the cover of bureaucratic dissimulation, yet another trajectory, that which leads to open challenge of a theocratic or even military nature — as in the well-known case of the Zambian Lumpa church?[2] The acquiescence perspective would suggest that in the course of such a development churches would have to discard healing for a more political, theocratic conception of good and evil; but then, even in the Lumpa church, healing was a central concern.

                        There is yet another dimension to state-church interaction in the context of African Independent churches in Botswana. Our statistical analysis, while highlighted the strong over-representation of urban congregations. Although many rural congregations exist, Independency is the expression par excellence of people in the process of urbanization and, by implication, of extensive involvement in the capitalist mode of production. In a continent where uncontrolled urban masses have constituted the main nightmare of colonial and post-colonial governments, the urban bias in Botswana independency must constitute a significant factor in the state’s attempts to control these churches and force a formal bureaucratic logic upon them.

                        Finally, the example of the Hosanna Religious and Traditional Association brings out another aspect of the limitations of state control over religious organizations through the Societies Act. Underneath the somewhat surprising adoption of a modern state-defined juridical form, such an organization is primarily concerned with historic continuity: it seeks to safeguard the Mwali cult in the modern age. The state-registered association is only one facet of the cult today, and in addition (as closer observation and participation reveals), parallel to the bureaucratic mode, it retains — in historic and institutionalized ways as set out by Werbner (1989) — the cultic territorial organization, circulation of cult leaders, pilgrims and money, and the cult’s symbolic and ritual repertoire, which are not at all stipulated by the formal constitution as deposited with the Registrar of Societies. The partial adoption of a new bureaucratic form is only an attempt to ensure that one can go on doing what one has been doing for, literally, centuries. The same could be said for Botswana’s several associations of traditional healers,[3] one of which (the Kwame (Legwame) Traditional Association of Botswana) in fact constitutes the modern face of another branch of the Mwali cult, having its Botswana headquarters not in Ramagwebana (like the Hosanna Traditional and Religious Association) but in Nata, two-hundred kilometres northwest of Francistown.[4] In these cases, as in those of many independent churches, the adoption of a state-defined bureaucratic form allows religious leaders and therapists (through the acquisition of bank accounts, plots and buildings, motor vehicles, shops etc.) to expand into a modern economy whose conditions are largely set and controlled by the state, without fundamentally altering the premises under which leadership is gained and exercised, and under which the cult is organized. Here modernity and continuity go hand in hand in a way which is typical for present-day Botswana, and which may well help to explain the country’s peculiar cultural and political stability.

                        These are some of the questions for further research. A note of caution, meanwhile, is in order with regard to the role of the church leadership. I have far from escaped the usual tendencies towards reification, and spoken of the state and the churches as if they were actors in themselves. Instead, of course, what we witness is the interaction between state officials and church leaders. To the extent to which churches form a semi-autonomous field vis-à-vis the state, church leaders can be said to straddle both structural domains, and by their activities as ritual and organizational entrepreneurs or brokers determine the dynamics of their mutual relationship. Church leaders are not only seeking to further the collective interests of their church through the formal means provided by the state; they also have their personal agendas, and not infrequently church assets end up being appropriated by individual church leaders. As a far wider range of case material than can be presented here indicates, the leaders’ balancing of perceived individual and group organizational interest, and the way this management is supported or challenged by the subaltern leadership and the followers at large, enables us to trace, and to a large extent explain, the trajectory of individual churches in their relationship to the state. The occurrence of many non-registered churches, on the other hand, shows that for these churches, and their leaders, the services the state could offer are not essential for their spiritual and material orientation.

                        In order to study these specific trajectories and strategies we would have to leave the aggregate approach on the present study, and return to detailed case studies. The latter will provide explanations for the patterns which the quantitative study merely brought out but cannot begin to explain: why — beyond the effect of state support through registration, which I discussed in the context of factor analysis above — do some of these churches grow so fast and others do not?; why are some of them rapidly disintegrating while others manage to retain their unity without fragmenting into smaller church bodies breaking away? why do some adjacent African Independent churches co-exist in considerable harmony and spiritual fellowship, while others are at daggers drawn? Some of the most important questions that should be asked with regard to the African Independent churches in Botswana cannot be answered from the perspective of state-church interaction alone. The extensive literature available on church dynamics in other countries in Southern Africa, and particularly Daneel’s (1971, 1974, 1988) monumental study of southern Shona churches in Zimbabwe, creates a favourable background for such further research. In this wider context of the sub-continent as a whole, further study should also explore the extent to which the perception of state-church relations in Zimbabwe and particularly South Africa has influenced Botswana state officials, and particularly the Registrar of Societies, to adopt particular attitudes vis-à-vis African Independent churches in Botswana, particularly those (like many of the larger ones) which originate from those countries. One would suppose that the acquiescence argument would not quite work out the same way in a totalitarian South Africa of the 1970s and ‘80s, in UDI Rhodesia, in independent Zimbabwe, and in the populist democracy of Botswana since 1966, even if the legal instruments for state interventions might be shown to be similar.

                        Finally, is the churches’ accommodation vis-à-vis the state merely a strategy to create freedom from further state interference? Are those which do register perhaps not very different, in their political and social aspirations, from those that escape registration? The test lies in the extent to which the churches not only, inevitably, generate social power outside the state, but also aspire to have this power extended to fields of social life monopolized by the state. Being reticent and populist, the Botswana state’s claims in this respect are far less expansive than those of many other African states, where every case of student protest or every minor administrative row may automatically be interpreted as a challenge of the state and invoke state action (a repeated theme in the works of Bayart and Geschiere). To judge from their constitutions, theocratic tendencies are hardly developed among African Independent churches in Botswana; but then, we have to realize that these constitutions are primarily formal instruments meant to function in a context of church/state interaction. For an adequate assessment of theocratic orientation, which would pose challenges even the Botswana state cannot afford to ignore, we have to go and look elsewhere. And as the studied peacefulness of Botswana public life is slowly eroded, these last few years, by public riots and state violence which show that the careful texture of consensus is being rent by mounting class conflict, party-political conflict and anomie, August 1990 saw a case of church leaders being imprisoned for failure to respect such national symbols as the flag and the anthem.

                        The peculiar emphasis on consensus in Botswana socio-political structure has prevented the dilemma’s, cleavages and contradictions typical of peripheral capitalism, to find explicit political expressions and solutions. The exponential growth of African Independent churches must be understood in this context: offering symbolic, organizational, financial and therapeutic responses for existential problems engendered by modern conditions but hardly confronted by the state in e.g. its educational and cultural policies. It is probable that the present aloofness and accommodation of African Independent churches vis-à-vis the Botswana state is only a passing phase, and that ultimately the demands of symbolic reconstruction which Comaroff so rightly stresses, will lead to more extensive and possibly violent confrontation.

homepage | index page Botswana state and churches | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV |


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Werbner, R.P., 1989, Ritual passage sacred journey: The process and organization of religious movement, Washington/ Manchester: Smithsonian Institution Press/ Manchester University Press.


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[1]       Cf. van Binsbergen 1981: 57f.

[2]       Cf. van Binsbergen 1981 and references cited there.

[3]       Notably Kwame (Legwame) Traditional Association (file no. H28/30/34 vol. I, registered 2.5.1977) and United Herbalist Association (file no. H28/80/91 vol. I, registered 2.3.1979. Two other such associations mentioned by Staugård (1985: 229) no longer function legally if at all. As a qualified traditional healer, the author has been a member of the Kwame Traditional Association since 1990, cf. van Binsbergen 1991.

[4]       Incidentally, both cultic headquarters have extensive relations with African Independent churches and, as High God shrines, are involved in the empowerment not only of non-Christian therapists but also of church leaders.

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