22 May 2012

South Africa: Churches Want City to Open Up Land for Worship

Church pastors in Cape Town are requesting the City review a moratorium on churches being erected on City-owned land which was put in place two years ago, resulting in hundreds of congregations now worshipping in private homes.

The City administration had congregations up in arms in 2010 when they clamped down on churches illegally built on City land.

The clampdown led to the establishment of the Western Cape Christian Ministers Forum (WCCMF) which negotiated an agreement that no new churches would be erected on condition the City halt the demolition of existing illegal church structures.

WCCMF co-ordinator Derrick Mtsolo, said the WCCMF represented over 2 000 churches, and since the moratorium was put in place most of the churches were struggling to find a site where they could set up a structure where the congregation could worship.

As a result they gathered in one of the church members' homes.

Mtsolo said while municipal halls would suffice as a place for congregations to gather, most of them were booked up on Sundays by a township burial society or other organisations.

Churches were also not accepted in school halls, he said, leaving them with no choice but to gather in private homes, often in an informal settlement.

City planning did not take sites for religious gathering into consideration when planning temporary relocation areas (TRAs) such as Mfuleni and Blikkiesdorp in Delft, he said, leaving no space where they could re-erect church structures.

He said the moratorium which both parties agreed to, should be reviewed to clarify between the re-location of an existing church structure when people were moved, and a completely new church building.

Townships that were particularly struggling were Khayelitsha, Kraaifontein, Langa and Strandfontein.

Efforts to apply for the purchase or rezoning of City-owned land in order to build a church took an unreasonably long time.

"There is land available. (But) The City takes too long to give the land to our churches."

However, the City of Cape Town Property Management Directorate regularly engaged with the Western Cape Religious Leader Forum and the identification of a number of possible sites for church structures was discussed in those meetings, said Mayoral Committee Member for Human Settlements, Ernest Sonnenberg.

"The previous Mayor (Dan Plato) engaged in careful negotiations with the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum regarding the putting up of churches and the taking down of them," said Sonnenberg.

He confirmed that a mutual agreement had been reached "that no existing churches would be taken down by the City on the condition that the construction of new structures be suspended".

At the time of the clampdown on illegally built churches, the African National Congress (ANC) parliamentary caucus filed a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).

The case is still being investigated, said ANC Chief Whip Mathole Motshekga's spokesperson, Moloto Mothapo.

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