By Ed Cropley
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's churches launched a blistering attack on the African National Congress (ANC) on Tuesday, accusing the ruling party of moral decay and of abandoning Nelson Mandela's goal to build a non-racial democracy from the ashes of apartheid.
In a letter to President Jacob Zuma published a week before an ANC leadership election and policy conference, the South African Council of Churches (SACC) threatened to agitate for a "more healthy democracy" if its concerns were brushed aside.
"During apartheid, some Church leaders wrote to political leaders but they often failed to listen to these voices. Unfortunately we find a similar trend today," the SACC, a major player in the struggle against the white-minority rule that ended in 1994, wrote.
"We have begun to stray from the path of building a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa," it continued, adding that political leaders had "largely lost their moral compass".
Founded in 1936, the SACC is an umbrella organization that groups the country's major Christian denominations. Nobel Peace Prize-winning Anglican former Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu was one of its most prominent leaders during the apartheid era, serving as its secretary general.
The council has criticized the ANC before, but this very public censure coming before the start of a major ruling party conference appeared designed for maximum impact.
The rebuke gained extra emotional weight this week with the hospitalization of former president Mandela, now 94 and revered by most South Africans as architect of the "Rainbow Nation" that emerged 18 years ago from three centuries of white oppression.
Mandela, in hospital since Saturday for tests, had suffered a recurrence of a lung infection but was responding to treatment, the government said.
The ANC celebrated its centenary this year but its internal back-slapping has been in marked contrast to external criticism that portrays the former liberation movement as corrupt and inept under the aegis of a scandal-prone and ineffectual leader.
In April, Reuel Khoza, the chairman of Nedbank, South Africa's fourth-biggest bank, triggered a vitriolic response when he labeled ANC leaders a "strange breed" incapable of running a sophisticated emerging economy in the 21st century.
Four months later, South Africa faced arguably its biggest post-apartheid crisis when police shot dead 34 strikers at the Marikana platinum mine, sparking a wave of unrest that swept across the mining sector and hit economic growth.
Seizing on the Marikana killings and a scandal over a 240 million rand ($28 million) state-funded upgrade to Zuma's private home, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) pushed last month for an unprecedented no-confidence vote against him.
With a two-thirds majority in parliament, the motion seems no more than an irritant for 70-year-old Zuma. He looks set to be re-elected unopposed next week as party leader, a position that tees him up to run the country until 2019.
The emotional ties to the ANC of most of the 80 percent black majority means the ruling party is unlikely to face a serious ballot box challenge soon. The DA, which has its origins in the white, liberal anti-apartheid movement, has struggled to shake an image as a party of white privilege.
In a separate letter to DA leader Helen Zille, a white, former anti-apartheid journalist, the SACC stressed the importance of opposition figures in "putting our country on a more healthy footing".
Zuma's office acknowledged the SACC's 10-page list of concerns in a letter dated December 6, although ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu declined to comment, saying the party had only been made aware of the letter from Tuesday's newspapers.
"We don't respond from the top of our head when we see things in the media," he said.
The churches' criticism carries weight in a country where 80 percent of people call themselves Christian - many ardently so.
"This is the very same people who led the church's struggle against apartheid, and it's very significant," said Cape Town-based political analyst Nic Borain. "The church clearly believes there to be a significant crisis of both governance and leadership."
(Reporting by Ed Cropley; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Peter Graff)