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Zimbabwe’s prophets under spotlight

Magaya, Angel and Makandiwa
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HARARE – The shocking video of a popular South African pastor, Alph Lukau, ostensibly bringing a “dead” Zimbabwean man back to life during a church service in Johannesburg, has reignited intense debate about the country’s ubiquitous charismatic preachers and self-styled prophets, the Daily News can report.

During the service — as recorded in the sickening video which has gone viral around the world on social media — the coffin of the supposedly dead man’s body is seen being removed from the hearse as hordes of Lukau’s adoring followers gather around it.

A woman who claims to be the “dead” man’s landlady then tells Lukau, of Alleluia Ministries, that the “deceased” got sick and started coughing on Friday last week, which prompted her and others to take him to the hospital.

“That is where he died in my hands,” the supposed landlady gushes — at which point Lukau begins to pray for the body, which was said to have come straight from the mortuary, and prompting the “dead man” to sit up in the coffin with his mouth and eyes wide open.

This dreadful story comes after another popular and self-proclaimed prophet, Shepherd Bushiri, was recently arrested by South African police on serious charges of fraud and contravening Pretoria’s Prevention of Organised Crime Act.

In addition, many of Bushiri’s congregants now claim that they handed over to him millions of rands after the “prophet” promised them huge and fast returns on their hard-earned money through a “commodity investment opportunity” that failed dismally.

Emails and other documents in the possession of South African weekly newspaper, the City Press, show that investors were promised a 50 percent return within 30 banking days of placing their investments of between R100 000 and R1 million with the preacher.

Needless to say, the congregants are yet to receive a cent from the church, a year after Bushiri’s promises of mega returns on their cash.

“We have called, sent emails and SMSed the numbers they provided during the investment, but no one is responding. I went to their offices in Sandton, but they referred me to the church.

“At the church, no one knows who is responsible for handling our issues. They just act as if nothing has happened and this makes me sick. I am still repaying the loan I took for the investment and the interest, and I know many people who are going through the same problem,” one congregant complained bitterly at the weekend.

Although Lukau and his Alleluia Ministries have since tried to walk back on the resurrection story on the back of the scathing criticism that they received, analysts and leaders of mainstream churches who spoke to the Daily News yesterday said Zimbabweans also needed to be more careful when dealing with self-proclaimed prophets and other like-minded charlatans who were making a lucrative business out of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Lawyer and politician Obert Gutu said while the country’s Constitution allowed freedom of conscience among other freedoms, the proliferation of dubious churches led by so-called prophets called for a review of some enabling regulations.

“Section 60 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience by stating that every person has the freedom to propagate and give expression to their thought, opinion, religion or belief — whether in public or in private, and whether alone or together with others.

“It would appear that this fundamental human right and liberty has been routinely abused by criminals masquerading as genuine pastors and prophets,” he said.

“The fact of the matter is that millions of unsuspecting and gullible people are being hoodwinked and swindled by these latter-day ‘prophets’ and crooks. Zimbabweans should be on the lookout for these crooks who masquerade as ‘prophets’ when in actual fact they are philanderers, murderers, pathological liars and in some cases, serial rapists.

“I strongly advocate for the regularisation of churches in tandem with the provisions of the supreme law of the land in order to protect innocent Zimbabweans from these marauding crooks and criminals,” Gutu added.

Zimbabwe Council of Churches secretary-general Kenneth Mtata said “there has been a rise in people given different titles in the past decade and who have redefined conventional Christians at a number of levels”.

“They claim to have special knowledge about God … because of the special insight allegedly given to them by God … and since they have some special knowledge, their followers must depend on them for decisions, be it in business, politics and family life.

“It is this group of people who have found a way of manipulating many people who are desperate … and have managed to tap into the African Traditional Religion where the understanding among Africans is that for someone to succeed there must be some supernatural influence from outside, and if someone is not succeeding it means that there is some negative supernatural forces that must be overcome,” Mtata said.

“So, there is an interesting syncretism that has developed in the last 15 or so years, and this kind of Christianity is the one we are seeing manifesting in different forms of chicanery and manipulation and the miracles that are purported to have been performed as we have seen. Regulating religion is very difficult especially if your Constitution allows the freedom of religion and worship, and so to put restrictions on religion will be against the Constitution.

“What could be put as a requirement is that all churches should affiliate to one of the mother bodies, so that there is mutual accountability. This is what I think could address the problem,” Mtata added.

Ilana van Wyk, a lecturer in Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, said the prosperity gospel — as a religious movement — had exploded in popularity and prominence in Africa over the past two decades, despite stirring up controversy globally for more than 40 years.

“Today it’s the fastest growing religious movement in South Africa. While precise statistics are lacking, scholars agree that prosperity gospel followers rival, if not exceed, the numbers of so-called mainline churches,” she said.

Explaining the power and tenets of the prosperity gospel, Van Wyk said it typically viewed poverty and illness in terms of sins against God, specifically the withholding of tithes.

“It also ascribes such ‘bad luck’ to the work of demons engaged in a spiritual war against God’s kingdom. Converts typically renounce their past lives and their old churches. They embrace ‘spiritual technologies’ which include offerings in church, paying tithes, praying strongly and exorcising demons … that promise to secure miraculous health and wealth directly from God. They also follow preacher-prophets who they believe have special powers to fight against the ‘spirit of poverty’.

“Many believers are strengthened in this faith through the persistent testimonies of those who had been ‘blessed’ with jobs, houses, cars and healing in church. These testimonies are delivered from church pulpits and in person, and are endlessly repeated in church publications and on radio, television and the Internet,” Van Wyk said.

And contrary to false beliefs that such prophets and their churches attracted mostly poor people, Van Wyk’s research had showed that prosperity gospel preachers attracted people from all walks of life and a variety of educational backgrounds.

“These churches also count significant numbers of professionals, business people and increasingly politicians in their ranks. I often struggle to convince people that those who subscribe to this gospel are not simply credulous dupes,” she said.