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Shembe leader: My church has changed its spots on leopard skins


Shembe leader: My church has changed its spots on leopard skins

He says they are willing to ditch centuries-long tradition for the sake of dwindling leopard population

Lwandile Bhengu

“We will not kill leopards for the sake of our religion.”
That’s the word from iNkosi Phakama Shembe of the Shembe Nazareth Baptist Church in Gauteng.
Shembe’s comment follows a report presented by the Department of Environmental Affairs in Geneva last month, which suggested there were between 13,000 and 18,000 illegal leopard skins in circulation within the Shembe church.
But iNkosi Phakama Shembe told Times Select religious leaders were looking into alternatives to using leopard skins for their religious regalia.  
“We will be meeting with different manufacturers to try and start making the attire from material rather than the leopard skin because of the public outcry,” he said.
Shembe, whose leopard skin adornment is a 70-year-old family heirloom, said the majority of his nearly 2.5 million congregants owned leopards skins that were also handed down from generation to generation.
“We don’t kill animals to create our attire; the attire belonged to our great-great-grandfathers; when they passed, they left it to us. As you may know, that’s what was worn back in those days in Africa,” he said.
The leopard is considered a symbol of great power and luck in African culture. King Shaka Zulu would present leopard skins as a reward to his subjects, and they gained popularity as a clothing item during King Cetshwayo’s reign in the 1870s.
“It is worn by kings and those who have a high social standing because of the great power it has. If you see it in a dream you must know that luck is on your side,” explained Gogo Phakade, a traditional healer from Inanda, north of Durban.
Gogo Phakade also believes those who own leopard skins are meant to have them.
“These days it has become very hard to find a real leopard, but those who have its skin have it because it is meant to be. If the ancestors want you to see a leopard or want you to have one they will, by all means, make sure you find it out of captivity,” Phakade said.
Pakade also explained how leopards were considered generally calm spirits and that if you were meant to have its skin, the cat would not resist if you tried to catch it.
Shembe said they only wore leopard skins during special occasions such as weddings and other traditional functions and ceremonies.
“Leopard skin these days is not only expensive but also very difficult to find. On normal days we only wear the bottom half of the attire, ibheshu, which is much easier to find because it is made from cow skin,” said Shembe.

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