Amazing disgrace: Why SA churches are turning to the Book of Actors
Several people have admitted being paid to enact 'miracles'. Why do congregations allow themselves to be duped?
“Pope” Tsietsi Makiti lifts his hands towards the tavern-goers and blesses them with the words: “Amstel! Hallelujah!”
“At Gabola tavern we drink, and we don’t hide from God that we are drinking,” says Makiti, dressed in traditional church robes and wearing a mitre embroidered with a golden cross on his head.
“After the sermon we invite all new members to come forward and be baptised. You come with your beer, your water, your milk or tea and we baptise you with it.”
The Gabola church in Orange Farm, Johannesburg, is one of many unconventional churches that have mushroomed across SA in recent years, prompting the CRL commission to launch an investigation into abuse in churches.
Described as “modern-day sangomas masquerading as prophets”, some church leaders are now facing criminal charges for their acts, but congregants say there is a reason for attending nontraditional churches, and not all are bad.
At Gabola church, people say they can relax and do not get chastised for not giving their tithes, while a church in the Eastern Cape has become known for its matchmaking skills.
The Alleluia Ministries in Sandton, Johannesburg, was rocked by a resurrection scandal two months ago. But a woman interviewed by Times Select is clear about why she partook in a fake miracle there: financial reasons, and financial reasons only.
Dr Alex Asakitikpi, a sociologist at Monash University says people turn to religion because they are hopeless and need an alternative solution to what the state can offer.
“As people become more disenchanted with the state, as they begin to have a disconnection between the state and their own welfare, they automatically turn to some other avenues to seek for help. As they become less economically empowered, they become less and less vulnerable and that creates a space for religious groups to cash in,” says Asakitikpi.
“Pope” Makiti says he started his “drinking church” to offer a home to those who are not in strong financial positions and need to escape from the daily grind. His church survives on donations from businesses.
Makiti says he was sent by the “god of Gabola church” to establish churches in taverns, whose owners are then given the titles of bishops and archbishops.
“The customers of the taverns are our members. We have millions of members around the country. We accommodate everybody, whether you are drunkard, a drug addict or a sangoma. We don’t discriminate against any person.”
The Gabola church – whose name means “to sip” or “to drink” – does not require members to pay tithes; nor does it charge for funeral services and wedding ceremonies.
Congregant Jack Matloa, gesturing with the litre-can of Castle Lite in his hand, says this church has changed his life.
“I used to be a churchgoer before, but I decided to stop attending because I got distracted by women. I was not paying attention to the service. Here, I found myself right in Jesus’s hands. I prefer Gabola church because it allows us to drink freely while you worship,” says Matloa.
While Matloa claims to have left his previous church because he was distracted by women, Endumisweni Faith Mission in Mdantsane, East London, prides itself on its matchmaking skills.
It has a “visionary” who “has sole discretion to assess and identify compatible partners for marriage”, according to the Faith Mission’s constitution.
“God blessed me with the gift of seeing potential couples. God is able to show me who should be married to whom. It is up to the couple to accept it,” says Tshidi Spampool, who claims she discovered her gift after being healed from epilepsy.
Bongani Mnguni is one of the couples whose marriages Spampool envisioned. “We were not forced into marriage. My wife and I are happily married. We have three kids together,” says Mnguni.
Lubabalo Sabelo is another of Spampool’s “success story”.
“It’s a blessing to me. I was very lucky to have been given a wife. I was told to leave all the others behind and choose this one,” he said, pointing to his wife of nine years sitting next to him.
But Asakitikpi warns congregants should be aware that some churches could manipulate their “desperate” need for solutions to daily life problems.
Alph Lukua, the church leader at Alleluia Ministries who is currently facing fraud charges, has come under fire for certain practices at his institution. Lukau, who declined to speak to Times Select, has been accused of faking miracles.
Since his “resurrection” of a man went viral on social media, a number of people have come forward saying they had been paid by “agents” at the church to fake miracles or recruit people to pretend to be sick.
Thabiso Mpofu* says he was paid to pretend to have marital problems with his “wife” that were then solved after the pastor prayed for them. He did such a good job, he became a recruiter himself.
“They [agents] saw that my acting was very good, so they asked if we could work together and recruit people.”
Mpofu was paid R1,500 for the act, and he then started recruiting others to do the same, and was paid commission for that.
Thembi Lubambo* was recruited to be the sister of a “blind” woman.
“A lady came to me while I was selling CDs on the street. She asked me if I wanted money and I said, yes. She said there is a pastor in Sandton. ‘You can go there with someone who will pretend to be blind.’ I said it’s fine because what I wanted is money.”
At the service, the pastor “came to us and he asked to remove her glasses [the alleged sister]. He started praying and my ‘sister’ shouted: ‘I can see’!”
The two were paid R1,500 each.
Asked if she would fake another miracle, Lubambo said: “Yes, because of money. If they offer the money, I would take it because we are here because of money.”
She herself does not believe in miracles.
“It’s fake,” she says bluntly. “I don’t believe in miracles.”
The church refused to meet with Times Select to respond to these claims and other allegations.
Professor of Psychology, Nhlanhla Mkhize, said people who worshipped in masses were made to do things they would not ordinarily do “if they were not in the context of that massive congregation”.
“The human being is spirit, and the human mind is very fragile and under certain conditions, when the environment is highly emotionally charged, the spirits get evoked, and it is very easy for people to voluntarily surrender their own authority to the authority of the leader,” says Mkhize.CRL Rights Commission chief executive Edward Mafadza says it is important that people make sure their dignity and rights are not impaired in their church.“We make a call to religious groups to protect their religion and their members because if they do not do that, they are creating problems for the religious sector as a whole,” says Mafadza.