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Zion City pilgrims pray - and pay

Staff Reporter

Tangeni Amupadhi took a trip to Zion City Moria - along with three million worshippers of Africa’s biggest church

THE masses who gathered at Zion City Moria, 40km from Pietersburg, last weekend, did not only pray and listen to the sermon of their leader, Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane. They also bought souvenirs and food, including Zion coffee and Zion tea from an official Zion Christian Church (ZCC)product line, on a scale which any large supermarket would envy.

The church’s magazine - The ZCC Messenger, price R1,70 - may have pulled in more than R250 000 in advertising revenue alone, based on the R12 000 which one advertiser, a supermarket owner in nearby Tzaneen, says he paid for a full page.

Clearly, somebody made a lot of money from the ZCC’s 87th annual gathering. Moria has been the venue since 1947.

But the church wasn’t saying this week who it was. “I will come back to you as soon as I get a reply,” said secretary general Jhitsane Kutuane as he sought permission from the church’s leaders to talk. “It might be today, next week, next month ... it might be never.”

Although worshippers were not asked to pay entrance fees, boxes for “donations” were in abundance at the gathering.

Sex during the weekend is discouraged, as is eating - but tea and coffee endorsed by the church is readily available, at a price.

There is little doubt that Moria serves as a lucrative business venue. The church says three million took part in this year’s pilgrimage - out of a total following in Southern Africa of seven million. Founded by Edward Lekganyane in 1910, the ZCC is now the biggest independent church in Africa.

In between praying, singing and dancing, most pilgrims this year were buying.

Church-owned stores, stalls, and hawkers - also selling ZCC paraphernalia such as khaki uniforms and ties and also the Bible - were sprawled all over the holy village. At times, it could easily be mistaken for a flea-market.

Approved seller Godfrey Dikganeng from Botswana’s Francistown gained permission from his ZCC congregation to sell holy knobkerries for R20 a piece. Some of the proceeds go to his church. He said that further approval was granted by “elders” and his preacher helped to “process” his coming to Moria.

Without such official blessing, hawkers were either left to sell their wares beyond Moria’s gates, or to sneak in and look official. “I came in dressed like one of them just to sell. It’s good business in here,” said one youth as he sold off a 20- litre bucket of ice-cream in individual helpings in half an hour.

The church does not make it easy for the ignorant or the curious to wander into Moria. Tight security sees to that and order is emphasised. Marshals line the only road leading into the grounds, keeping people in queues. Now and then a security man whips the air with his sjambok, letting rip a horrid whistle. But in a style which underpins the peaceful nature of the Zionists, marshals speak softly and worshippers are quick to obey them.

Once past the gate, people are randomly searched, and even plastic bags are checked.

Yet such strictness is a far cry from the freedom inside the village where people wander around without check. Dancing and singing punctuates ceaseless hours of prayer.

Joyce Dube, a 23-year old from Bulawayo, joined the ZCC two-and-a-half years ago. Before then she was a “non-committed Christian”.

“Life has been so much easier since I joined this church,” she says. “The church appeals to all kinds of people, young or old, rich and poor.

“And the fact that I can practise my cultural beliefs and still pray to Jesus Christ in the names of St Engenas, Edward and His Grace Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane gives me a sense of belonging.”

Many, like Dube, feel at home in the ZCC because it incorporates traditional practices, such as worshipping ancestors and dancing, but also includes “Christian principles”.

ZCC members talk of the “trinity” in the form of Edward Lekganyane, Engenas Lekganyane (another early ZCC leader) and current leader Barnabas Lekganyane. As much as members pray in the names of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, they also pray in the names of the Lekganyanes.

In 1948 the ZCC split, with some followers setting up St Engenas ZCC - whose members sport a dove surrounded by corn - while the larger ZCC has the Star of David as its emblem.

Moria was founded in 1947, is visible from the highway between Tzaneen and Pietersburg, thanks to a huge Star of David painted on the slope of a mountain overlooking the site.

Last Sunday, which was the third day of the four-day meeting, Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane preached against hate speech and called on South Africans to embrace peace and change. In his hours-long sermon, translated into several languages, he also committed the ZCC to maintaining its apolitical nature.

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