Shembe's spiritual legacy lost in the battle for control
'It's divine intervention that dictates who will be leader," says Xolani Mcineka, a Nazareth Baptist Church member, between sips of a cooldrink at a restaurant in a Durban hotel. It is Saturday morning, the Sabbath for him, so he avoids "anything warm".
Outside, the humidity claims autumn as its powerless victim. Even at 11am, Mcineka's short Afro is uneven, betraying a late start to the customary weekly asceticism. "The passing of the mantle is strictly a spiritual issue because you are liable to leaders gone before you."
The irony of his remarks, coming a day after another gruelling session on the witness stand for Chancey Sibisi, general secretary for the Ebuhleni-based breakaway of the original Nazareth Baptist Church, is not lost on either of us. Sibisi, in his role as general secretary, had a close relationship with the Ebuhleni group's founder, Amos Khula Shembe, and his son and successor, Vimbeni Shembe.
The Ebuhleni faction, the first group to break away from the church's headquarters in Ekuphakameni, Inanda, north of Durban, is the biggest of the church's five (and counting) splinter groups. The membership of the entire church is estimated at five million.
With the lion's share of followers, Ebuhleni is the popular face of the church, with the late reggae singer Lucky Dube at one time being counted among its members.
But the church is not well endowed only with congregants: the Church of Nazareth Ecclesiastical Endowment Trust, which holds the church's registered assets, is said to be worth more than R100-million and is currently under the control of Ebuhleni's Vela Shembe.
The Nazareth Baptist Church is an important feature in the secular and spiritual lives of its millions of worshippers, most of them isiZulu speaking. With each successive Shembe leader supposedly inheriting messianic and mystic powers, which stretch back to its founder, Isaiah Shembe, most worshippers look directly to their leader, referred to as Inkosi, seeking physical healing and hope for improved circumstances. As the urbane Mcineka says, while showing me his upturned palms: "Shembe has my life in his hands, like this."
It was a year ago, at Vimbeni's funeral, that the drama that sent the divided Ebuhleni to the courts began. Vimbeni, who had been head of the church since 1995, was being buried in his capital after dying from liver cancer. April 3 2011 was a cloudy, windy day, and the thousands of robed and barefooted worshippers were already on edge, as the two-horse race was already an open secret.
Mqoqi Ngcobo, chief of the Qadi people and who has jurisdiction over Ebuhleni, asked to be moved up the programme so he could "officially welcome guests and dignitaries".
But when Ngcobo, himself a member of the church, took to the podium, he seized the opportunity to announce Mduduzi Shembe, Vimbeni's son, as his successor.
With the already tense mood at the heavily secured funeral becoming ever more volatile, Vimbeni's lawyer, Zwelabantu Buthelezi, was kept hidden and under heavy police guard.
Buthelezi had a letter with him, which he read later on in the programme, stating that Vimbeni had nominated his cousin, Vela "VM" Shembe, as his successor.
Immediately after the announcement, the bald-headed and barefooted Buthelezi, dressed in the church's traditional white robes, was whisked away under police escort.
Later in April, Vela launched an urgent application in the Durban High Court, requesting that he be appointed the sole trustee of the trust and titular head of the church. He also launched an interdict to prevent the installation of a new leader until the leadership dispute was settled. Ebuhleni, just like Ekuphakameni before it, was split into two and at the mercy of the courts.
On March 23 this year, a confident Sibisi was being cross-examined by Rajesh Choudree, counsel for Mduduzi Shembe. In a cream suit, Sibisi cut a bookish figure as he recounted Isaiah Shembe's act of christening two of his sons, Johannes Galilee and Amos Khula, as the "sun" and the "moon" respectively, effectively handing them the succession rights to his throne.
Sibisi sat in stark contrast with the rest of the court, which housed mostly barefooted and robed preachers, as well as the hulking Ngcobo.
As can be expected when factions go to war, the biggest casualty is the unfettered truth.
For Sibisi, the nomination by the predecessor, whether verbal or written, is the only way of appointing a future leader.
Isaiah Shembe, Sibisi told the court, named both his sons as successors at a ceremony in the holy mountain of Nhlangakazi, years before his death in 1935. This version is central to the legitimacy of the Ebuhleni house, which was formed when Amos was forced out of Ekuphakameni after a succession battle with his nephew, Londa Shembe, who was his brother Johannes's son.
This version also sustains the belief that the heirs to the Shembe throne can emerge only from the bloodlines of Amos and Johannes.
A possible reason why Ngcobo took it on himself to elect the successor is that he is allegedly aligned to the cabal of preachers who are said to manipulate Mduduzi Shembe, who, with a grade-four education, is derisively labelled by some as an uneducated puppet. Isaiah Shembe is alleged to have forbidden the unschooled from occupying the church's highest seat.
The will nominating Vela, apparently signed by the late Vimbeni, has been the subject of dispute in court, but handwriting experts brought in to assess its validity claim it is authentic.
For many of the church's believers, the current squabbles are a case of history repeating itself. The bloody war that followed what Sibisi refers to as a "coup" that took control of the Ekuphakameni throne also pitted uncle against nephew, split families and the headquarters into two warring camps. Again, it was the chiefs, Sibisi says, who had conspired with some worshippers to impose a leader of their own choice.
With a church so fractured, there are many sides to every story. But what cannot be disputed is that the infighting has made it impractical to uphold some of the church's sacred pillars, such as the annual pilgrimage to Nhlangakazi. An interdict issued by the court prevented the Ebuhleni factions from ascending the mountain until the leadership squabble was resolved. In church lore, the faithful can only climb the mountain on the instructions of their leader.
After defiantly attempting to flex his still undecided legitimacy by ordering his Ebuhleni followers up the mountain, Mduduzi ended up with egg on his face—his followers failed to get a permit in time and were barred from going up. They had to settle on a nearby alternative.
Meanwhile, the Ekuphakameni extended their stay on the mountain to two weeks, for the first time since Johannes's death in the Seventies, perhaps just to rub salt in the already festering wound.
Vela's Ebuhleni supporters opted to avoid the ritual and the Ginyezinye, another faction, ascended the mountain after the Ekuphakameni.
Earlier this year, a vehicle was spotted near the mountain and its two occupants, supposedly from an Ebuhleni faction, came under fire.
The Ekuphakameni distanced themselves from the shootings, saying they were the actions of rogue gunmen, whom they handed over to the police.
"That was just a couple that was lost," says the irrepressible Ekuphakameni general-secretary, Edward Ximba. "Holy war, which we do believe in, is sanctioned by God."
As new beefs emerge, older ones still rear their heads. Ximba was in the news last year in May when he announced at a press conference that only the Ekuphakameni were allowed to use the name Nazareth Baptist Church, Shembe or iBandla lakwaShembe. This followed a decree by current Ekuphakameni leader Vukile Shembe to "protect the church from the people who were exploiting its treasures".
A report published in the Sowetan said the Ekuphakameni filed court papers to secure the trademark in 2003 and no opposing papers were filed. The trademark also prohibited splinter groups from singing, dancing and recording any hymns composed by Isaiah Shembe, his son JG Shembe, or Isaiah's grandson Londa Shembe. Also the use of church literature and prayers were forbidden.
"We could have enforced the interdict but we haven't done so yet because we didn't want to embarrass anybody," Ximba says.
"We wanted to safeguard the heritage of the name because nobody knows who owns it. It was starting to become a no-name brand. At least now everybody knows that the leader of Ekuphakameni owns the heritage," Ximba says.
Many believers are embarrassed to discuss the current court squabble when wearing a neutral hat. But, when they don their faction colours, it is back to supernatural speak about secret covenants and divine retribution for enemies within the church.
The mouthpiece for the Ebuhleni fold aligned to Mduduzi, Thokozani Mncwabe, for example, hesitated about being interviewed, postponed it and then cancelled an appointment.
Then one evening he sent an SMS in isiZulu that read: "Importantly, enemies have surrounded me, they won't win because 'The Rainbow' [Vimbeni] singled me out. He gave me the secret of the heavens and blessed me with his hands, thus protecting me from enemies who are afraid of the truth. My victory has been foretold. Some of my enemies are in the church [Ebuhleni] and others are in Thembezinhle [on the South Coast where Vela has been holding court]."
It appeared to have been written on behalf of Mduduzi, but Mncwabe added: "My only crime is the truth, I will not stop worshipping uNyazi [Mduduzi] — My enemies are plotting against me, I keep getting phone calls."
The SMS conveyed the paranoia that has enveloped not only the warring Ebuhleni factions but the entire church. Mduduzi's team will not speak to the media, which it claims is biased, Sibisi is in a witness protection programme and security surrounding Ekuphakameni is stringent "because of recurring problems".
"All these court cases are damaging the reputation of the church," says Sbu Shembe, a grandson of Johannes, speaking in his home in Inanda Newtown. "You must remember that the Amos vs Londa case [that split Ekuphakameni into two] was never resolved. The advice was that it be solved at home.
"What the church needs is administration and the people at the forefront have no administrative skills. For a long time this church was poor but now it is glamorous. Its stature now is such that it requires sophisticated management of various aspects. Like, right now, you have rogue preachers running amok. Some are denying Christianity and others are claiming Shembe as God. Had he been God he would have unlocked the gates of Heaven for us. He referred himself as the 'hand of God'," Sbu says.
Evidently, the worshippers of Isaiah Shembe's way differ wildly on historical facts but, strangely, regardless of allegiance, they all believe in the restoration of Ekuphakameni, a metaphor for a unified church.
Those rooting for Vela say he has the diplomatic acumen and charisma to bring all the sparring sides to one table. But with the numbers overwhelmingly against him at Ebuhleni, even a favourable court ruling might not guarantee him the throne. What the history of the church shows is that court decisions are not adhered to—people follow their hearts.
A lasting solution will have to come from the congregants themselves. After all, it is about unity, pride in self and the restoration of people battered by colonial wars. This is how the pioneer himself envisioned it.
The Nazareth Baptist Church, established by Isaiah Shembe around 1911, is a dizzying mix of Zulu cultural practices and Judaic influences. In the bastion of Ekuphakameni, established in 1914, inscriptions on worshippers' doors read: "Praise Jehovah, ye Nazareth, Amen."
Worshippers keep the Sabbath holy and practice polygamy, in keeping with Zulu custom. Strictly speaking, adherents of the faith are not supposed to trim their hair or consume strong drink, which is in accordance with the Old Testament book of Numbers, in which the Nazarene vow of abstinence is prescribed.
As GC Oosthuizen writes in The Scriptures of amaNazaretha of Ekuphakameni, "the place of Jesus in Isaiah Shembe's theology is problematic". Londa Shembe, who presided over Ekuphakameni from 1977 to 1989, when he was assassinated, told Oosthuizen that Jesus was important to Isaiah when he founded his church but, as time passed, the name of Jesus disappeared from the hymns and the names uNkulunkulu, uMmvelingqangi and Jehovah—all names for God—became more common. As established by Isaiah, believers go on an annual pilgrimage to Nhlangakazi every year in January.
Before his death in 1935, Isaiah is said to have ordained his two sons as his successors—first would be Johannes Galilee, whom he named "the sun", followed by Amos Khula, whom he named "the moon". Those who came after them would be stars.
Many of the church's followers believe leaders can come only from the bloodlines of Johannes and Amos. After the death of Johannes in 1976, a struggle for leadership arose between Amos and Johannes's son, Londa, which led to Amos leaving Ekuphakameni and establishing Ebuhleni a few kilometres away.
Kwanele Sosibo is a general reporter to the Mail & Guardian