Uncharitable wags are suggesting that behind Julius Malema's epistemological conversion lies the lure of lucre.
'We are still going to see authentic men and women of God rise and say no; enough is enough!"
A manic street preacher? Not quite. Try the official spokesperson for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), speaking on behalf of its notorious leader, ousted ANC Youth League president Julius Malema.
Malema's visit to "super-pastor" TB Joshua's Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos last month raised a few eyebrows. The hot-headed leader is not known for his piety.
He and the EFF spokesperson, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, stayed for a week at the church doing "lots of reading, watching sermons and prophecies", according to Ndlozi. He also met the controversial Nigerian prophet privately. The contents of that session are, alas, confidential.
Malema is in influential company. Leaders who have flocked to see Joshua include Malema's one-time mentor, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Malawi's former president Bingu wa Mutharika, who later died after a prophecy by Joshua to that effect, and Zimbabwe's Morgan Tsvangirai.
South African rugby players are also regulars, though Springbok Ruben Kruger went on to die from the brain cancer he was supposedly healed of.
But it wasn't healing or prophecy that took Malema to Nigeria, his first time in the booming West African country. It was a "spiritual visit to meet and create friendship with this son of Africa and his congregation, and ask for blessings for the journey ahead", the organisation said when they left on August 9.
The pair sang the megachurch's praises on their return.
Impressive humanitarian projects
"Well, it was renewing, indeed, inspiring if anything," said Ndlozi in response to written questions from the Mail & Guardian. He listed a number of the church's impressive humanitarian projects as examples.
Details of the expedition are somewhat murky: the pair from the cash-strapped EFF went at the invitation of the church, and the trip was sponsored. But it's not clear who facilitated the invitation and Ndlozi won't reveal who paid for the trip.
But sources in the ANC are convinced Malema was on a fund-raising mission.
The theory goes that Joshua, who recently prophesied that young people would start a huge and violent revolt in South Africa, took a shine to Malema and either hooked him up with a wealthy businessperson in the church or gave him money himself, from the organisation's plentiful coffers.
But the suggestion was shot down by Malema and the church did not respond to a request for comment.
The EFF needs money if it is to have a chance in next year's election, never mind win it, as they constantly boast on their Facebook page.
"It's a sign of desperation," said one source. "They won't get the massive amount of money needed to run a campaign."
The nascent party is an ace at publicising itself, but is struggling for resources.
Malema was accustomed to a steady flow of capital when he wielded enormous influence within the ruling party, not least within the Limpopo government. A company linked to him allegedly controlled the tender system for certain provincial departments and was said to benefit from kickbacks from potential contractors.
But it is cold outside the ANC, as Malema has famously said, and his new party has resorted to selling the organisation's trademark red berets and other merchandise to raise funds. Although one ANC source saw it as a sign of prosperity – "Where would he get the money to buy all that? And he has a new car and house" – others see it as signs of trouble. And his rich friend Kenny Kunene has just left the organisation.
But Malema and Ndlozi played it straight when talking about their visit, saying it was a spiritual retreat for the young leader.
That he would need one is believable. He has been through a stressful few years. He was kicked out of the ANC, his life and home, after a bruising battle with President Jacob Zuma. His name, already muddied, was further torn apart by his detractors and he haemorrhaged support overnight.
If anyone needed a spiritual pick-me-up it was Malema. So the need for a seven-day break at the church, though a seemingly intensely long time, may not be that far-fetched.
Malema is no stranger to church either. Indeed, his sponsorship of the Seshego Baptist Church in his hometown in 2009 first brought his house of cards down. An intrepid journalist noted that it was "donated by the Ratanang Trust", remembered that Malema's beloved son's name was Ratanang and realised how the mysteriously large amounts of money Malema lived off were being channelled to him.
Churches have featured at other points in his political career, often strategically. He was prayed over by pastors from the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Pimville, Soweto, before appearing in front of the ANC's disciplinary committee in September 2011, and in April 2012, just after being gagged by the ANC, he sneakily announced an address at a church, a move many said was designed to defy the mother body.
Is he religious? Ndlozi says so.
The EFF this week talked up its faith credentials after the visit, boasting of its relationship with religious groups and speaking eloquently and at length about the tension between secular and divine values in South Africa.
"Politics falls in the realm of secular justice; premised on rationalism and its lineage of the autonomous subject of reason birthed at the table of enlightenment, the subject of self-mastery, who can, as much as possible build a self-sufficient epistemology, the very claim that all is knowable," said Ndlozi on behalf of Malema, in one dizzying mouthful.
"Here, modernity thinks we can establish an ethical framework without having to start with God and his word. But we know too well that society, especially South Africa, has a huge religious community: Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, etcetera."
Malema later told the M&G that he had sat down with Ndlozi to answer our questions so perhaps his seven-day tutelage has created a lasting impression, given the depth of that answer and others on matters spiritual.
It would have been easy to leave it at that if it was not for one niggling thing: Ndlozi's mention of a "new development" out of the Nigeria trip, which he quickly clammed up about. A generous sponsor? God knows, they need one.