A battle for the legal custody of a church looks set finally to end this month when the Durban High Court rules on who is the true head of the African Gospel Church.
Court papers given to the Mail & Guardian paint an almost biblical epic of 32 court appearances in lawsuits and countersuits, some of them launched by clergymen ignoring a string of earlier court orders. So far the battle for control of the establishment — with branches as far off as Zimbabwe and about 180 000 members who pay the church the biblical tithe of their income — has been fought in the Durban, Transvaal and Bisho high courts.
At issue is an estimated R5-million to R6-million in donations a year, depending on the employment status of church members. However, heavy expenses are incurred by the church; it is estimated that no more than “a few hundred thousand rand” can be found in its bank account at any time.
The Reverend Nutu Gigaba is at the heart of the battle. Gigaba was elected to a five-year term as moderator of the African Gospel Church by the church executive in July 1994. Three years later, however, two other ministers, the Reverends Joseph Mthiyane and Alta Mbili, launched a coup d’êtat at a conference Gigaba did not attend. Announcing they were now moderator and vice-moderator, they took control of the church’s property and began collecting money on its behalf.
An enraged Gigaba went to the Durban High Court and, represented by attorney Natalie Lange and advocate Jenny Wild, launched a successful application before Judge Jan Hugo for an interdict preventing the two dissidents from claiming to be the leaders of the church. The judge also ordered the two to pay all Gigaba’s costs and immediately to stop collecting money from parishioners — a practice they were engaged in throughout South Africa and neighbouring states.
According to court papers, the order, made in July 1999, was ignored. And so in October of that year Judge Nick van der Render granted a contempt order against the two, ordering them to hand the keys to the church’s head office to Gigaba or his legal representative, or face jail terms. Court papers show this order was also ignored — but Mbili and Mthiyane withdrew as heads of the dissident faction and Reverend Petros Zimu took their place.
Zimu collected money in the name of the church, according to papers before the court, and symbolically moved one of his dissident followers — Reverend John Ndlovu — into the church’s head office and manse in Mhlongo Street, Lamontville.
The Durban High Court ordered the dissident priest to hand back the keys to the manse. When he didn’t, and remained in place, the Lamontville police attempted to evict him but were prevented by Zimu who, according to papers lodged in the Durban High Court, “threatened bloodshed”. Both sides apparently called for reinforcements, and a second attempt at eviction was also unsuccessful.
The dissident faction appealed against the eviction order, and lost, with costs. But costs have still not been paid and the manse has not been vacated. Before the ink had dried on the eviction order, the dissident faction launched an urgent high court application claiming that Gigaba was not running the church to their satisfaction. This application was withdrawn and followed by others claiming that Gigaba had been suspended by the dissident faction and could not hold office. All were denied in court.
Then, in an attempt to end the rash of lawsuits, Gigaba launched his own urgent counter-application to interdict the dissidents from holding any further meetings. The dissidents agreed to the ban, then launched another application, claiming they had been authorised to remove Gigaba from his office. This application was once again denied with costs. They were back in court in September last year after Gigaba launched a contempt of court action.
Judge Jan Combrink told the dissidents — led by Zimu — that they were already in contempt of court and asked what they proposed to do about it before the matter came back to court in January, pointing out that should they continue to hold meetings it would aggravate the contempt charges they were already facing. Amazingly, court papers show Zimu then admitted to Judge Combrink — on the advice of his counsel — that his election was illegal and constituted contempt of court in that he ignored court orders.
He agreed to “sort out the problems arising from his election” before the case came to court again at the end of this month. Thus far the dissident faction has still not given up its claim to the church. Attempts by the M&G to contact the dissident faction were fruitless. A Telkom operator told the M&G it appeared Zimu’s phone had been disconnected for lack of payment.