Jo'burg hills are alive with visions

Mountainsides have Old Testament associations for healers like prophet Tshabalala. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Mountainsides have Old Testament associations for healers like prophet Tshabalala. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

In the parking lot of the ­Sundome Casino in Johannesburg a ­Zimbabwean security guard started having visions that were to shake his life. They led him to leave his job and embark on a series of wanderings, from the backrooms of Berea to the mountains and valleys surrounding Bulawayo. He had begun to see the possible future – and problems – of others, he says.

It is fitting that the visions began in a place of gambling, a place of risk and uncertainty, where futures are given over to the vagaries of chance.
For many migrants to Johannesburg the city is a casino of sorts, a place of radical risk where life itself is at stake.

In recent years, the surfaces of the city have been pasted over with signs advertising prophecy, often alongside those for penis enlargement and abortion. Prophets advertise the return of lost lovers, the revelation of one's enemy in the mirror and healing of all kinds. The signs have proliferated alongside the emergenc e of evangelical and prophetic movements.

"The prophet is a barometer of social and political behaviour," claim historians Dave Anderson and Douglas Johnson in their book, Revealing Prophets. Can these signs pasted across the scarred surfaces of the city tell us something about the social life and politics of the post-apartheid city? What is meant by a prophecy and do the new prophets speak not only about the city's future, but about a hidden present and past?

Migrant challenges

I met Prophet Mzilani in his flat in Berea, near the long avenue of plane trees that joins Hillbrow to Yeoville. In the lounge, his wife and children sat watching cartoons on television.

Mzilani invited me and my colleague, Melekias Zulu, to his consulting room. It was crowded with medicines in salt and liquid form. A few cloths shrouded the windows. On the floor, was Mzilani's altar, with cloths laid in red, white and blue. White and blue for Zionism, and red for his ancestors. Across the cloths lay a knife and small steel staff.

Mzilani is the security guard who, 15 years ago, was shaken by his visions at the casino. His journey through the city had, like those of many migrants, been one of constant itinerancy in search of wellbeing and prosperity.

He arrived in Johannesburg from Bulawayo in the early 1990s and worked at the Killarney Mall and the Linden Spar before training as a security guard in Krugersdorp and working a series of different jobs, his hopes for the city eluding him.

The job in the casino car park was a gift of sorts. "It was not so bad because we were getting tips," he said. "You know when you are getting tips, you sometimes don't feel the pressure of work. It was good, sometimes at the end of the shift, you have R300 or R400 in the pocket."

He dreamt that he had to go to Filabusi, an area of Matabeleland in Zimbabwe, but could not catch the exact name of the place. He went anyway, and found a sangoma, but it was the wrong person. He returned to South Africa, where his problems continued.

"I was having a big problem, so I went to a lady next to the Spar in Hillbrow. She said, 'No, that's not the person. Just keep asking, you will find the place.' I was like, if they're sending me to the wrong person, it's their fault, they're the ones calling me."

Mzilani returned to Filabusi and, guided by a young boy, found his way to a woman in a remote village.

"When I arrived there, that mama was praying using herbs. The mama came to greet me. She said, 'I am relieved, because I saw you in my dream coming straight to me, but today, it was difficult for me to work, but I felt someone was still coming.' We went to the surgery. She said, 'You have been sent to me by your ancestors. I'm not Jesus. I can't solve all of your problems, but I can take those I can manage. If I finish, you can proceed somewhere.' That night, she took me to the river to clean me. [It] was dark. I was not scared because I expected that if I [was] washed, my problems would be over."

She gave him some medicine and he returned to the city to work in a factory, receiving containers. But his difficulties continued. He decided to return to Filabusi, where he stayed with Zionists conducting steaming rituals – purification ceremonies using hot stones and steam in tents – and praying in the valleys and on the mountainsides.

"I started to prophesy seriously by that time, and heal people. So a lady says, 'You can be a prophet and heal people, so just go back to Johannesburg.'"

He explained the experience of prophecy: "When you pray, a vision will come and open everything to you, and this person will have a problem, sometimes it's a vision, sometimes it's a voice. It's a voice that tells me, just a silent one."

He returned to Johannesburg to find that his wife had left him. He had to take care of his son and continued working in security, while doing more prophesying and still struggling with his own problems.

In Johannesburg he met an inyanga, or herbal healer, who taught him how to use herbs. Mzilani's practice is an integration of the principles of herbal healing with the prayers and rituals of Zionist Christianity, though he is not a member of any church. He claims to have both angels and ancestors speaking to him.

Over the years his reputation has grown, so he no longer has to work in security. He has subsequently remarried and had more children. Most of his clients are migrants to Johannesburg, both from within South Africa and from other countries.

He refers those he thinks he can't heal to clinics, or, in cases of HIV or tuberculosis, for instance, to doctors.

"I tell people the truth. Sometimes I tell them, 'You don't have bad luck. It's only that the time we are living in now is a challenging time, because a lot of people are educated, a lot of people have academic certificates, they've got diplomas, you see. Some of the people need experience when they employ you. It's difficult. Just continue looking for a job and one day, you will have the luck to get the job you want.'"

But not all those who consult him have such pragmatic difficulties. "The biggest problem is that people have demons, because demons are working very hard to block somebody's way."

Banishing demons

In contemporary Johannesburg the fear of demons, witchcraft and unhappy ancestors intermingles for many with daily concerns about livelihood, labour and safety.

Dying in the city, away from home, without a proper burial, is believed by many migrants to be a cause of long-lasting misfortune for their families. Many turn to faith or traditional healers to help navigate the obstacles and misfortunes of urban life.

Prophecy has a long history in Southern African religions and movements. In the 1930s, in the mountains of KwaZulu-Natal, the prophet Isaiah Shembe founded the Nazareth Church at a time when rural life was being profoundly disrupted to supply white capital's demand for labour. It was to become one of the largest churches in this country.

Can we understand the new prophets as a continuation of old traditions, or do they represent something unique about the post-apartheid transition and contemporary Johannesburg?

We meet prophet Tshabalala in the gardens of Turffontein racecourse. We sit at a table outside the gambling hall, eating McDonald's and chatting about football. Tshabalala, an Orlando Pirates fan, complains about their poor season and losing the Premier League to bitter rivals Kaizer Chiefs.

Alongside us lines of men place bets. Everywhere in this city prophecy and gambling seem to have an intimate relationship.

Tshabalala is a soft spoken, gentle man, his figure taut as rope. Like Mzilani he has experienced the difficulties of migration.

Tshabalala came to South Africa via Botswana in 2002. While in the city, he started wandering along its ridges, mine dumps and highways, looking for a place of prayer. As a teenager in Zimbabwe he followed Zionists to the mountains of Plumtree, where he took part in their steaming rituals and prayer. It was there that he discovered his powers of prophecy.

He lived in Yeoville for six months and started praying with others on the Yeoville hillside, where a number of different denominations gather, on the part of the hill overlooking the cylindrical skyscraper Ponte and Saratoga Avenue and beside a half-built structure with graffiti on it proclaiming "God's Land". However, the worshippers were harassed by tsotsis and moved to a place beneath the N1 Germiston freeway near Edenvale, to the east of the city.

Eventually, Tshabalala found a job in Booysens in a factory making pressure valves, where he worked for four years. He moved to Rosettenville, where he continued his search along its koppies and hillocks. He found Zionists conducting steam bathing alongside the mountain and joined them.These high and hilly areas, which call up associations with the mountainsides of Old Testament revelation, have particular power for churches and prophets in the city.

"I was always watching the mountain. When I was off, I went on top of the mountain to pray by myself. I saw smoke and went to investigate whether there was steam bathing. I went to them," says Tshabalalala.

"I did not tell them that I am a prophet. I just prayed with them and said that I wanted to be prophesied."

I ask him to explain what a prophet is. "A prophet speaks directly to God," he says. "He hears the voice of God. It will be in tongues. You will be asking what the problem is. It changes the language. It also changes my language when I am talking, exchanging words. It's like when I am talking to this man, it can take my vision back [to] his birth and background and show me when the problem came. It changes my vision. I will see the problem."

The role of the prophet, he explains, is also to forecast the future, or at least possible futures, and to advise on better paths. Hence, the prophet is the conduit for God, the healer and the oracle.

Tshabalala does not make money from his prophecy and continues to work with his brother, transporting goods back and forth from Zimbabwe. He says his church, the Church of Christ In Zion, is a church of the poor, and is composed mainly of migrants, many in search of work, but for whom prosperity and health are important.

The church holds rituals of steaming in tentlike structures on the mountainside in Rosettenville.

The steaming is a purification of misfortune, considered in the Southern African worldview as a form of contagion, often caused by witchcraft.

The church, however, does not claim to cure all diseases and those thought to be suffering from HIV and/or tuberculosis are encouraged to go to clinics.

Tshabalala acknowledges wryly  that those who succeed in the city will move on to other, wealthier churches.

"Zionists [help] many people move from one step to another. I know that, as I have friends who now have buses. We used to steam together. He has seven buses. But now you cannot see [him] by the Zionist church."

He says it is mainly migrants, from Zimbabwe and from elsewhere in South Africa, who seek prophecy.

"Jo'burg has many challenges [for those trying to find a] job," he says. "People need luck. That's why there are many false prophets. When we're in Jo'burg we are all foreigners."

Prophetic and profane

Sitting on the ramparts of Constitution Hill, amid the bottle-green shards of evening light, overlooking the immense and stuttering engine of the city, coughing up its smoky dusk, it seems that prophets are everywhere: on the mountains and the mine dumps; in supermarkets; in the security booths where guards wait long hours in the dark outside old warehouses; and in the vans and minibuses driving itinerants back and forth across the borders.

The prophetic and the profane, the biomedical and the mystical co-exist.

There are certainly hazards with prophetic healing.

Misdiagnoses of biomedical conditions can have grave consequences, about which city health workers are rightly concerned.

However, the existence of alternative forms of healing is certainly a reality and a possibility, as the stories collected here indicate.

But the popularity and proliferation of prophetic movements speak to the social and spiritual service that prophets provide.

Jo'burg's prophecy is both a new phenomenon addressing a new constellation of problems, and an older phenomenon speaking to the dislocation and suffering of life in the city.

In the city many regional problems coalesce: social and political upheaval (particularly from Zimbabwe); urbanisation and joblessness; a lack of livelihood and accommodation; the fear of strangers and criminals in the city; and the constant presence of death from violence, accident or illness. Under such uncertain conditions securing a safe, healthy and meaningful life remains a constant struggle.

Perhaps this is a reason why lampposts, traffic lights and rubbish bins are plastered with advertisements for prophets and why people come in their thousands over Easter to wave their flags.

For beneath the seeming excessive claims of some of these notices lies a collective anxiety about fertility and death, illness and labour, loss and love.

This is an edited extract from ­Prophets of the City, a story from Writing Invisibility, an e-book published by the Mail & Guardian in collaboration with the African Centre for Migration and Society, with funding from the Max Planck Institute.

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