With Zimbabwe floating along with no direction as its leadership remains caught up in factional fighting on both sides of the political divide, a band of young, charismatic preachers is stepping into the breach.
Every Sunday, large crowds gather at mass services in major cities, drawn to the “prosperity gospel” preached by the country’s two most popular preachers, Emmanuel Makandiwa and Walter Magaya.
At Magaya’s Prophetic Healing and Deliverance Church, a large steel-roof warehouse in an industrial area just south of Harare, thousands cram inside and outside in the open space outside the church, baking in the midday heat to hear his sermons.
Across town, Emmanuel Makand–iwa packs in over 5?000 worshippers into his services at a sports arena. In Zimbabwe’s worsening economic crisis, their messages are hard to ignore; a prayer will heal disease and poverty, they preach.
As Zimbabweans desperately search for solutions to the economic crisis, the preachers’ influence continue to grow. This has many of their critics worried, as the preachers increasingly begin making pronouncements on political matters.
Last week, Makandiwa announced in a service that he had had a vision. In his vision, he told his church, he had seen a swarm of bees sweeping out from one end of a forest, and being confronted by another. There was a clash, and rivers of blood soon
ran across the land.
A day later, state media reported that Makandiwa said: “Zimbabweans should not engage in mass protests because such demonstrations cause bloodshed.”
At a time the opposition has been talking about mass demonstrations against President Robert Mugabe’s government, the sermon was a godsend for Mugabe’s supporters.
“The warning comes in the wake of calls by MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his surrogates in civil society that people should engage in mass action after his party’s congress [this month],” the state media said.
Other newspapers took a different angle, only reporting that Makandiwa had predicted bloodshed. But soon they, too, were going with the state media’s interpretation, criticising Makandiwa for stepping into politics by appearing to speak against protest.
Mugabe’s supporters were being reeled out in the state media to run with the matter. Trevor Manhanga, a pro-government pastor, was quoted as saying Zimbabwe needed to avoid “the Renamo syndrome, where losing politicians resort to violence”.
University of Zimbabwe lecturer Charity Manyeruke appeared on state TV, warning Zimbabweans against going against the “man of God’s” word against mass action.
“Zimbabweans as a God-fearing people should not conspire against their government and should instead respect their leadership,” she said.
A week after Makandiwa’s prophecy, at Magaya’s church, a follower rose to ask him what he thought of the Makandiwa prophecy. Magaya said he had read comments dismissing Makandiwa’s prophecy on the grounds that he was not a politician. Prophecy must not be ignored, he said, adding: “Do not be found in places which promote violence.”
The next day, the state newspaper headlines read: “Magaya backs Makandiwa prophecy.”
With many of their followers increasingly radical, there is reason to worry should the preachers go all out in matters of politics. Recently, when Magaya was accused of adultery, spawning a press feeding frenzy, he had to release a statement urging his followers “to refrain from any forms of physical violence against such perpetrators”. Some of his own followers had made threats against media and other critics of their leader.
“What we are seeing is a radicalisation of believers. Who knows how these prophets will use this in future,” a newspaper columnist wrote this week.
As their churches grow, so does their wealth. Recent press reports said Makandiwa had acquired a custom-made Mercedes Benz at a cost of $300?000. Merchandising of church materials is bringing in the cash, according to Noah Pashapa, a prominent cleric who has been publicly critical of the new movement.
“Members have to pay something to see the prophet and are either spiritually threatened, emotionally blackmailed or psychologically bullied to purchase ‘prayed over’ church merchandise such as bangles, anointing oil, holy water, towels etc, without which they are doomed to failure, poverty and sickness,” said Pashapa.
But because of their influence, political leaders dare not speak out against the preachers. Tourism Minister Walter Mzambi has even said the movement should be turned into money-spinning “religious tourism” to draw the faithful from other countries.
A string of government ministers routinely appear at the church services, where they revel in the attention of worshippers.Revered: Emmanuel Makandiwa lays hands on an enthusiastic follower at a stadium in Harare. Photo: Aaron Ufumeli