“This will be a place where the angels of God are ascending and descending,” says Martie Stander, a presenter on the religious YouTube feed Prophetic Channel.tv. She is speaking to the camera from the middle of a construction site in Midrand, Gauteng.
Yellow bulldozers, graders and trucks shift and remove soil around her in preparation for the construction of a megachurch complex. Stander says: “A whole ECG [Enlightened Christian Gathering] city is going to be happening here in South Africa.”
Charismatic, miracle-promising churches have mushroomed across the continent. Many have fallen foul of authorities, going ahead without planning permission or environmental permits.
In 2014, 116 people, including 85 South Africans, were killed in Lagos when pastor TB Joshua’s building collapsed. A coroner’s inquest heard that he did not have planning permission and that extra floors were being added at the time.
The Enlightened Christian Gathering followed a similar path. It started construction without environmental permits, a fact omitted in the video but seized on by government officials. The consequences of their intervention came the day after this video was published.
A red banner runs across the bottom of the feed, giving Swift banking code details for the church’s FNB account, interspersed with requests for money: “Be among the few people sowing for the church project and receive the grace.”
Investing in grace is a central pillar of the church led by self-titled Prophet Shepherd Bushiri, known to his flock as Major 1 or Papa. The church holds its main service in a 20 000-seater “miracle tent” at the showgrounds in Pretoria West.
The church’s large congregation — Bushiri says on various platforms that he has two million followers — and business empire mean progress on ECG City was rapid in late 2015.
The land in Midrand on which Sheperd Bushiri Ministries wants to build its megachurch complex. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)
This made neighbours worried and they approached the Gauteng department of agriculture and rural development for more information.
The department sent an environmental management inspector (also known as a Green Scorpion) to take a look on December 17 2015, the day after Prophetic Channel published the video of construction at the site.
Reporting back to the complainants, the department said it had found that “activities undertaken on the site are potentially listed in terms of Nema [the National Environmental Management Act]”.
The Act requires developers to undertake an environmental impact assessment and conduct consultations on projects. But Bushiri didn’t bother with an assessment.
If one had been done it would have found that the area is zoned as low-density agricultural land and is home to endangered Egoli granite grassland species as well as giant bullfrogs.
Also, the area does not have sewage and electricity infrastructure for a complex with more than 40 000 people on it.
A lack of permits had brought building to a halt by January 10. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)
In response to Mail & Guardian questions, the department said: “ECG had not submitted an environmental impact assessment, or other environmental permissions required prior to construction.”
A compliance notice was therefore issued to the church “with the instruction to cease with all illegal activities on the site”.
The department has issued a directive instructing the church to consult the public and do the required environmental assessments before it applies for permission to build.
And, if it’s granted, the angels can then descend on the Midrand site.
Who is Bushiri?
Investing in grace is a key part of the narrative of the Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG) Church. Miracles are Bushiri’s currency, with the Prophetic Channel showing clips of children being brought back to life and couples talking about being cured of HIV.
In one of the recorded broadcasts, from 2015, Bushiri tells the packed assembly: “I am buying land. From Australia to South Africa, the whole world will be blessed by that land and I want you to be part and parcel of whatever I will be doing on that place.” At this point, people in the audience ululate and stand up from their closely packed, white plastic chairs to celebrate.
He goes on to say that ECG City — his planned megachurch complex in Midrand, Gauteng — will include a “small” 40 000-seater church, which will inevitably expand because of the rapid growth of his flock.
The plan for the city on the Prophetic Channel shows a futuristic church clad in white beams and glass, towered over by a hotel. Boulevards lined with flags from around the world run past furnished apartment blocks. One corner is reserved for the Shepherd Bushiri University.
Bushiri has been interviewed extensively about the Midrand development, and his business empire, by the press in his home country of Malawi.
Farms and communications companies in that country, along with mineral rights he claims in Malawi and South Africa and a university in South Sudan, mean Bushiri had a wealth of assets before he popped up in South Africa in 2015.
A search on SearchWorks, a third-party company data provider, shows that Bushiri is director of a plethora of companies in South Africa, registered from mid-2015: Bushiri Buzz, ECG Ministries International, Shepherd Bushiri Construction, Shepherd Bushiri Hotels, Shepherd Bushiri Insurance, Shepherd Bushiri Legal Aid, Shepherd Bushiri Medical Aid, Shepherd Bushiri Mining, Shepherd Bushiri Motor Insurance, Shepherd Bushiri Travel and Tours, Sparkling Water Holiday Hotel, Prophetic Channel, PSB Network, Shepherd Bushiri International University of Arts, Science and Technology, Shepherd Bushiri Airways and Shepherd Bushiri Investments.
These companies have one thing in common: they have little obvious presence. Their websites come with good graphics and explanations of what they do, but no tangible facts. Links end in bad gateways, 404 errors and broken links. A link to “download corporate profile” on the Shepherd Bushiri Investments website directs the user back to the top of the site. Four offices are listed for that company, but only the one in Johannesburg has contactable people and details. When contacted, it emerged that the Johannesburg office had at least two staff members.
A vacancy for the Dubai office, for an office manager, welcomes people to apply for one of the “fastest-growing” companies in the world. The web page for Shepherd Bushiri Airways shows the Gulfstream jet that he bought last year and notes that the company has “access” to private jets, helicopters and VIP-configured airliners.
Where there is information in detail is on Bushiri’s Facebook page and Instagram feed. The latter shows pictures of his end-of-2016 sermon at Soccer City football stadium, where he says about 100 000 people congregated.
One picture shows him climbing out of what is apparently a Sudanese military helicopter and visiting his South Sudan university, while others depict the slight man walking through yellow fields of grain with a Malawian military escort. The Instagram feed punts books that Bushiri has written, such as Make Millions in Forex Trading.
Pictures published in the Malawian media show a man with influence. One picture shows him posing with Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, while another depicts him with Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba. His Easter services in 2015, before local government elections, drew ANC treasurer Zweli Mkhize, who gave a speech to the congregation.
At the time of publication, the ECG Church had not responded to requests for comment.