​Pastor Bushiri keeps illegal church a secret, applies to build a kilometre away


It is common practice for developers caught breaking the law to admit their guilt and say they will do a better job next time. It allows the state to sanction their illegal offices, shops and factories while also pacifying those that complain about laws ignored. But this is not the case with Shepherd Bushiri Ministries and his Enlightened Christian Gathering.

Caught building a church illegally in Kyalami, northern Johannesburg, the ministry has simply moved to another site a kilometre away and started again. No mention is made of the previous offence in its applications for permission to go ahead with the new church.

That offence dates back to December 2015, when the church started construction of a 10 000-seater church in Kyalami. Locals, who had not been consulted, asked the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to investigate. A Green Scorpion (environmental management inspector) visited the already bulldozed and graded site on December 15.

The inspector’s observations of illegal activity led to the department issuing a compliance notice, with the instruction “to cease with all illegal activities on the site”. The Mail & Guardian was told that the church “had not submitted an environmental impact assessment, or other environmental permissions required prior to construction”.

The church, currently based in a 20 000-seater “miracle tent” at the showgrounds west of Pretoria, followed this up with a Section 24G application. This back door in environmental legislation allows developers that have broken the law to admit their guilt, pay a fine and then fix the damage that they did.

That was in June 2016. At the same time, the church had started its application to build on a nearby site. This new church will cover an area of 42 hectares, next to the township of Olievenhoutbosch, Centurion, on the border between the municipalities of Tshwane and Johannesburg. Planning documents show a 35 000-seater “mega church”, with 8 000 parking bays. A university with space for 3 500 students and high-density residential units will cluster around the church. These buildings will be supported by workshops, a bakery and other small industries, according to the application.

The church says in its application to change the zoning from “agricultural” to “residential” that there is an “urgent need for a permanent site that can accommodate as many people as possible”. These are people “in need of spiritual fruit and deliverance”.

It goes on to say that “discussions” have begun with the provincial agriculture and rural development department “to determine the best approach to the application” for the new site.

The department denied this claim, saying it is “not aware of this new development process”. It went on to say that, if the case of the previous site does go to court, the court can order that the same developer be denied an environmental permit for five years.

If development does go ahead, it says its inspectors monitor sites and “act swiftly” when a complaint is received.

In practice, the Section 24G loophole means that offenders rarely end up in court so this cannot be enforced. It is therefore up to people and environmental inspectors to ensure that developers are acting within the limits of their permits.

But that call requires full disclosure from the applicant. In this case, the zoning application does not mention the illegal construction down the road. Instead, the church says “the need to get a bigger venue” meant the Johannesburg city council intervened and helped the church look for its new site. “This necessitated the relocation of the ECG [Enlightened Christian Gathering] to the present location with bigger extent.”

The legislation that governs environmental practitioners makes it a criminal offense to lie or withhold critical information in an application, with an R80 000 fine imposed in previous cases. The company doing the applications on behalf of Bushiri’s church did not respond to M&G questions concerning their omission of information.

The deadline for interested and affected parties to register to be included in the environmental impact assessment for the new site passed last week. That process will have to include public consultation and a look at the environmental impact before government gives the green light for legal construction to go ahead.

The church and Bushiri did not respond to questions, despite having two weeks to do so.

Who is Shepherd Bushiri?
Company records show that Shepherd Bushiri registered the Enlightened Christian Gathering and a series of other companies in 2015 after he moved from Malawi. He lives in an opulent home at the Waterfall estate in Midrand. He claims a congregation of two million people who queue up outside his Pretoria church to witness what he calls “miracles”. Those range from raising a child from the dead to curing a couple of HIV.

Much of his public face is carried across a YouTube channel — the Prophetic Channel — a Facebook page and Instagram feed. These show Bushiri’s sermons and punt books he has written, such as Make Millions in Forex Trading. They also show local politicians visiting his home and congregation. One picture shows him posing with Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema.

His end-of-2016 function at Soccer City attracted 100 000 worshippers according to the church’s estimates. 

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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