My visit to the Revelation Church of God’s downtown Johannesburg branch was perfectly stage-managed. My chaperone, Thembi Tulwana, a public relations officer employed by the church, took me inside just after 8am, the start of the Sunday morning service. She led me to a section close to the front of the large Jewish synagogue turned African Christian church. I protested, not because I would stick out like a sore thumb but because my range of vision would be limited. It turned out to be a useless protest, because whatever spectacle I was expecting to see didn’t materialise.
At face value, the Revelation Church of God, run by the mesomorphic prophet Samuel Radebe, is not unlike the thousands of similar churches on the continent. Perhaps the only distinguishing factor, from what I could see, was its own unique brand of miracle production in the form of filmed testimonials displayed over several screens.
The videos seemed to be the cornerstone of what was roughly a two-and-a-half-hour service.
Miracle production seems to be a cornerstone of what we can group as charismatic churches. In this church’s case, videos depict members talking about expelling all manner of foreign items from their bodies, or being led to nefariously buried items (such as bird skeletons) in their yards after consuming blessed water or salt.
One man (in videos I watched online) supposedly urinated a caterpillar through his urethra. It was displayed in a bowl while he gave testimony. Another woman expelled a heavy-duty warehouse lock with a steel shackle (supposedly from her vagina). It was also displayed on a dish as she spoke.
The centrepiece of the service I attended was a long insert on an incapacitated Soweto woman who (thanks to the water) had regained her mobility, even jiving for the camera.
Radebe called these videos the highlights of the week, and exited the room for several minutes while they played. Radebe’s sermon, if one can call it that, seemed to complement these videos by its lack of severity. After a cursory outline of African spirituality, which served to differentiate Radebe’s theological practice from the narrow bounds of orthodox Christianity, and some bouts of singing, praying and shaking hands, a tap on my shoulder signalled that it was time
to wait for my lift to interview Radebe at another nearby church property. The tap came just as I spotted a woman standing in an aisle near the centre of the church readying a large bag I assumed was to be used for the week’s collection.
I should have been impressed that Radebe, whom I had left on the pulpit, was seated in his office before my arrival. I wasn’t. My chaperone had taken far too long to locate her car, inexplicably, and was now in the company of two younger men, one of whom deferentially called her Ma Ol’ Lady. I got into the passenger seat of her white E-class Mercedes, and she whisked me to a multistorey property in Salisbury Street. In the covered parking were several men with earpieces — Radebe’s security detail, I assumed — as well as the driver of his Jeep Cherokee.
His maroon robe with golden trimmings was off, revealing a church T-shirt advertising a much-publicised Good Friday event that was being hosted at the FNB Stadium.
Radebe was circumspect and cordial, explaining that he did not suddenly wake up and call himself a prophet. “I was born into the Radebe clan; we have a long-standing history of spirituality. There is a line of prophets. My great-grandfather was a prophet. My grandfathers were prophets, my uncles also. Mbiza here [he pointed to a photograph on his wall] is one of my uncles. He was in the Apostolic Church of Zion. He’d pray for people. He’d use water. It’s important to establish that it is not a hobby. When he’d catch the spirit while preaching, he’d hop on one leg.”
Radebe briefly explained that he would have visions as a child growing up in Gugulethu. He’d see flickering colours on the floor, so bright that he could not go to the bathroom unassisted. This went on until a woman visited their yard one day, praying and performing a soothing ritual that involved placing a camphor block on his head.
Radebe (who in his office has a photo of himself graduating from the Newburgh Theological Seminary in the United States) has been using the church premises on the corner of Wolmarans and Claim streets in Joubert Park since 2009, when he was 30 years old.
“I use water, like my forefathers,” he says. “Mostly, people bring the water; it could be from the tap. I don’t pray for the water. I bless it with my hands, or just stretch my hands to make it remove any foreign invading bodies. As African people, we know about witchcraft. People urinate things, snakes and other things that got there through witchcraft.
“I bless water. I am not a prayer healer; I’m a prophet. We all pray, but a prophet is different: he prophesies. I bless it in the form of a declaration.”
At his office, I am handed a booklet bearing a photograph of Radebe in white robes trimmed with leopard skin, seated on a chair adorned with a leopard skin. He carries an assegai, a church symbol, and a microphone.
In it, are lists of Radebe prophecies. They are TB Joshua-like; general, hazy visions of jailbreaks, bridge collapses and volcanic eruptions that later, according to the brochure, appear in the press, sometimes months after being declared from the pulpit.
I ask Radebe whether all his members can experience healing and he replies: “Let’s just start with the basic laws of life. In life, nothing is guaranteed. You can go to a hospital and not recover. There could be various reasons. It could be you didn’t use your medication right. The medicine didn’t work. People die in hospital under the care of physicians. It could be many reasons, like your beliefs. Maybe you didn’t believe. It could be that my source of power is pure. I believe in God and you believe in something else. So these energies clash.”
Radebe and I find common ground when we speak about the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities’ farcical issuing of summonses to handpicked church leaders in 2015.
“I don’t know why,” he says. “I just know that I was summonsed. And the reasons for it were not clear to me, which is why I chose, under my democratic right, not to appear.
“There were no terms of reference, just ‘appear with your documents, among them, your qualifications’.
“Already I have a problem. Even though I do have religious qualifications, my faith is not something I need qualifications for. It’s a calling. I was asked for financial documents. I also have a problem with that. When you read the commission’s mandate, it’s not an institution that is supposed to randomly summon religious leaders and ask us for our financial statements.”
Radebe, one of three church leaders who refused to appear, was publicly threatened with arrest in 2015 for not appearing in front of commission chairperson Nomfundo Mkhwanazi-Xaluva. All the commission would say was that the matter was still in the hands of the police.
When I ask Radebe about his expansion efforts, he and I speak past each other. “We have 56 branches in South Africa. Four in Mozambique and four in Zimbabwe. We will be opening one in the US, in Atlanta.”
Mere kilometres from where we sit, Radebe’s expansionism comes into stark focus. In November last year, the church removed tenants from an abandoned mansion in Berea near Ponte City. In December, the high court ruled that they could return, but their goods had been damaged.
According to Windeed, a deed- searching service, the church, whose overflow spills over into Wolmarans Street, has four stands in Yeoville, transferred to it in August 2014 for about to R5 750 000. Among these stands is a prime spot near the reservoir in Yeoville, long used by Johannesburg residents as an open area to worship and pray.
When later asked for comment by email about the Yeoville land, Radebe said they were not expanding to Yeoville but were relocating there. In a statement, the body corporate of a nearby building, Westminster Mansions, concerned about the zoning of the site, said: “We have written to them [the church] to have a discussion but no reply has been forthcoming thus far. We remain open as a community to hearing his plans. We do not want to prejudge. However, we have a fear that this could have a major impact on the lifestyle we are accustomed to.”
The worship area is currently fenced with barbed wire and has an armed guard.
That Radebe runs an organisation of immense influence with vigilance became even clearer after our interview. My chaperone’s two assistants diligently offered to get me a church-operated “Uber” vehicle to ferry me home. They insisted on it. I should have protested but against my better judgment, I did not.