When Sipho Dlamini proposed to Thandi Mokoena* earlier this year, she was overjoyed.
“I had known him for years,” said the 24-year-old. “So when he asked me to marry him, I told my mother and my family. We all prayed. I was so happy.”
A large part of that happiness came from the fact that Dlamini was a pastor in Soweto.
“Soon after he proposed and I accepted, he said I should join his church,” said Mokoena. “He said because he was my man, I should support him.”
But soon after joining the small charismatic church, Mokoena’s joy of marrying Dlamini shattered.
“I started seeing all these women there. They claimed to be his girlfriend or whatever. I began to see that he basically promises to marry these young women and then gets them to join his church.
“Once there, he would use them – for their money, for their bodies. He would ask me to take out loans on his behalf and borrow money from congregants.
“He got young women pregnant and, because he doesn’t want children, organised abortions for them and forced them to go through with the procedure.”
This week, an independent chapter nine institution, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities announced the release of its report into the commercialisation of religion and the abuse of people’s belief systems.
The report follows hearings the commission conducted nationally, after media reports exposed the controversial activities of religious leaders such as Lethebo Rabalago.
Dubbed the “Prophet of Doom”, the Limpopo-based Rabalago caused an outcry after reports emerged of him spraying his congregants with the insecticide to heal them.
“Recent controversial news reports and articles about pastors have left a large portion of society questioning whether religion has become a commercial institu-tion or a commodity to enrich a few,” said the commission’s chairperson, Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva.
Among the commission’s recommendations, which have been tabled before Parliament for approval, is that every religious practitioner in the country be registered with the commission through an accredited umbrella organisation of their choice.
These umbrella organisations would, in turn, need to adhere to a code of conduct, have capacity-building programmes and put disciplinary procedures in place.
“This was necessitated by the fact that currently, there is no comprehensive register where the communities can verify who is a bona fide religious practitioner,” the commission noted. “This register will also ensure that the religious leaders are compliant with the various laws of the country.”
Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said the recommendations were based mainly on information gathered during the hearings, a process she has referred to as “a long, arduous, painful journey”.
During the hearings, some religious leaders and their followers displayed “varying degrees of resistance” to the commission’s inquiries.
“This was emotional harassment,” said one. Another said: “I believe that God is above the law. [This country’s] laws are against God.”
Mkhwanazi-Xaluva is aware of the possible pushback.
“This [report and its recommendations] is not a ‘hallelujah amen’ moment,” she said. “[But] we are convinced that the majority of reasonable religious leaders will agree with us. We are confident that we’ve covered all our bases.”
Other recommendations include an investigation by the South African Revenue Service into possible tax evasion by religious leaders and institutions and that the police enforce the law when complaints are laid against religious leaders.
Mkhwanazi-Xaluva added that the police were generally reluctant to enforce the law when religious leaders were implicated.
Referring to the lack of regulation in the sector, Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said: “If these recommendations are approved, we can assure the nation that the circus will be over.”
As for Mokoena, she has yet to tell her family that the man they hold in such high esteem will no longer be her husband.
“I want to tell my mother face-to-face,” she says. “But people are already asking me why I am no longer coming to church. It’s not ideal. It’s difficult for me. I go now and then to other churches, but I don’t have a church anymore. ”
* Not their real names.
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian