‘It’s an attack on Christianity’

“Have you come to do Marikana here? If it has become a crime to pray then we are committing a crime,” said Pastor Mpfariseni Mukhuba during a service of the Unity Fellowship Church on the last Sunday of February. She was referring to the brutal killing of 34 mine workers on 16 August 2012 by the police at Marikana in the North West.

The Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) entourage had just arrived and were preparing to go inside the church to inspect adherence to the Covid-19 regulations. According to the video provided by the church, the pastor and ­congregants holding placards went outside the premises and knelt down in the middle of the street and prayed. It showed the police forcing their way inside. Shots were fired, people were injured and a camera was allegedly confiscated. 

The pastor and some church members were arrested and taken to the Moroka police station. They were released on bail before midnight. 

A statement from the JMPD said that “on their arrival, the officers were surrounded by a group of aggressive male churchgoers who thumped onto the JMPD patrol vehicles. Officers used pepper fog to disperse the group and called for backup.”

Unity Fellowship Church leader Pastor Mukhuba addressing the media and the congregation outside the Protea magistrate Court in Soweto against the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) harrassment and her arrest on the weekend. (Oupa Nkosi)

The JMPD confirmed that Mukhuba was charged with malicious damage to property, assault and contravening regulations of the Disaster Management Act.

The church is in an industrial area in Midway, Soweto, and has residential houses on its buffer zone. Since its inception in 2010, residents have complained about the noise from the church. 

“Officers have been constantly attending to noise complaints received from the surrounding community about the church. Since the national state of disaster was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa and Disaster Management Act regulations were introduced, officers have also attended to complaints of noncompliance gatherings regulations,” said the JMPD’s Xolani Fihla.

The pastor’s husband, Professor Theophilus Mukhuba, accuses the City of Johannesburg of being disingenuous in allowing them to buy the land and approving their development plans and then adopting a resolution to terminate the consent.

“The City of Jo’burg are [sic] the engineers of this problem and instead of solving it, they use their power to effect bullying tactics against the church on the problem that they created,” he said. 

During the pastor’s appearance in the Protea magistrate’s court earlier in March, Kunene Street was bustling more than usual with vehicles battling to navigate their way out of the swelling crowd that had gathered to support Mukhuba. 

“This is not just an attack on Pastor Mukhuba, it’s an attack on Christianity. If you look at the manner at which the ANC government has dealt with the churches, it has always been unfair even before Covid-19,” Theophilus Mukhuba told the media outside the court. 

He complained that the government allowed taxis to operate at full capacity and that people frequent shopping malls but churchgoers were not allowed to worship on Sundays because they are classified as super-spreaders of the virus.

A young man cycling pass the Unity Fellowship Church vehicle in Midway, Chiawelo, Soweto. (Oupa Nkosi)

“It’s time now the churches must arise. It’s no longer a political struggle that we are fighting. We are fighting for a moral regeneration agenda,” Theophilus Mukhuba said. 

The speeches continued and after a while Pastor Mukhuba emerged from a black 4×4 Mercedes-Benz wearing a long, white, flowing gown and a white face mask. 

The crowd jumped for joy and the singing became louder. With her husband by her side and some men holding umbrellas shielding both from the sun, they walked inside the court.

The crowd never stopped chanting and dancing despite the heat. Once court proceedings were done the church leaders emerged to address the supporters under a small tree that gave them enough shade. 

Pastor Mukhuba lambasted the JMPD, saying that their treatment of them was brutal.

“I am an adult and I have never seen in the history of the Johannesburg metro police that they have ever discharged so much ammunition anywhere else. The devil is afraid of the churches in South Africa. There is no one who will stop the church.”

Prof. Makhuba of the Unity Fellowship Church in Midway, Chiawelo, Soweto. (Oupa Nkosi)

The following Sunday morning the church service was back and Pastor Mukhuba’s sermon did not disappoint those gathered as they vigorously clapped and sang. 

The JMPD denied that it used brutal force against any church member and that officers only responded to complaints received. The case was postponed to 23 April. 

The M&G requested comment from the City of Johannesburg, but it had not responded by the time of going to print.

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Oupa Nkosi
Oupa Nkosi

Oupa Nkosi began taking photos in 1998 with a pawnshop camera, before enrolling at the Market Photography Workshop. He began freelancing after graduating and has since run community projects, won a Bonani Africa award, had his work selected for exhibitions in Zimbabwe and Japan, and been invited to international workshops. He began at the M&G as an intern and is now chief photographer. He also writes features for the paper and lectures at his alma mater.

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