By Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Correspondent
PRETORIA-IT was perhaps the most striking picture that came from the spectacle that accompanied Shepherd Bushiri’s appearance at the Pretoria Special Commercial Crimes Court recently.
It was the picture of a man, said to be in his mid forties by some social media, seemingly distraught at the persecution of his spiritual father, the 35 year old Bushiri.
In the picture, a flood of tears are streaming down the cheeks of the unnamed man. His eyes are firmly shut and as he cries, he appears to also be in passionate prayer for the man called Major 1 by his followers.
Just like many of the prophet’s disciple that afternoon, the man in the picture seemed to be diluting his prayers with tears and at the exact moment when that picture was snapped his sun battered face seemed a perfect illustration of both faith and grief.
This man, probably a father to children of his own, was exhibiting for his spiritual father the kind of grief usually reserved by most for their biological parents.
With the eyes of the world on that square outside the Pretoria Special Commercial Crimes Court, the cameras had found him and some might have wondered what his children, if he had any, thought of their father or what his parents, if they are still alive, thought of their son.
It was a picture that illustrated perfectly the drama that accompanied Bushiri and his wife’s appearance in court on money laundering charges as the faithful gave a taste of the unrehearsed theatre that they exhibit in Bushiri’s halls of worship every Sunday.
As they rolled on the ground, spoke in tongues and cursed police cars with chants of ‘Fire’, it was impossible not to admire the power that Bushiri has over his flock. It is the same power that other prophets like Walter Magaya seem to hold over their followers as well.
In traditional churches, pastors and other leaders were always revered and thought of highly but few have ever managed to reach the spellbinding influence that Bushiri and his prosperity preaching cousins have attained.
As dramatic as events outside the Pretoria court were, they were only the tip of the iceberg. Modern day prophets seem capable of convincing their followers to do almost anything.
In 2016, Prophet Bernard Takavadiyi of Ruach Embassy Worldwide Ministries managed to convince his followers that eating grass, tree leaves and grass was one way through which they could attain salvation.
While the rest of Zimbabwe watched in shock, his congregants ate it up, with one lady from Chikonohono claiming that she had breast cancer but when she consumed the grass, the lump that had been in her right breast disappeared.
Such is the world of modern day faith were acts such as drinking fuel, feeding on mud or eating live snakes can deliver instant healing from ailments whose cure have eluded science.
The faith and belief of Bushiri’s followers is only matched by the doubt and ridicule of those that do not subscribe to their unorthodox ways of worship.
To outsiders, the claims made by the likes of Bushiri are laughable. Last year, for example, the whole world laughed as the prophet claimed that he could walk on air.
His claim was proved almost immediately to be false but that did not shake the faith of his followers. His flock, which he has claimed is close to a million strong, instead seems to grow bigger with every miracle.
While Bushiri’s lawyers battled some of South Africa’s sharpest prosecutors, Zimbabwe’s own Walter Magaya was also in a legal battle of his own.
While Barry Roux, a man who reportedly charges R50 000 a day, began shadowboxing with some of South Africa’s brightest legal minds on behalf of Bushiri, Magaya avoided a legal brawl altogether, pleading guilty to contravening the country’s laws when he announced that he had found a cure for HIV/Aids.
In a different age, a man of God admitting to breaking the law or getting hauled before the courts for money laundering would cause ripples and dent their image in front of those they lead.
However, when they stand in front of the pulpit again, it looks highly unlikely that these latest legal battles would have lowered the standing of the two men of God in front of the eyes of their followers.
But how did these prophets become so powerful and so infallible in the eyes of their followers? According to some scholars, miracle making Prophets have become powerful because of their ability to shock and awe, a feature that makes them particularly appealing in Africa where most people are still superstitious.
In his paper titled The Political and Social Impact of Prophetic Churches in Zimbabwe, Nonimous Hameno observes that the popularity of miraculous prophesy stems from Christianity’s roots in the country. At the dawn of colonialism, instead of Christianity completely eclipsing African religion, it instead got diluted by Zimbabweans’ own traditional beliefs, in which the supernatural is not uncommon.
“Most Christian teaching from the West was influenced by the age of reason, secular humanism and the scientific advancements of those times. Liberal theology which rejected the supernatural had gained acceptance. Christianity as it came through the missionaries therefore lacked spirituality.
“The African, on reading the Bible immediately saw a disconnection between the Christianity taught by the missionary and biblical experience. The Bible is full of miracles and supernatural encounters, a spirituality the African was more familiar with,” he said.
Perhaps more than their ability to deliver an eye catching miracle now and then, perhaps their popularity comes from the gospel that they preach. While they claim to be agents of the Lord and therefore enemies of the devil, perhaps their strongest prayers are reserved for the scourge of poverty.
“You are poor because you are stupid. The demon of poverty rebels when its deliverer comes,” Prophet Uebert Angel once told his excited congregants.
While the Christian gospel has always emphasised that hard work will be rewarded and that an excessive love of money, the proverbial root of all evil, will lead to one’s downfall, modern prophets encourage their followers to be enterprising and seek wealth.
In that regard, there are no better examples than the prophets themselves, who in most cases live lavish lifestyles that some might associated with hip-hop stars than men of God.
Besides a private jet, Bushiri also boast of owning a fleet of luxury cars, including a Maserati, a Rolls-Royce, an Aston Martin and a R3 million Mercedes G63. He also bought his daughter a Maserati in December 2017 as a gift for her sixth birthday, ten years before she is legally allowed to drive.
Such extravagance might attract the disapproval of those that do not subscribe to Bushiri’s church, but it seems to be admired by those who flock to his church week after week seeking wisdom and religious insight from the designer suit wearing 35 year-old.
As events unfolded this week, many were amazed at how people, who law enforcement agents claimed had been swindled by their ‘Papa’, came out in full voice at the man who was allegedly preying on them. To observers, the congregants are will accomplices to their own robbery, a flock of sheep cheering on as a wolf leads them.
Perhaps, looking at his wealth, his followers believed that one day his teachings and prayers will make miracles in their own lives and they could be just as rich.
In December, Bushiri is said to have prophesied that he would become a target of law enforcement agents. Perhaps he had already caught wind of an investigation into his financial affairs. Or perhaps it was an act of true divine insight from a seer who the Lord had already been shown a glimpse of the gathering clouds.
As the case unfolds, that prophesy is likely going to be used by his followers as an example of his power and a reason why they should stand by their ‘father’ in his hour of need. Their faith, and that of millions who follow similar prophets in Africa, is unlikely to be shaken by anything, including the truth.