The 1994 democratic elections in South Africa marked a watershed moment of change represented by the official collapse of the colonial apartheid order and its replacement by democratic black majority rule. These changes were accompanied by several others, and in particular changes in the old institutions, structures, and their attendant practices. Among them was the upsurge in the Christian religious movements that manifested through Pentecostal and/or charismatic Christian churches. While these churches are not new to South Africa, having apparently first emerged during the turn of the twentieth century, they grew exponentially throughout the country in the immediate post-1994 period, both in the urban centers and remote rural villages.
The exponential growth of these churches was however not without problems and controversies. Of late, we have witnessed and read reports of endless controversies in which these churches are said to be engaged in practices perceived as being contrary to true Christian faith. Amongst these practices are the feeding of people with snakes, grass, petrol, and pesticides as part of spiritual healing and fighting of demonic spirits (see pictures 1 and 2). At the time of writing this piece, there were ongoing court cases against the Nigerian-born pastor, Timothy Omotoso of the Jesus Dominion International (JDI) church, charged with allegations of sexual assault, human trafficking and racketeering, and the Malawian-born multimillionaire pastor of the Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG) church, Shepherd Bushiri, and his wife, charged with fraud and money laundering. Also recent was the video clip that went viral of the Congolese-born pastor Alph Lukau, in which he claimed to have just prayed and managed to bring a dead man lying in the coffin back to life.
The endless controversies about these churches, including charges that they operate like private businesses and yet benefit from not paying taxes due to the absence of a regulatory framework, prompted the South African government to appoint a commission of inquiry to investigate these controversies and alleged illegal business practices. This task was assigned to the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission). The investigation was meant to address the perceived problem of fraudulent churches that are viewed as causing harm to people’s emotions and spirits. The view is that some of these churches have been established for commercial gain by church leaders despite their members living in poverty.
What is striking amidst the rising popularity and controversies of Pentecostal and/or charismatic churches is the lack of sociological accounts. This is attributable to the fact that in South Africa, sociology of religion is still largely underdeveloped. As a result, it leaves unanswered and unexplored a whole range of sociological questions related to these churches including the following: how does one explain the sudden mushrooming and exponential growth of these churches, and their popularity amongst South Africans? Which segments of the South African society are actively involved as congregants for these churches? Who are the leaders of these churches and what makes them so charismatic? How does one explain what appears like passivity on the part of the congregants as agents, to what are perceived as toxic and dangerous practices within these churches? What about the regulatory frameworks for religious organizations in South Africa, and are they being flouted?
As a modest attempt to provide a preliminary sociological account, I enlist a theoretical perspective on religion and its role within society. This perspective examines how religion is understood i.e., what it is and what its role and influence are in society. At the definitional level, there are some disagreements, which James A. Beckford attributes to the fact that religion is a social construct founded in andinformed by specific socio-political and historical contexts which give it diverse and dynamic, unfixed meanings. This view is helpful to understanding the exponential growth of Pentecostal and charismatic churches in post-1994 South Africa. This was a political moment which promised a “better life for all,” an ideal that has never been fully realized. This is so despite some improvements made through large-scale provision of basic services to the poor. South Africa’s perpetually slow annual economic growth, presently recorded at just 2.2%, has failed to generate significant levels of employment (official unemployment is over 27%). Poverty and inequalities are worsening, with the country’s Gini coefficient of 0.63 one of the highest in the world. These are exacerbated by moral degeneration and rampant corruption marked by looting of public funds by politically connected elites for self-enrichment. At the time of writing this article, two commissions of inquiry were ongoing, investigating alleged state capture by corrupt corporate interests, corruption, and fraud.
This context explains the exponential growth and popularity of charismatic churches amongst South Africans. These churches promise their followers blessings in the form of a miraculous end to their sufferings from poverty, ill health, and unemployment, as well as in the form of material wealth. To this end, they encourage congregants to make financial donations which ultimately leave the pastors super rich. Beckford was spot on in observing that religion is a non-homogenous, complex, and varied social construct which depends on the ends it is harnessed to achieve. The unique charismatic elements of Pentecostalism, including the miraculous healings, have been exploited for self-enrichment by pastors who pose as prophets performing miracles. While for Steve Bruce, religion’s influence is enhanced by the belief that the rewards for doing God’s will on earth would follow in the next life through eternal bliss and far greater riches than the mundane world can offer, the present wave of Pentecostalism and charismatic churches in South Africa emphasizes material rewards in the current world.
It is not easy to conclude without pointing to the historical effects of colonialism achieved through Christian missionary churches and the western education system. Specifically, the Christian churches’ missionary role has been to convert Africans away from their pre-colonial faith centered on Badimo or Amadliozi (ancestors) as spiritual mediums for access to Modimo/Unkulunkulu (God). This has resulted in converted Africans dismissing Badimo or Amadliozi as demonic spirits, signifying a successful project of colonization cemented through an education system that rests on colonial theoretical concepts and categories. This attests to Bruce’s view that religion could either promote cohesion by binding people together under the name of God or a common cosmology, or change and disrupt the pre-existing order.
Mokong S. Mapadimeng, Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa, member of ISA Research Committees on Sociology of Arts (RC37) and Labor Movements (RC44) <email@example.com>