IT’S a little after seven on a Sunday morning in Pretoria West and the roads near the Tshwane Events Centre are nearly gridlocked with cars and buses.
The streets are thronging with thousands of people making their way to the headquarters of the Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG) Church where they will hang on every word of the man who calls himself the prophet.
Shepherd Bushiri and his wife, Mary, are making their first public appearance since their arrests on fraud and money-laundering charges involving some R15 million, but the court case has done little to deter the faithful. If anything, it seems to have drawn even more worshippers to the morning’s service.
There’s a slow, shoulder-to-shoulder shuffle to get inside the Events Centre auditorium and, from a distance, the masses look like ants.
Up close though the crowd is brimming with energy. It feels as though there is some kind of mass hysteria in the air, the kind that makes excitement bubble beneath the skin and sends vibrations all the way to your bones. on of Those the lampposts crowd, not making which and gawk their seems way at the to inside swell volume lean by the second.
By 8am the centre is jam-packed but more people are squeezing their way in, some of them pushing the sick and physically challenged in wheelchairs, or carrying them on their backs
The congregants have come from across the country and as far away as Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique and Malawi, Bushiri’s home country, to attend today's service.
It’s estimated around 2 500 people attend the weekly sermons in Pretoria West and the ECG Church claims to have 700 000 members in South Africa. The ill and disabled are escorted to a specially demarcated area on the lower level of the auditorium, where ushers hand them indemnity forms to sign.
A church counsellor tells us the forms were introduced after three women died in a stampede at the church on 28 December.
“This is just a way for the prophet to cover his back and not open himself to litigation if a sick person or physically challenged person drops dead during a sermon,” a counsellor tells us. “Or if – and I am not saying it will happen again – there is another stampede, and people are killed or injured.”
The indemnity form states a sick person comes to the church at their own risk, and mustn’t hold the prophet responsible if they aren’t healed or if they After a three-hour wait, there’s a roar from the congregation as the pastor and his wife finally arrive in the auditorium.
TAKING the pulpit, Bushiri compares himself to Jesus Christ, telling his followers that like him, the son of God was also persecuted, arrested and crucified. He quotes Revelation 11:8, saying, “and their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified’’.
He tells his thousands of devotees to read the Book of Revelation very carefully.
“Many of you think that Jesus was persecuted, arrested and crucified in Israel. But Revelation 11:8 tells us that he was crucified in Sodom and Egypt. Think carefully. It means Jesus can be crucified anywhere. I am being crucified here in South Africa.”
‘NOBODY IS GOING TO DESTROY ME’
The theme of his Sunday sermon is “quantum events”, a concept which seems rather too abstract for most of his followers, but it is interspersed with prayers and songs of praise and worship.
Another recurring theme is Bushiri’s self-proclaimed, and presumably divine, invincibility, which is shared as a mantra: “I am who I am, and nobody is going to destroy me,” to which his followers respond with thunderous applause and shout, “Amen, Amen, tell them, you are the Major 1.”
“I am who I am. I am not the past. I am not the present. I am not the future, but I am who I am, and nobody is going to destroy me because I am who I am,” Bushiri declares.
Despite the negative reports about him, Bushiri says he still has many followers and friends who believe in him.
One of those friends is Black First Land First leader Andile Mngxitama, who is in church today and who Bushiri introduces to the congregation.
After Bushiri was released on bail Mngxitama announced President Cyril Ramaphosa ought to apologise to the pastor. Mngxitama claimed the self-anointed prophet was targeted by the Hawks and his arrest was an act of xenophobia.
ACCOUNTS of miraculous deeds abound as the marathon service, which runs for about 10 hours, wears on. The faithful take turns making their way to the stage to share how the power of Bushiri’s prayers have transformed their lives.
There is testimony to medical miracles, job miracles and even magisterial miracles, all attributed to Bushiri’s intervention with the Almighty.
A young woman from Zimbabwe says the prophet prayed for her health when she had a growth the size of a pineapple on her face. Surgeons could do nothing for her but after only a few weeks of the prophet’s prayers, the growth simply disappeared.
Another woman tells of finding a great job as the CEO of a company, despite having no previous experience running a business. To prove her story, her letter of appointment is shown on a screen in the auditorium. Curiously, it has no letterhead.
In a similar testament, a young woman says she’d applied for a job at a top medical laboratory and was given a scientist’s job, despite having no experience.
A man from Limpopo shares the moving story of how he visited the prophet while out on bail on armed robbery charges.
When he went back to court, the magistrate, told him, “What do you want here? You are free to go.”
And then, filled with the power of the prophet and all his marvels, the crowd turns to leave the church – until next Sunday, when they will do it all over again.