Why? This is the question many are asking as we see an increase in claims of abuse by people claiming to be men of God yet accused of performing crazy stunts, demanding money, and even abusing congregants. Social media is full of such stories – the pastor who sprayed people with Doom, ordered people to eat snakes, drink petrol or claimed to raise a “dead” man from a coffin; the pastors who instead of giving comfort to women, are accused of taking advantage of them and even raping them.
Why? Why do people believe in such religious leaders and follow them blindly, and defend them when they end up in court? Why are they willing to give up the little they have, be it money, possessions, time, health and dignity? And why do they risk their lives by eating and drinking things they know are harmful or allow themselves to be humiliated.
The fans come out in their numbers when the law is trying to protect them against such fake prophets, and they will attack and turn on anyone who stands up to demonise their heroes. They have shown that they are willing to pay thousands of rand to listen to or simply be in the presence of these “great” leaders, and to buy their products, even it breaks them financially, they will continue to tithe.
Even President Cyril Ramaphosa has weighed in asking: “How can we work together to ensure that we rid our country of bogus religious leaders who are taking our people for a ride? … [People] who are actually [taking]the name of the Lord of God and of churches into disrepute?”
There were some answers during this week’s Commission for the Promotion of the Rights of Cultural Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL) consultative conference at St George Hotel, attended by 600 religious and traditional leaders. The conference gave an opportunity for delegates to raise issues of concern and draft a plan for dealing with church leaders who abuse their power and take advantage of their congregants.
CRL chair, Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, noted that there were many atrocities committed under the guise of religion, with Professor Tinyiko Maluleke citing poverty and a feeling of hopelessness as reasons such churches flourish. “People are so desperate for hope that it has become a scarce commodity (and) these prophets and fake leaders are supplying the demand for it.”
He said he believed the problem existed due to the conceptualisation of God and miracles, and noted that many who fell for the stunts were stuck in the rut of unemployment and poverty. “It is those people who are desperate for hope who are even willing to part with their last cents those who will never be able to afford a medical aid that seek healing from these churches.” Another factor was that the church leaders, rather than be humble, exude prosperity and success. Followers believe this could be their future too.