Nwabisa Makunga: Wolves in sheep’s clothing

It was the strangest thing. While enjoying a snack at a popular Richmond Hill restaurant on Saturday evening, I noticed three young women walking in. They sat at a table across from ours. Their conversation caught my attention. (I know it’s rude to eavesdrop on people but they were audible and quite expressive.)

One of them was recounting an encounter she had with a man some time ago.

It will serve no purpose to repeat her story here, suffice to say that she felt the interaction was inappropriate and his conduct made her feel uncomfortable.

This was even more so because she had, until then, looked up to the man.

The story was only vaguely interesting, until she dropped the man’s name. “Tim Omotoso! The one and only pastor Tim Omotoso,” she said as her friends gasped in shock.

I probably did not even realise I was staring at her.

One of them must have noticed this strange woman gawking at them and nudged her friend to speak a little softer.

I sheepishly apologised for eavesdropping and went back to my nachos. Her story is, of course, not legally tested. I mention it simply to highlight the magnitude of the allegations against Omotoso, the leader of the Jesus Dominion International church and the man at the centre of a human trafficking scandal that has captured our imagination.

Last week Omotoso was arrested in the most spectacular fashion at the Port Elizabeth airport.

The details of his alleged crimes are yet to unfold.

What we know is that police want him to answer to a human trafficking charge.

This seemingly stems from accusations by young women who claim that Omotoso abused his position of power as their spiritual leader to lure them to his Durban home, where they said he engaged in sexual acts with them. It’s all murky and disgusting. But let me first make the obvious point that none of these allegations have been tested in court. Therefore, I intend not to delve into the merits of his case in particular.

It is the discourse around Omotoso and others like him that is of interest to me at this point.

His story of unquestionable power, accumulation and a cult-like organisation that appears averse to any form of accountability is not unique.

It is a pressure point for many of us and the reason for the infamy of certain sections of our religious community.

Since before the famous “Doomgate” and other bizarre things that have taken place in the name of God, the church has rightfully been placed under scrutiny.

A government commission (whose name is terribly long) recently investigated the commercialisation of religion.

Its findings, although not surprising, were quite chilling.

In a nutshell, it found that some congregations were money-making schemes, led by rogues who sell false hope to naive or vulnerable believers for the highest possible financial gain. (It further highlighted the need to investigate some church operations suspected of priority crimes such as money-laundering.) We knew this. Still, the issue is what is to be done about it? The commission recommended that religious organisations be regulated.

It has called for a peer review council which would, among others, enforce accountability and define certain norms of practice like issuing operating licences to religious institutions which comply.

No licence would be withheld on the basis of doctrine, unless such is deemed harmful to those who practice it, it said.

In principle, this seems plausible, particularly with regards to, for example, issues of compliance with financial laws.

The actual implementation of it is, of course, another story.

Beyond that, I remain conflicted about the involvement of the government in how we practice religion. The precedent set may be a dangerous one. Further, we must be mindful that even when efficiently implemented, regulation is, by its very nature, a limited solution to the problems that beset the church.

Unlike, say, financial mechanisms that can be adopted to minimise chances of maladministration, regulation might not shield congregants who are vulnerable, physically or otherwise, from sexual predators who hold powerful positions in the church.

Nor is it a solution to the underlying, substantive issues which give rise to the predicament in which we find ourselves.

Placing emphasis on creating more laws is one thing. Ultimately, it is important to understand and deal with the desperation that makes so many susceptible to emotional, physical and financial exploitation by podium narcissists wearing flashy suits and sunglasses.

Nwabisa Makunga is the deputy editor of The Herald and Weekend Post. 

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