A reflection of our brokenness
A few days ago, Shepherd “Major 1” Bushiri, leader of the non-denominational church Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG,) was arrested by the Hawks on fraud and moneylaundering charges.
His arrest comes after reports emerged last year that the self-proclaimed prophet was sending about R15m a month to his birth country of Malawi. The money was allegedly transported out of SA in the pastor’s private jet.
The arrest of Bushiri was met with great celebration by many. Over the past few days I have been observing the commentary online and have determined that there are two types of people who are celebrating Bushiri’s arrest.
The first group is comprised of those who feel that these mushrooming evangelical churches that line every corner in South African cities is exploitation of the plight of the poor, and that these self-proclaimed prophets such as Bushiri are using the vulnerability of the disenfranchised to enrich themselves.
The second group is comprised of those whose problem with Bushiri is fundamentally that he is a foreigner.
This group, in its extremely regressive fashion, posits that Bushiri is an expression of the “problematic” migrant influx that our country is facing, and that his arrest and deportation should be followed with the arrest and deportation of all other foreign nationals.
Bushiri’s fraud and money-laundering charges have seemingly given some semblance of credibility to the long-held view that foreign nationals are in SA to commit crime.
This argument is deeply unfortunate, to say the least, not only because it is not supported by statistical evidence, but because it feeds into the dangerous culture of Afrophobic thinking that sets parameters for the violence against African migrants that our country has become famous for.
I am interested in the first group’s argument, in part because I agree to some degree. However, I think that we do a great injustice to the discussion if we dismiss followers of Bushiri as an exploited people who are in a soporific state. It is as problematic an argument as the one that seeks to suggest that ANC supporters who continue to vote for the organisation in spite of its many failures are unthinking and stupid.
Such an argument fails to appreciate people have agency, and though it is exercised within a construct laden with power relations, they make conscious choices to associate with whomever they please.
The discussion we should be having is why our people are this committed to prophets who by all indications view religion as a theatre of accumulation. But the reality is that we cannot have a discussion about the South African religious milieu devoid of its relationship with the prevailing material conditions that shape the positionality of congregants.
Historically, oppressed people, disenfranchised and systematically dispossessed of their very humanness, have turned to religion for sanctuary. Religion played a significant role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, not only as something that was imposed on the captured slaves, but as something that the slaves themselves used to make sense of their circumstances.
And while very often it was used to pacify the slaves, the 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, led by preacher Nat Turner, demonstrates that religion can also be used as reference for progressive change. Turner used the very word that taught slaves to obey their masters to argue that bondage is ungodly.
In our country with its history of colonisation, religion has often been used to justify the oppression of black people. While we did have progressive churches that fought on the side of the oppressed, some churches were very instrumental in the sustaining of the apartheid regime. Churches are not ideologically neutral.
Bushiri’s exploitation of his followers is made possible by the material space in which they engage – a space informed by the capitalist mode of production that inherently orchestrates inequality, alienation and absolute desperation for the poor. It is not an accident that Bushiri is an advocate of individual accumulation, expressed in his own conspicuous consumption.
Capitalism normalises this because its values are anchored in crass materialism, which explains why Bushiri bought his six-year-old daughter a Maserati costing more than R1m, while taking tithes from members of his congregation, some of whom can barely make ends meet.
The real issue here is that the South African socioeconomic situation has become so desperate that our people are willing to eat grass, eat snakes, drink petrol and place their faith in questionable characters like Bushiri, just for a chance at obtaining some kind of upward mobility – a chance at a better life.
Bushiri, therefore, is not just a facilitator of the problem, but a product of it. He exists precisely because this system of lack and inequality has created him. If we want to have a conversation about him and his problematic followers, this conversation must be engaged in its fullness, with its nuances.