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'Now we know that the enemy is from within': Shembeites and the Struggle for Control of Isaiah Shembe's Legacy and the Church



In 1911, Isaiah Shembe (1865-1935) founded the Nazareth Baptist Church popularly known as KwaShembe (Dube 1936: 29). The church became the first amongst the Zulus to be founded 'with the quest to restore the Zulu to their glorious past' (Masondo 2004: 69-79). Today it is the oldest and most respected church founded with the intention of bringing Christianity and the quest for Zulu nationalism and culture together in South Africa. In its early days, the church was faced with much opposition from the missionaries who accused it of misleading people, polluting the gospel and sheep-stealing. Shembe had to continuously defend himself and his church against the external forces that sought to destroy him and his church. As a result, the church has had to walk a fine line, between belligerence and servility throughout the colonial and apartheid periods. However, its history has also been marked by forces from within that have divided the church into what has become seven splinter groups, or factions, that are at war with one another. The power-struggles and fights amongst family members have directly taken a toll on the once great church as each scrambles for a piece of the legacy, prestige, and resources, of the church and its founder. This article mainly examines the factors that lead to the conflicts that have divided the church into the seven groups that are at loggerheads with each other and threaten to destroy its legacy.
Journal for the Study of Religion 30,2 (2017) 122 153 122
On-line ISSN 2413-3027; DOI:
Now we know that the enemy is from within:
Shembeites and the Struggle for Control of
Isaiah Shembes Legacy and the Church
Simangaliso Kumalo
Martin Mujinga
In 1911, Isaiah Shembe (1865-1935) founded the Nazareth Baptist Church
popularly known as KwaShembe (Dube 1936: 29). The church became the first
amongst the Zulus to be founded with the quest to restore the Zulu to their
glorious past (Masondo 2004: 69-79). Today it is the oldest and most re-
spected church founded with the intention of bringing Christianity and the
quest for Zulu nationalism and culture together in South Africa. In its early
days, the church was faced with much opposition from the missionaries who
accused it of misleading people, polluting the gospel and sheep-stealing.
Shembe had to continuously defend himself and his church against the external
forces that sought to destroy him and his church. As a result, the church has
had to walk a fine line, between belligerence and servility throughout the
colonial and apartheid periods. However, its history has also been marked by
forces from within that have divided the church into what has become seven
splinter groups, or factions, that are at war with one another. The power-
struggles and fights amongst family members have directly taken a toll on the
once great church as each scrambles for a piece of the legacy, prestige, and
resources, of the church and its founder. This article mainly examines the
factors that lead to the conflicts that have divided the church into the seven
groups that are at loggerheads with each other and threaten to destroy its
Keywords: Shembe, Shembeites, power-struggles, leadership, identity
The Struggle for Control of Isaiah Shembes Legacy and the Church
The emergence of independent churches in Africa cannot to be discussed out-
side the failures of the missionaries to understand and accommodate African
culture through processes of inculturation into Christianity, and vice versa, in
the last decades of the eighteenth century. The accounts of Johane Marange
and Johane Masowe in Zimbabwe, Emmanuel Milingo in Zambia, Nonthetha
Nkwenkwe in South Africa and Isaiah Shembe, the founder of amaNazaretha
in South Africa, fits this assessment well. The research of a variety of scholars
have developed interest in these churches which, according to Sundkler’s
(1976) categorising, fall within the Ethiopian Churches group, because of their
emphasis on Africa for Africans. This rationale, explicitly verbalised or
implicitly assumed, has been the main cause for the break-away from the
mainline or mission churches, and indigenous church formation. However, as
history evidences, the initial discontent, have continued to plague these church
formations and did not stop once they have achieved self-governance and
different forms of independence. They have continued to breakdown into many
different internal groups and factions, which have often been characterised by
many expensive court battles, and in some cases, loss of lives.
This article is a reflection on the Shembe Nazaretha Baptist Church,
which was founded by Isaiah Mudliwamafa Shembe. The reflections here were
necessitated by the latest developments of the squabbles in the church related
to the succession wrangles that have, since the 1970s, given birth to the current
seven factions. These are:
Ekuphakameni, led by Vukile Shembe;
Ebuhleni, also known as Ebuhleni Shembe International Church,
led by Vela Shembe;
Ginyezinye, led by Sizwe Shembe;
Mini Shembe (referring to Galilee Shembe’s son Mini, and is not
very active, and socially very well defined as a group within the
larger Church);
Tembezinhle, led by Mduduzi Shembe;
Gauteng Shembe Church, led by Phakama Shembe; and the
New Nazareth Baptist Church, led by Mthembeni Mpanza (the
only leader, who is not from the Shembe clan).
Simangaliso Kumalo & Martin Mujinga
The Shembe Church had been in and out of secular courts on the
succession debates since the 1970s but the succession debates can be traced
back to 1935, Following the death of Isaiah Shembe. The latest succession
struggle started in 2011 giving birth to the Ebuhleni and Tembezinhle
movements that are continuing to drag each other to court. The article looks at
the historical background of Isaiah Shembe, and the amaNazaretha church,
factors that lead to the rise of Shembe, the basic tenets, theology, practices,
symbols and dress of the church, its significance for self-reliance and healing,
the indigenization of Christianity, why people are attracted to the Shembe
Church, the status of women in the amaNazaretha church, the leadership
structures and their politics, the power struggles, and the rise of the different
factions in the Church, and the impact of the Shembe Church on the society.
The Historical Background of Isaiah Shembe
The Shembe Church was founded by Isaiah Shembe. He was born in 1867
among the Sotho people of the Free State Province of South Africa, to a Zulu
polygamous father Mayekisa, and Sitheya Mlindi (Mzizi 2004: 191). Makeyisa
was a landless farm dweller in Harrismith. As legend has it, when Isaiah Shem-
bes mother was already pregnant, a voice said to her, You will bear a son who
will be a special messenger (Gunner 2004:57). Mayekisa did not grasp the full
significance of the words because she was not a religious person. Gunner
(2004) also says that, after Shembe’s birth, his uncle Nhliziyo, gave him the
name Shembe and his father named him Mudliwamafa meaning my inheritor.
Shembe styled himself as a biblical character and at his baptism in 1906 he
changed his name from Mudliwamafa to Isaiah (Cabrita 2012:440). In his later
life he referred to himself as the the Servant of Sorrow Eskhonzi SenHlupheko
invoking the Isaiah of the Old Testament. Shembe died on 2 May 1935 after
standing for three hours in cold water in a river administering adult baptism
(Oosthuizen 1968:1). Shembe never went to a formal school. He only learnt to
partially read and write later in life (Sundkler 1976:187). Although Shembe
had little mission education he was able to cite biblical verses, from memory,
outwitting most European missionaries (Muller 1999:45). Gunner (1988) adds
that whatever Shembe read was supposedly not through learning, but came
to him miraculously.
Historically, it is not clear which church Isaiah Shembe actually atten-
ded during his early years. Gunner (2004:17), though, claims that Shembe was
The Struggle for Control of Isaiah Shembes Legacy and the Church
a member of two missionary churches namely the Baptist and Wesleyan
Methodist churches. The Wesleyan Methodists influenced his love for
Wesleyan hymns (Tshabalala 1983). Shembe later-on moved out of the
Wesleyan Methodist Church, because he had disagreed with it, on the issue of
baptism (Mzizi: 2004:191). Shembe, then, was baptised through immersion, as
an adult, by an African National Baptist Association minister, the Rev. William
Leshega (Oosthuizen 1968). The immersion baptism by Leshega had an impact
on Shembe. Leshega invited him to his home as a guest, and Shembe stayed
with him for six days. He subsequently joined the Baptist Church (Gunner
2004:20). Shembe immediately started to preach the gospel to fellow Africans.
His success as a preacher in Witzieshoek was so great that Rev. Leshega came
down from Boksburg with two female ministers, to baptise those whom Shem-
be had preached to, and in many cases healed. Later, during this same visit
(1908), Leshega laid hands on Shembe and ordained him as a minister of the
African National Baptist Church, authorising him to preach and baptise (Dube
1936). However, Shembe later moved out of the Baptist Church on the basis
that, for him, and according to the Bible, the Sabbath
, was to be a Saturday
not a Sunday, and formed his own movement (Shange 2013:37). Gunner (2004)
agrees with Oosthuizen (1968) that Shembe was already conducting healing
ceremonies at this time, before he became an official member of the Baptist
Church. He also functioned as exorcist, driving out demons, gave people holy
water as a symbolic substance and medium for healing, and preached under
open skies, in kraals and alongside rivers and pool where he would baptise
adult converts.
Gunner (2004:57) narrates an event in the Shembe legend, that became
a turning point for Shembe. She recounts that when Shembe was still a toddler,
he became ill and the next day, in fact died. His father and the men of the area
went out to dig a grave for the corpse. While they were still busy, a little boy
appeared to them, saying that a cow of Makeyisa’s (Shembes father) has just
According Oosthuizen (1981), the Sabbath Day is often mentioned in the
Izihlabelelo, the Shemebeite hymnbook, viz. that Jehovah and Shembe restored
the observance of the Sabbath to the Zulu nation and the world. The Sabbath
is the very key to liberation, as Moses emphasized in the 10 commandments
(cf. Izihlabelelo 212:2). The Sabbath is the day of resting, prayers, power and
a holy day in the extreme in fact Shembe is revered as the personification of
this day (cf. Oosthuizen 1981:42, Muller 1996).
Simangaliso Kumalo & Martin Mujinga
died. Makeyisa asked what had happened to it, and the young boy explained
that he just saw it toppling off a flat rock and that it fell to its death (Gunner
2004). The men at the grave sent Lokhuzana Mahlobo to inquire from the
diviner as to the significance of these two deaths. The diviner advised them not
to be afraid by losing both the child and the cow, but, that the cows death had
brought back the sons spirit (Gunner 2004). As the men were returning home,
before they even arrived, the women who had been watching the child’s body,
saw the cloth which covered Shembe, moving. They looked closely and saw
the child quivering and his breath returning. After a moments hesitation, they
sent for the men to stop digging the grave because the child returned to life.
After that incident, Shembe was excellent in health (Gunner 2004).
The Call of Isaiah Shembe and the Identity of Shembe
The call of Isaiah Shembe to his life’s vocation, can be traced back to an expe-
rience at Ntabazwe Mountain in Harrismith (Gunner 2004:17). The mountain
is also called Platberg in Afrikaans, meaning (Flat Mountain) and Thabantsho
in Sotho (Black Mountain). In his interview with Carl Faye in 1929, Shembe
mentions his early years on the farm of Witzieshoek in the Harrismith district,
and how he moved to the land on the outskirts of Harrismith, the mountain of
Ntabazwe (Gunner 2004). According to Oosthuizen (1981), it is here that
Shembe experienced several revelations as a young boy, and that it was through
the means of lightning that he received his call. Gunner (2004:24) adds a story
about a skeleton among other theophanies. According to Gunner (2004), in
1913, Shembe visited Nhlangakazi Mountain which became the movements
holy mountain, for the first time. At that mountain he was told by the Holy
Spirit to form his own church. This place later became his place of annual
pilgrimage every first Sunday of the year.
Shembe founded his church in 1911 and named it along biblical lines
Ibandla lamaNazaretha (The Nazarenes). He established his settlement in
Inanda, a semi-rural area north of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. In time, this
became the holy city Ekuphakameni (Magwaza 2011:136). Shembe called his
followers amaNazaretha and the church Ibandla lamaNazaretha after a priest-
ly cult of Nazir in the Book of Numbers (Numbers 6:1-21) (Cabrita 2012:440).
Ibandla lamaNazaretha sought to revitalise Zulu society through the main-
tenance, revival and practice of the social customs that were rejected by the
mission churches. In addition to Nazir, the term Nazareth according to Shange
The Struggle for Control of Isaiah Shembes Legacy and the Church
(2013: 121) has a number of additional Biblical connotations. Shange argues
that most of Jesus childhood was lived in Nazareth (Matt 2:23). His father
Joseph also purportedly took Jesus to Nazareth to keep him safe, thus, Shembe
members, like Jesus, return to amaNazaretha Church when they are in need of,
or seek refuge, and all kinds of safety and protection. Shembeites also believe
that Jesus was the first Nazareth member, and Jesus church, referred to in Acts
(Acts 2:4-5), was in fact the first Nazareth Church (Shange 2013).
To the amaNazaretha, there are many titles ascribed to Shembe,
among which is the claim as to his messiahship. Among scholars these diverse
titles did occasion some heated debate at one point (cf. Oosthuizen 1967;
Sundkler 1976; and Vilikazi 1986). Since it falls outside the scope of this study,
it will not be pursued here. For our purposes, though, it is more important to
unpack the different perceptions of Shembe by his followers, and others. In his
article of 2004, Mzizi reports that in an interview he conducted with Mpanza,
the view is that Shembe was perceived by the Whites and Afrikaners in South
Africa, as a Zulu political revolutionary who attempted to use religion to ac-
complish a political end. His interpretation of the Jewish Torah made the
Whites to interpret him as an imposter who had come to distort Christianity. In
the eyes of missionary scholars and preachers, Shembe was a Zulu Moses
pretender. He made himself such by proclaiming that he had entered into a
covenant with Jehovah on behalf of the Zulu people. Mpanza goes on to claim
that, to serious scholarship, Shembe should be regarded as a Black Messiah, a
Saviour, sent by God to the Zulu nation; or, a religious genius and ascetic
personality who made God real and tangible among the Zulu of his time (Mzizi
2004). Mzizi also quotes Mpanza as calling Shembe Melchizedek’, in terms
of the Hebrew Scriptures. For him, the word pre-existed Shembe [and] was
translated in the person of Isaiah Shembe (Mzizi 2004). Shembe is also the
spirit promised by Jesus to his disciples. When he was alive, he was the Holy
Spirit and the fact that he had sacred dwellings in the form of mansions in
places like Swaziland and KwaZulu-Natal proves that even today the original
Shembe is still alive (Mzizi 2004).
Apart from perceptions by others and his own members, according to
Vilikazi (1986: 29), Shembe also perceived himself as a messenger of God to
the Black people, in the same sense as the prophet Muhammad was sent to the
Arabian peoples and Jesus to the Jews. Hymn 71 of the amaNazaretha also
refers to the pre-existence of Shembe. In equating Shembe with Jesus, Hastings
(1994:503) has this to say,
Simangaliso Kumalo & Martin Mujinga
this does not mean that Shembe has replaced Jesus theologically;
rather he is for the Zulu Christians of the twentieth century a vivid
representation of what God and Christ are thought to signify. Christ is
not supplanted but represented.
Magwaza (2011:137) points out that in the eyes of some followers,
Shembe is also seen as uMvelinqangi (God), literally meaning, the one who
appeared first and who has intimate contact with the ancestors. Oosthuizen
(1968) reports that, some of Shembe’s followers refer to him as ubabamkulu
(grandfather) which means that he can be considered an ancestor or a seer
(oboniswayo) but, that he was not a diviner, although to perform healing
practices was one of his major activities. He is also known as the prophet of
God, the man of heaven, Gods messenger, or Lord of the amaNazaretha. It is
obvious that there are many labels ascribed to Shembe among the members of
amaNazaretha. For some, these ascriptions are quite open-ended, and may be
informed, by one’s own religious or spiritual experiences (of Shembe).
In his time, Shembes ministry also caused quite a number of challen-
ges to other Christian churches and organisations in the then Union of South
Africa. Some of these problems led some churches to lodge court actions
against Shembe, in secular courts. According to SABC News, one outraged
African clergyman complained to a District Magistrate of Ndwedwe in 1923
that Shembe was an unscrupulous rival. He was accused of poaching followers
and converts, that he was holding rival open air church services at the same
time and in close proximity to established churches, and thereby disturbing the
peace. His accusers claimed that Shembe consciously poached converts from
the established churches, and that this caused rivalry and discontent amongst
African Christians (Cabrita 2012). On one occasion, in a Magistrate’s court at
Ndwedwe district, also indicating his view, Shembe conceded that his follow-
ers do come from the established churches, and that when some join amaNaza-
retha, that those who do not join and are left in the established churches feel
aggrieved or ‘bitter’ against him. In their view, he did not ‘follow the Christian
faith’ (cf. Cabrita 2012: 444).
Factors that Contributed to the Rise of Isaiah Shembe and the
Shembeite Movement
There are a number of aspects that gave rise to the emergence of Isaiah Shembe
The Struggle for Control of Isaiah Shembes Legacy and the Church
and the Shembeite movement. We have already referred to the ostensive impact
of visions of God. In addition, he was motivated by some fellow Zulu, not least,
his brother-in-law, Piet Sithole, who was a preacher and a healer, and known
throughout the Harrismith district. Sithole is also known for his march to
Ntabazwe Mountain to pray for rain during a very dry year. The police pro-
tested the march but later relented. It is reported that heavy rain started to fall,
on his way back from the mountain, after having prayed for rain (Vezi 1992).
Another important influence was the Rev. William Leshega of the African
National Baptist Church who baptised him, and also came to baptise his first
converts (Gunner 2004). The third factor was the socioeconomic and political
structures of the Zulu society of his day. Societies were breaking down as a
result of de-, and a-culturation, in the wake of the impact of colonising forces,
industrialization, and rapid urbanization. The power of the Zulu monarchy had
also been seriously undermined by the missionaries. Due to modernization
processes, traditional social structures were changing for worse, if not breaking
down, especially among Africans.
Fourthly, Hexham (2011:361) notes that, religiously, Africans suffered
from Europeans misunderstandings of African religion and culture. Initially,
Africans were regarded as being without religion. This was also often linked
to the perception that Africans do not have souls, that they therefore have no
religion, from which follows, that they were not human, or at least not fully
human. This argument was taken up and further developed in the racist evolu-
tionary ideology of the late 1800s, which stated that Africans were human, yes,
but that they have only evolved into a lower stage of the human evolutionary
tree. It was also stated that this was why Africans lacked intelligence to develop
a religion of their own. It was this chain of arguments that was used to propa-
gate the racist ideology of the inferiority of Africans and the superiority of Euro-
peans. It was this ideology that also formed the framework for the racist ratio-
nales for the colonisation and enslavement of Africans, as well as apartheid
(Hexham 2011). It was in this socio-cultural space of the de-humanisation and
the misappreciation of the dignity and humanity of Africans, that the African
Initiated Churches, such as Shembe arose.
Fifthly, according to Shange (2013:37) South African colonizers,
including the missionaries and mission organisations, exerted their dominance
on the people, land and culture. Culturally, this brought about a forced accultu-
ration and created many psycho-somatic and related health challenges for
Africans. Many Africans turned to crime, alcohol abuse and lawlessness.
Simangaliso Kumalo & Martin Mujinga
Traditional culture provided no guidance for individuals and communities
struggling for identity and recognition in the rising tide of modernisation and
urbanization. African ideas and practices were rejected and many could not
relate to or accommodate Western ideologies. According to Brown (2005:93)
it was at the point that many African Christians started to realise the cultural
impact of Christianity on African culture, that many blacks left the mission
churches. This caused a vacuum, in which churches like Shembe arose. More
generally, these churches arose within an unstable contextual landscape con-
stituted by the contradictory forces of transactions between traditional Nguni
culture, European colonialism, missionary Christianity and an emerging indus-
trial capitalism (cf. West 2007). It was within the midst of the politically and
economically culturally volatile impacts of these forces that Shembe and his
follower constructed their own social formation, and attempted to seize some
semblance of control for themselves, over their own lives. Using the words of
West (2007), Shembe was forced to create his own world and inhabit it,
drawing on Nguni custom and cosmology, articulated with Euro-Western
The Basic Tenets, Theology, Practices, Symbols and Dresses
of the Shembe Church
AmaNazaretha have a strong faith in their Bible, hymnbook and catechism.
Their Bible is known as the Book of the Birth of the Prophet Shembe. Accor-
ding to Cabrita (2012) it was during the time of Galilee Shembe that he organi-
sed the texts of Shembe into an official canon. As observed by Cabrita, it is
hagiographic in nature, and a continuation of the existing Bible. It is also
named the Acts of the Nazarites, suggesting parallels with the New Testament
Acts of the Apostles. Today this book is often referred to by the church as the
Third Testament, a continuation of the story of God among the African people.
Besides the Bible, amaNazaretha have their own hymns that were
composed by Isaiah and Galilee Shembe (Muller 1996). Shembe produced a
corpus of hymns IziHlabelelo zamaNazaretha, of outstanding poetic quality in
isiZulu, many of which are acted out in a variety of self-styled dances (Heuser
2008). Muller (1996: x), also refers to the ‘spiritual and poetic quality of the
hymns. The hymns are remarkable for the way in which they weave together
Biblical Christianity, traditional Nguni beliefs and expressive forms with the
political context in which Isaiah Shembe and his followers were located at the
The Struggle for Control of Isaiah Shembes Legacy and the Church
time of composition. They also resonate and combine with traditional Nguni
praise poetry, which traditionally both honours and critiques political leader-
ship. Drawing on especially the Biblical Psalms, it represents an expressive
combination of music, poetic diction, and traditional Zulu culture, which
constitutes a unique cultural hybrid.
The third basic tenet of the amaNazaretha is their catechism. Accor-
ding to Hexham (2001: viii), the catechism represents a reasonable, systematic
articulation of the teachings and practices of the movement. The catechism is
divided into two sections. Section A contains material attributed to the
Prophet Isaiah Shembe, which includes the prayers, parables, directives for
maidens and marriage, counsel of the clergy and letters. Part two of this section
is the material attributed to the revival law of Galilee Shembe. Section B is
the Book of the Birth of the Prophet. All the three writings, the Bible, hymn-
book and catechism are considered sacred and are revered with high regard by
the amaNazaretha (Hexham 2001).
According to Oosthuizen (1967:3) the theology of the amaNazaretha
can best be found in the hymns, which were first published by Galilee in 1940.
The movement regard healing as sacred and this is effected through holy water.
Preaching in the movement is inspired by the Holy Spirit. The followers are
taught that Saturday is a special day for Jehovah and should be observed
meticulously. They also teach that Mt. Nhlangakazi, which Isaiah Shembe vi-
sited in 1913, is a holy place, and that Ekuphakameni, founded in 1914, is the
holy centre or city of the movement. Shembe forbids his followers to take wine,
any fermented drinks, eating pork, consuming cooking oil and smoking (Shan-
ge 2013). According to Oosthuizen (1981:41), the keys to heaven (referring to
Matthew 16:19) in the exegesis and theology of Isaiah Shembe, is one single
key, which opens the gate of heaven. As such, Shembe is the representative not
of Jesus, but of Jehovah who has given the Sabbath to his people. According
to Galilee, the cross of Jesus has no significance. The final destiny of the heart,
is Ekuphakameni while that of the wicked heart is hell (Oosthuizen 1967:76).
Both Isaiah and Galilee theologise about the heart but in different ways. For
Isaiah, the heart is the vessel of Gods grace. In contrast, Galilee sees the heart
as sinful but has the ability to repent (Oosthuizen 1967:77).
With regard to theology, which is mostly uniformly accepted by all
seven Shembe groups, the most notable more recent development is the
appropriation of the Jewish Bible, the English Tanakh, as central Scripture, by
Phakama Shembe, one of Shembe’s grandchildren, and leader of the Gauteng
Simangaliso Kumalo & Martin Mujinga
faction, in 2011. This is in distinction to the Shembe scriptures. According to
reports, Phakama Shembe signed a contract with Farrel Shalkoff, the chairman
of Bibleo, to supply his church with the Jewish Bibles (Govender 2011).
Phakama’s view is that, he chose the Jewish Torah because its analyses,
insights and explanations are sharper than the Christian Old Testament. He
also stated that he found many ‘truths’ in the Jewish Bible, truths he did not
find in the Shembe scriptures. It also contains ‘word-for-word explanations’
(Govender 2011). By this move, to embrace the Jewish Tanakh, comprising of
Torah, the Prophets and Sacred Writings including the Psalms, Proverbs and
the historical books of Kings and Chronicles at least some Shembeites find
their scriptures wanting. It is an indication that at least some, are now doubting
their theology, faith and religion, and need firmer foundations. The standard
belief, though, is that Isaiah did not borrow from any other faith or religion, for
his theology. For them, Phakamas move was an insult to their faith (Govender
2011). Even so, Phakamas actions creates the impression of a quite founda-
tional break, from a very foundational belief, shared by all the factions see
below. It may not augur well for hopes of unity in the future, despite the
similarities in beliefs related to the Jewish Sabbath, the prohibition from eating
pork, and purification rites. Commenting on Phakama’s decision, Ximba
is of
the view that despite some striking similarities between amaNazaretha and the
Jewish tradition, the Shembeites will continue to adhere to the principles laid
down by the Shembe (Govender 2011). Some Shembe members though, like
Professor Mthokozisi Khumalo, who is an authority on Shembe, hails this
move as progressive. His only concern was that Phakama and the Gauteng
faction did not consult with the other groups before the decision was made to
adopt the Tanakh as scripture (Govender 2012).
AmaNazaretha worship God through prayers as well as rituals, dances,
and more particularly, specific kinds of ceremonial dances (Ncwane). And, as
in many movements and organisations, where dress gives a corporate identity,
this is also the case with Shembe. It is reported that Shembe, in one of his
dreams, in 1900, saw men dressed in traditional Zulu garb. The men were
singing traditional songs, without notes, in the style of the Zulu oral tradition.
Shembe was then instructed to heal and evangelize the Zulu speaking people
in the Zululand region in the same dream. It is from this dream that the
Edward Valemafini Ximba is the General Secretary of the Ekuphakameni fac-
tion appointed by Londa Shembe. He is also Londa’s Personal Assistant (PA).
The Struggle for Control of Isaiah Shembes Legacy and the Church
amaNazaretha males came to imitate traditional Zulu dress. According to
Oosthuizen (1981:38), the Shembe dress code is a symbolic extension of Zulu
culture. For the amaNazaretha, people should not be ashamed of their
traditions, but be proud of it. For Shembe, it was acceptable that older folk,
especially those in the kraals, wear the umutsha and blankets, while their
children could wear modern European clothes. This is in sharp distinction to
the missions that propagated a break with traditional dress, and a full
embracing of Western dress codes and some of its fashions, especially as
appropriated by the different missions themselves. Shembe church members
also wear white garments as official and Sabbath uniform. According to Singh
and McAuliffe (2012), clothing is used by the church to distinguish rank and
social standing. Evangelists wear emerald green Nazareth robes, while
ministers wear white robes with black cuffs. Shembe insisted that the wearing
of white surplices for church service befits the redeemed heavenly citizens
described in the Book of Revelation (7:9-14) (Oosthuizen 1981).
Since the story of God ordering Moses to remove his shoes in the story
of the burning bush (Exodus 3), made a very decisive impression on Shembe,
he taught that his followers should go barefoot. It is a symbol of regarding the
ground as holy (Oosthuizen 1981). When they visit their holy mountain on
their annual pilgrimage, they also ascend and descend the mountain barefooted.
AmaNazaretha’s clothing itself is also regarded as sacred, especially
the so-called dancing uniform. This is based on one of Shembe’s prophecies,
related to Matsheketshe and translated by Hexham and Oosthuizen (1995).
Matsheketshe narrates that Shembe precisely described the dancing uniforms
for the women of the Nazaretha Church to three ladies, who were then required
to sew the garments. He paid them for their services. Women wear shawls and
sometimes towels underneath. Shembe told them that the time will come, when
all maidens will dress in this way, and that all women will dress in the uniform.
They will also wear skin petticoats and topknots on their heads. So, in order to
prefigure this time, and to be ‘perfect’, women were to dress according to his
prescriptions (Hexham & Oosthuizen 1995).
The symbols of men among the Shembe followers include carrying
Zulu warrior shields and being draped in leopard skin. Some are also urged to
wear a loincloth of monkey tails, a leopard skin belt, elaborate headgear with
ostrich feathers, and above all a cap of leopard skin slung across their back,
shoulders and chests (Sapa 2013). The leopard skins are a symbol of royalty,
indicating power, prestige, pride, and beauty (Cabrita 2012). They are trade-
Simangaliso Kumalo & Martin Mujinga
tionally associated with Zulu royalty and chiefs, and their wearing it as ceremo-
nial and religious dress (Joe 2014). Yet, even though they are not kings, these
symbols indicate that they are kings at home’ and that they should wear these
regalia, also when they go to traditional gatherings
Ecclesiastical Leadership Structures and their Politics in the
Shembe Church
The leadership structure of the Shembe church is hereditary, especially
involving the Inkosi (King) of the church. Virtually all the leaders are men, but
there is one position reserved for women leaders. Magwaza (2011) gives the
hierarchy of the church in a simplified way. The leadership includes the Inkosi
and this is the position occupied by some of Shembes male offspring in the
different factions, which is hereditary. Below the Inkosi, we have the Umfun-
disi (Pastor) who oversees and manages a district or two. A district typically
has 4-6 temples. Below the pastor is the Umvangeli (Evangelist). Normally this
person is considered a wise man with a good knowledge of the history of the
church. He is the source of information and often an elderly person. The
evangelist is followed by the Umshumayeli (Preacher), a leader at the temple
level. He conducts sermons and attends to the affairs of the temple. Below him
For obvious reasons, the hunting and killing of leopards for their skins, have
also impacted on the leopard population in the country. (Over 1 000 skins were
worn at a single Shembe gathering in 2011.) Although many skins are old and
are passed down from generation to generation, many new ones are a result of
poaching, leading to shrinking leopard numbers (Sapa 2013). This has stirred
the ire of wild life conservation groups (cf. Hans 2012), and more particularly,
the Africa Leopard Programme, called Panthera (cf. Hans 2012). In a country
where leopard-hunting permits are affordable only for the very rich or foreign
tourists, conservation groups are in conflict with the Shembe not only about
their actual hunting of leopards, but the symbolism itself, which condones and
requires leopard hunting for their skins (Joe 2014). Some developments with
regard to the production of authentic-looking fake leopard skins have taken
place, and these have been accepted by some Shembe (Joe 2014). The textiles
are produced in China and shipped to Durban, where they are sewn into the
final product (Dickerson 2013). It is reported that the fake skins look and feel
like real leopard skins and can last longer (Ncwana).
The Struggle for Control of Isaiah Shembes Legacy and the Church
is the Umhlambululi (Ablutionist) who oversees the Friday ablutions or cleans-
ing ritual. He is followed by an Inkosana who is a diminutive of Inkosi, literally
meaning a little king. At the temple level in the absence of an evangelist, he
conducts sermons. The last one and the only position held by women is that of
Umkhokheli (Leader). This is a leader whose leadership is limited to leading
women and girls. According to Magwaza (2011), the reason for patriarchal
leadership goes back to the Zulu culture where men are the heads of the family
and their leadership is regarded as natural. Women always have had to come
to terms with this arrangement, regardless of their level of education and influ-
ence in society. They cannot be leaders in the Shembe church. Some though
dispute the leadership and the leaders’ continuation and entrenching of patriar-
chy, and regard themselves as the flock of the invisible sheep (Magwaza
The Origins of the Struggle for Control of Isaiah Shembes
Legacy and the Church
By 2015, there were seven Shembeite splinter groups defined by physical
fights, hereditary leadership lawsuits and defamation of character lawsuits
among some of the factions. Although Isaiah is paralleled with God among the
Shembeites, the struggle for his legacy has led to the secularization of the
church as well as the institutionalisation of the leadership, in principle depart-
ing from its hereditary nature and traditional theology. The struggle for control
of the legacy and the control of the church started as early as 1935 after the
death of Shembe (Oosthuizen 1981:7). According to Oosthuizen, before Shembe
died, he had claimed that his essence would continue to live on in his offspring.
This notion of his essence was understood to be his, i.e. Shembe’s, specific
blending of his version of Judaeo-Christian religion with Zulu culture. So, the
argument goes that what is true of Shembe, is also true of Zulu culture, and
vice versa (Oosthuizen 1968).
Shembe had three sons, Isaack, Amos Khula and Johannes Galilee
Shembe. In contrast to the Zulu culture, which states that the eldest is the
descendent air, or titular head, Shembe elected the youngest, Galilee, to be his
successor, thereby excluding the eldest son, Isaack, and Amos Khula. Galilee
took over the leadership of amaNazaretha on 30 July 1935, after the death of
his father (Cabrita 2012). This leadership was characterised by factionalism
although it was not out in the open, and public. A smaller faction, who wanted
Simangaliso Kumalo & Martin Mujinga
the traditional Zulu tradition to be maintained, where the elder son takes over
as leader, formed around Isaac, while the majority favoured the decision of
Shembe, to appoint Galilee as leader (Oosthuizen 1981).
For Oosthuizen, there are two main patterns with regard to the
appointment of a leader in the independent churches. The first pattern is
democratic, based on the choice of the congregation and where the leader is
the primus inter pares (first among equals). The second pattern is the emer-
gence of a leader, or election of someone, to whom is ascribed the metaphysical
symbolism of the chief/ king, often in association with the office of the diviner.
This resulted in the prophetic type of leadership (Oosthuizen 1981). Commen-
ting on the Galilee - Shembe type of succession, Oosthuizen found that follow-
ers ruminated about this matter in 1935, arguing that the old Shembe had
always declared that although the old flesh might die one day, the essence of
Shembe remains in the new flesh, indicating the youngest son. He would
therefor hand on his mantle of power, to his youngest son. This claim
empowered Galilee to take over as the new Shembe. Truth be told though, it
was then Shembe himself that in principle caused the discontent, and it was his
decision to depart from Zulu custom, that paved the way for the emergence of
the future factions. The Zulu tradition was arm-twisted by Isaiah himself,
thereby making him the source of discontent, enmity and factionalism in the
Shembeite movement, that would follow in later decades.
Galilee brought about a number of reforms in the church using his
education, and thereby adding to the leadership and wisdom that his
uneducated father established. According to Cabrita (2012) Galilee had a BA
Hons and a B.Ed. degree from Fort Hare University. Isaiah Shembe made it a
point that his children attend school because he was seeing the difficulty
uneducated people experienced in society, everywhere he went, in the spread-
ing of his message. Despite his father’s lowly education, Galilee strongly
defended him and his theology and legacy over and against detractors. This
included John Langalibalele Dube, whom Galilee criticised, for all the
inaccuracies and mistakes in his book on Shembe, Ushembe (1936). He
forbade his followers to read the book. It is said that some of the reasons were
that Dube alleged in his book, that, during his lifetime, Shembe was in fact
overtaxing rentals, that he was conducting baptism for payment part of his
fundraising for the church that he, himself was uneducated, that he was
extorting money from members as he payed lobola for young girls whom he
married, and that he was corrupt and exploitative (Cabrita 2012).
The Struggle for Control of Isaiah Shembes Legacy and the Church
According to Oosthuizen (1981:7), Galilee also drafted a Deed of Trust
before an attorney which reads,
the Titular head shall continue in office during his life time so long as
he continues to observe and follow the tenets of the church of Nazareth,
but he shall be removed from office should he become insane and
convicted of any issue referred to in the first schedule of the Criminal
Law and Evidence Act 1917 or upon other grounds which the Supreme
Court of South Africa, Natal Provincial Division may regard as
In addition to the train of events started by Isaiah Shembe himself, this was a
further act in a process of the secularizing of the church. Galilee further
institutionalized the church in the public domain, by documenting procedures
for successors. Firstly, the incumbent should be appointed by Isaiah and
Galilee Shembe. Secondly, he should be elected by people through secret
ballot. Thirdly, the son of the leader should be the successor. Fourthly, the
leader should be appointed through dreams. Dreams play a vital role among
the Zulu as it is believed that the ancestors communicate their messages to
people through dreams. On this score, the successor himself will be visited by
Isaiah Shembe in a dream, appointing him as leader, blessing him, and
commissioning him (Oosthuizen 1981:52).
The Death of the Second Inkosi and the Beginning of Defined
Galilee died on 19 December 1976. Amos Khula (1907-1996) one of the sons
of Isaiah Shembes, and brother to Galilee, took over as the leader of the church
(Miya 2010). According to the principles laid down by Galilee, Amos did not
qualify as a leader, thereby leading to an explicit succession wrangle. The
altercation created two camps and it also brought with it, grave conflicts within
the Ibandla zamaNazaretha (Oosthuizen 1981:7). The conflict was between
Amos Khula, the cousin brother of the late Inkosi Galilee, and Londa (1944-
1989), one of Galilee Shembes sons. The two major reasons that are also
believed to be the source of continuous conflict, up to now, are well clarified
by Oosthuizen (1981). In his research, he found that Galilee did not overtly
choose a successor. He himself, did not appoint Amos. This fact in itself,
Simangaliso Kumalo & Martin Mujinga
created the space for the contestation of the Shembe leadership. The second
reason for the contestation, is that, as is the belief among the Zulu, a person
who has a son never dies, but continues to live in his son(s). This is the
argument from heredity. It is also confirmed by Izihlabelelo 220 that states that
the father is the extension of his son (Muller 1996).
On the first theory, Amos was the right leader because he knew his
father Isaiah since before the latter died. According to him, Isaiah had
appointed him to be a leader after Galilee (Oosthuizen 1981). His other claim
was that he was present when the church was founded, and that he had close
links with Isaiah Shembe (Oosthuizen 1981:50). From within the church itself,
Oosthuizen also found evidence, that Londa was ruled out by some elders from
being a successor because, he was just a grandson of Isaiah Shembe, and that
he did not know Isaiah. Secondly, he was still very young. And, thirdly he had
only ordained himself when his father Galilee was already dead. The first point
worked against Londa but he used the second point raised by Oosthuizen
(1981). Londa argued that, the church is a chief-and-tribe type of social
grouping, and that he, as his father’s eldest son should inherit the leadership
position. He claimed that Amos Khula wanted to make it a democratic church,
where someone who was not directly appointed, would become a leader
(Oosthuizen 1981). The truth is that with regard to the second point, an
argument could be made that favours both Amos and Londa as head or titular
head, because they both belonged to the Inkosi line who had the power to
choose leaders for the amaNazaretha viz. Isaiah and Galilee respectively
(Oosthuizen 1981). Both also drew their authority from hymn 221 which was
composed by Galilee in 1938 which says:
Father, I am your child,
Even though the world is unwilling,
Snatch me from the flames
Lord, may I not be rejected
(Muller 1996:104).
Central to the disagreement in the contestation of the leadership, was
the opposing interpretations of reference to child’ in this him, i.e. as to who
would be the ‘child’ of the ‘inNkosi. A physical fight broke out between the
Amos and Londa factions at Ekuphakameni in 1977, and five people lost their
lives (Oosthuizen 1981:11). In the wake of this event, in 1978, the courts
The Struggle for Control of Isaiah Shembes Legacy and the Church
granted an interdict, and the church officially divided for the first time into
Ekuphakameni led by Londa and Ebuhleni led by Amos Khula. Professionally,
Londa was a law graduate from UNISA, and by the time he was elected, he
had completed a Diploma in Theology (Nxamalo n.d.). Londa identified
himself with his grandfather Isaiah Shembe. He rejected the notion that the
amaNazaretha were simply a form of Africanized Christianity insisting that
they were an African religion in their own right (Oosthuizen 1981). About ten
years later, Londa was however assassinated on 4 July 1989. After his death
no-one was named leader of the Ekupakhameni faction until his brother,
Vukile, also a son of Galilee, took over the leadership (Miya 2010).
According to Miya (2010) squabbles in the Ekuphakameni faction did
not end with the appointment of Vukile as leader. Sizwe, the son of Nkanyezi
Shembe who was the eldest son of Galilee, also claimed to be the rightful leader
of the church in 2007. Sizwe argued that his father was the customary heir of
Galilee’s estate (Miya 2010). In Miya’s view, in 1977, Nkanyezi was actually
declared the heir to Galilee, but, that at that time, the battle between Amos and
Londa had already started. Nkanyezi died in 1993 and his eldest son Sizwe
became the heir of the estate. In 2007, Sizwe joined the battle in the
Ekuphakameni faction, thereby giving birth to a third wing of the Shembe
church, called Ginyezinye (Miya 2010). Ginyezinye also claims heredity in
terms of Zulu culture, i.e. that the eldest son becomes the sole trustee of his
father’s estate. According to Miya (2010) Ginyezinye moved out of
Ekuphakameni and based their headquarters at Trustfeed outside Pietermaritz-
burg after a court ruling. At this time, Mini Shembe, another son of Galilee
who had been supporting Ginyezinye claimed his share of the heritage too.
Sizwe argued that he was the only son of Galilee ordained as priest. However,
Mini, again, claimed that when Galilee was alive, he wanted the church to be
led by an ordained leader (Miya 2010). Unfortunately, somehow, Mini Shembe
died in 2010 and his faction is not very vocal about their identity and heritage
(Miya 2010). Minis faction was the fourth to emerge from the original
Ekuphahakemi. The others are Ekuphakameni, Ebuhleni and Ginyezinye.
Miya (2011) found that, after some court proceedings on the suc-
cession wrangle, the Ekuphakameni and Ginyezinye factions agreed to strip
the Ebuhleni faction from the right to use some of the Shembe symbols, hymns
and the church style of worship, because Ebuhleni had changed its name to
Ebuhleni Shembe International Church. The message was announced at the
funeral of Vembeni Shembe in 2011. In April 2011, the Ekuphakameni and
Simangaliso Kumalo & Martin Mujinga
Ginyezinye factions withdrew their case from the Durban High Court, though,
and agreed to reconcile (Mbuyazi 2011). In the same year they agreed to join
hands, the Ebuhleni faction renewed the leadership battle. The Ekuphakameni
and Ginyezinye leaders distanced themselves from the legal battles of
Ebuhleni. Vukile, leader of Ekuphakameni, and Sizwe, of Ginyezinye then
agreed to consult with King Goodwill Zwelithini, who had agreed to be a
witness when the court case was to be withdrawn. They also agreed to invite
the Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi who was the head of
amakhosi (the so-called ‘Zulu tribal leaders’), because, according to Mbuyazi
(2011), sixty percent of amakhosi are Shembe followers. They also agreed to
invite Zweli Mkhize the KwaZulu-Natal Premier to endorse their decision
when the time was ripe.
According to Miya (2010), when factionalism intensified, the Londa
faction (Ekuphakameni) expelled the Amos Khula (Ebuhleni) faction from the
Ekuphakameni headquarters after Amos refused to relinquish the leadership
position. In 1977, Londa was eventually ordained as appointed leader by the
Ekuphakameni faction. When Amos was expelled (Miya 2010), he left with a
sizeable number of people and settled at Matabulu in the UMzinyathi area that
became his new Jerusalem. It is this Ebuhleni faction which currently have
squabbles with the Ekuphakameni faction. During his term as Inkosi, Amos
Shembe was also disturbed by the argument of Vilikazi and Oosthuizen on the
leadership battles in amaNazaretha, and their apparent factional findings. He
also condemned the manuscript of Vilikazi, a fellow Zulu and in 1986 he
applied for a court interdict to prevent Vilikazis book from being published,
favouring the conclusions of an Afrikaans Oosthuizen (Hexham 2011:41).
Amos died in 1989 and was succeeded by his son Vembeni Mbusi Shembe
(1933-2011). It was after the death of Vembeni that the church was engulfed
by even further leadership struggles.
Besides the Ekuphakameni and Ginyezinye factions, the other faction
that came out of Ekuphakameni is the Gauteng Shembe church led by Phakama
Shembe the grandson of Galilee (Govender 2011). According to Govender,
Phakama Shembe, was booted out of the original church several years ago.
In 2011, Phakama Shembes church had approximately 250 000 followers in
Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Free State and North West (Govender 2011). Phakama
is not only a theologically controversial religious leader, but also a political
and social commentator. Socially, Phakama spoke at the Israel Solidarity Peace
Rally where over 12 500 people attended (South Africa Zionist Federation
The Struggle for Control of Isaiah Shembes Legacy and the Church
2014). This was the second time after 2012. In response to this address in 2012
COSATU wrote to Phakama expressing their dissatisfaction with the way the
Shembe church was being used as a tool of apartheid in Israel in the name of
God (Craven 2012).
As earlier referenced, the year 2011 also saw another splintergroup led
by Mthembeni Mpanza, forming yet another new Shembe church. Mpanza
claims that his parents, Velem Mpanza and Landiwe Dube were both adopted
by Isaiah Shembe (Mpanza profile accessed 21 September 2015). According
to Mzizi (2004:191) Mpanza mother was adopted at the age of 11 as an
orphan. She stayed with Isaiah Shembe until he died and was left in the custody
of Galilee Shembe until she was married. In his profile, Mpanza (a former
magistrate) states that Isaiah Shembe paid 18 heads of cattle to the Dube family
in order to avoid any likely future dispute about lobola when she marries.
Mpanza claims that he worked very closely with the Shembe Church and has
written much about the church. He further claimed that he was the legal advisor
of Amos Khula Shembe. According to the Sowetan of 11 November 2011,
Mpanza formed his movement called the New Nazareth Baptist Church, in
Pinetown to fulfil the dream and vision about the work of the Prophet Isaiah
Shembe. Among the divisions that are existing, Mpanza is the only one who is
then not from the Shembe family as he clearly notes (Mpanza profile accessed
21 September 2015). The New Nazareth Baptist Church, was launched after
Mthembeni Mpanzas fellow priests tried to assassinate him. This division
makes it the fifth faction, and, worse still, the coming to the fore of someone
who has no direct lineage to Isaiah Shembe, and the Shembe family tree,
tradition and leadership theology. This appears to be quite disturbing for many
Shembeites, as they are not clear as to how Shembe’s heritage could be
presented by someone who is not directly related to Isaiah Shembe.
Further Factions: The Shembe Legacy in the Courts
When Amos Khula Shembe, the leader of Ebuhleni died in 1996, he was
succeeded by his son Vembeni Mbusi Shembe as pointed out earlier. One notes
that, unlike the earlier divisions that were in the Johannes Galilee family part
of the larger Shembe family, here, the focus changed to the Amos Khula
Shembe family part of Isaiah Shembe’s family tree. Vembeni died on 28 March
2011. His church was the richest of all the factions, with over R100 million in
trust, and a membership of more than 4,5 million people. In Dhladhla’s (2014)
Simangaliso Kumalo & Martin Mujinga
estimate, the membership includes members from Swaziland, Mozambique
and Zimbabwe. This perception is affirmed by Sosibo (2013) who also pointed
out that the Ebuhleni faction is not only well endowed with congregants, but
that it also controls the Church of Nazareth Ecclesiastical Endowment Trust,
which holds the churchs registered assets. Another significant point to
mention is that, at the death of Vembeni, a number of national figures sent their
condolences, amongst whom counts President Jacob Zuma (News Reporter -
City Press 2011). In his message, Zuma states that,
We have learnt with great sadness of the passing of Inkosi Vembeni
Shembe. He played a key role in the history and development of the
African independent churches in the country, and the growth and
promotion of indigenous culture and traditions. We also acknowledge
Inkosi Shembes contribution to the promotion of self-reliance and
social responsibility amongst his followers and the community at large
(Clausen 2011).
Within the Ebuhleni faction, Vembenis death created a rift. The
succession dispute started on 3 April 2011 between Vela Shembe, Vembeni’s
cousin brother, and his son Mduduzi Shembe (Mbuyazi 2011). The two
conflicting successors were officially announced to the mourners at the funeral.
Mduduzi, the son of the late Vembeni, was named successor by Inkosi Mqoqi
Ngcobo of the AmaQadi Clan who according to Muller (1996) is one of the
largest Nazarite clans. Sosibo (2013) reports that, at the funeral, Mqoqi Ngcobo
asked to be moved up the programme so he could officially welcome guests
and dignitaries. But when he took to the podium, he seized the opportunity to
announce Mduduzi Shembe, as the successor. Vela Shembe, on the other hand,
was named as Vembeni’s successor by the late leaders lawyer Zwelabantu
Buthelezi (Sosibo 2013).
According to Mdletshe (2011) the heart of the dispute was a document
purporting to be a Will left by the late Vembeni Shembe naming Vela as his
successor. That document made Velas relatives and top church elders to reject
the Will and instead appointed their own successor. The succession
controversy also hinged upon the same factors that played a role in the 1976
squabble between Amos and Londa. Those who supported Mduduzi supported
the Zulu custom that the son is in an extension of his father, and that he should
be the inheritor. The other side of the controversy as stated by Mdletshe (2011),
The Struggle for Control of Isaiah Shembes Legacy and the Church
was that Vela was coming from the Ekuphakameni faction, and that he should
be the leader. The elders who supported Mduduzi argued that when Amos
Khula Shembe, was ousted from Ekuphakameni in 1976, he did not leave
peacefully. He was welcomed in UMzinyathi by Chief Ngcobo. Two years
later, he established Ebuhleni as home to his children. That being as it may,
Ebuhleni belongs to his family (Mdletshe 2011). According to Nxele (2015)
reporting for SABC, the claim that Ebuhleni is a private property was contested
by Tembezinhle arguing that Ebuhleni belongs to the church and not to the
private family.
This argument suggests that Vela, being a cousin brother and also
coming from a rival faction, had no inheritance in the Vembeni estate, that
included taking over the leadership of the faction. Mdletshe (2011) who was
following the succession wrangle closely also maintains that those who wanted
Vela forged affidavits three weeks before the death of Vembeni because they
had their own agenda. Buthelezi, who has been Vembeni Shembes lawyer
since 1995, pronounced that the late Vembeni Shembe came to him in February
2000 and told him that should he die, he appoints Vela as the next leader. He
showed evidence that he wrote that down and had witnesses sign the statement.
Buthelezi further claimed that Vembeni wrote a letter three weeks later, in his
own hand-writing confirming this development (Mdletshe 2011). Part of the
letter reads I, M.V. Shembe announce that Vela is the next leader (Mdletshe
2011). Vela was not only supported by the legal proceedings, but also
supported by some key members of the family. For example, the court case of
9 December 2012 confirms that Vembeni Shembes widow knew that Vela
Shembe was nominated to be the successor (News24). According to
Vembenis wife, Vembeni’s reason for choosing Vela rather than Mduduzi,
was that Mduduzi was born out of wedlock (Mdletshe 2011). Against this
argument, we have Inkosi Qwabe, speaking on behalf of traditional leaders,
who said that Vembeni had told them that he had been called to a meeting by
the lawyer, where he was forced to sign some documents he did not know.
Inkosi Qwabe also disputed the possibility of Vembeni being able to write a
letter in the period the lawyer had indicated, pointing out that he, Vembeni
Shembe, was too sick to be able to write a letter (Mdletshe 2011). Another
perspective, whether the succession dispute was influenced by marital issues,
and giving rise to Vembeni’s wife’s views, remains obscure.
In April 2011, Vela launched an urgent application in the Durban High
Court, requesting that he be appointed the sole trustee of the trust and as titular
Simangaliso Kumalo & Martin Mujinga
head of the church. He also launched an interdict to prevent the installation of
a new leader, Mduduzi, until the leadership dispute was settled (Mbuyazi
(2011). He was also asking the Church Secretary, Chancy Sibisi to hand over
all the documents, computer disks and other material relating to the affairs of
the church, to him, and that Inkosi Nqobo and Mduduzi be restrained from
interfering with his anointment and appointment as leader of amaNazaretha.
According to Sosibo (2013), the Will nominating Vela, has continued
to be the subject of dispute in courts. Michael Irving, the handwriting expert
who was brought in to assess its validity, confirmed in the Durban High Court,
that the document was authentic. Irving was instructed to authenticate the
signature of Vembeni on his deed of nomination dated 11 February 2000. He
was given six documents with undisputed signatures of Vembeni which he
compared to the signature on the Deed of Nomination. Irving concluded that:
the usual characteristics associated with forgery of a signature are not present
in the disputed signature. This signature reflects natural line quality, rhythm,
pen lines and movement of an established signature model pattern (Sosibo
2013). So, in his assessment, the signatures submitted contain characteristics
which have been associated with the signature authorship of a single individual
- namely Bishop Vembeni Mbusi Shembe (Sosibo 2013).
Sosibo (2013) who has been following the court proceedings closely,
further states that some church members bemoaned the infighting in the
Ebuhleni faction which has made it impractical to uphold some of the churchs
sacred pillars, such as the annual pilgrimage to Nhlangakazi. An interdict
issued by the court prevented the Ebuhleni factions from ascending the
mountain until the leadership squabble was resolved. Nxele (2015) observes
that in church lore, the faithful can only climb the mountain on the instructions
of their leader. Going by this understanding, pilgrimage proved to be a big
challenge in the Shembe factions. Sbu Shembe, a grandson of Galilee,
comments that all these court cases are damaging the reputation of the church.
The Amos vs. Londa case (that split Ekuphakameni into two) was never
resolved (Sosibo 2013). Sbu was of the opinion that the case should be solved
at home. What the church needs is effective administration, and an emphasis
on the needs and care for the people, that the people come first. Yet, the leaders
have no leadership skills to unify the factions, and there is no appropriate
administration and management of the church. Sbu further lamented that, while
the church was poor, there was unity; now that it is rich, people are eyeing
material gains. For Sbu, Ebuhleni requires sophisticated management and
The Struggle for Control of Isaiah Shembes Legacy and the Church
leadership, yet some of the leaders and preachers are running amok, with a
misguided theology, and with some claiming Shembe as God, and others, that
Shembe has no relationship with Christianity (Sosibo 2013). The squabbles are
still on-going, with Vela leading Ebuhleni while Mduduzi leads the
Tembezinhle faction.
What Makes the Shembe Church Attractive to People?
In spite of all the inside squabbles in amaNazaretha, the Shembe church re-
mains very relevant in the modern day world. The latest estimated membership
of the amaNazaretha is more than five million in the Ebuhleni faction alone
(Sosibo 2012:1). Most of these members are from Zululand.
Oosthuizen (1981:5) argued that, probably the main reason for the
large number of people joining the movement is the doctrine of the Black
Messiah-Shembe. Another factor is that amaNazaretha draws many women as
members, purportedly, because it embraces polygamy and has polygamous
marriage laws that cater for the well-being of women in polygamous marriages.
In one of her interviews, an interview with a woman from such a polygamous
household, Magwaza (2011) found that she joined Shembe, because she was
called cruel names, for being unmarried, and that she felt vulnerable. The
women reportedly said,
my sisters were married before me and everyone was wondering
why marriage was not coming my way. The church answered my
prayers. I am now considered a normal person (Magwaza 2011).
The Shembe church creates the space for polygamy. According to Mzizi (2004:
199), Isaiah Shembe married four wives, whom he all abandoned at the
instruction of a voice he heard. Galilee Shembe had plus or minus one
hundred wives (Oosthuizen 1981:53).
Thirdly, some Shembe followers affirm that the church and its
religious practices cannot be understood outside the traditional Zulu indige-
nous beliefs, values, ethnicity, religion and culture. There is a sense of cultural
belonging in the church, the preaching and singing is in isiZulu, and the liturgy
is written in the indigenous language. The central belief system of the church
revolves around the question of cultural identity (Oosthuizen 1981). According
to Magwaza (2012) the Shembe church considers itself committed to fostering
Simangaliso Kumalo & Martin Mujinga
proper Zulu identity and that it gains followers because it blends religion with
culture. As such, the Shembe religion restores cultural pride amongst the
poorest of the poor, and it encourages people to accept beliefs and practises as
part of their religion, that make them uniquely African unlike other churches.
Some African cultural practices had been condemned by the Christian
missionaries, but the Shembe church has been embracing them, blending it
with western ideas to form the evolving culturally hybrid religion that they call
amaNazaretha (Magwaza 2012). Amongst these count the celebration of Holy
Communion, baptism, purification rites, the dancing to the sound of holy
drums, and the festivals (cf. Oosthuizen 1981).
Other examples which make the Shembe church unique and attractive
to indigenous cultural practitioners include the centrality of animal sacrifices,
its claims to heal and guide communities, the centrality of dancing in ritual
practices, and the acceptance of the importance of the dream in Zulu culture
(cited by Magwaza 2011). Animal sacrifices have connotations related to the
mediation of ancestors with the living-dead, and the afterlife. The
amaNazaretha argue that these rituals have visible and invisible outcomes and,
that one of the visible signs is the healing of the sick. With regard to dancing,
this is traditionally central to Zulu culture, and in amaNazaretha an act of
religion. The dance is not just social as in the socialising that dancing brings
about, but it has a religious purpose and people engage in it to praise God
(Heuser 2008; see also Sundkler 1961). The practice of the dance is called
ukusina. The centrality of the interpretation of dreams by the isangoma is well-
known. Many members of Shembe, claim that they dream about him, and that
he directs them with regard to their daily lives. He is not dead and can visit
them through dreams to answer their prayers and solve their problems
(Oosthuizen 1967:4).
In addition to the reasons already mentioned, it also appears that
Shembe is popular with young people. In 2006, one young man said,
the Bible says God will send a prophet like you. In Africa, that
someone is of my skin colour, one who speaks my language, and talk
to my ancestors in order to solve my problems that someone is
Shembe. Shembe is a holy church from God for black people (Reuter
The Struggle for Control of Isaiah Shembes Legacy and the Church
There are also claims among the youth, that Shembe provides guidance with
regard to education and employment.
One of the most important attractions to amaNazartetha, especially in
modern-day South Africa, is its wealth. It is not only a central issue in the
various faction conflicts. In the same way that promises of wealth attracts
people to those who ‘have made it’, it also attracts the poor and needy.
According to Dube (1936) in 1914, Shembe had raised enough money from
followers to buy a 40 acre plot in Inanda, and named it Ekuphakameni (the
Elevated Place). Over a twenty year period, and similarly relying upon
donations from converts, Shembe purchased another 40 more farms upon
which he settled his church members particularly destitute people, widows and
orphans, from whom he received a minimum rent. Despite his criticism of
Shembe as already referred to, Dube also appreciatively promoted Shembe as
providing a social and economic role model for twentieth century Africans
(Cabrita 2012:442). He not only created systems for the poor and destitute. He
himself was a man of means, who had thousands of followers, and purchased
large tracts of landed property. He became one of the wealthiest Africans of
his time, holding about 30 000 pounds in his accounts a vast amount for the
1930s, especially if you think, that he was an uneducated black man (see also
Vilikazi, Mthethwa & Mpanza 1986:43 and 51.)
The Impact of the Shembe Church on Society
The impact of the Shembe church in society, and especially isiZulu culture
cannot be overemphasised. Given its significant number of over five million
followers, it has secured a share in the socio-political, economic and religious
life of South Africa and Africa more broadly speaking. Currently, the latest
hereditary leadership case is in the secular courts since 2011 as briefly sketched
above. This long and delayed court case keeps many members in a state of
turmoil and uncertainty, also impacting society more broadly speaking. In this
context, it is understandable that the media has much interest in the squabbles
of the church. Yet, as Gandhi has taught us, the media, and the opinions they
report, and those they do not, can build and destroy movements. Furthermore,
the fact that amaNazaretha is one of the richest African Independent Churches
in Africa, in which we are witnessing these internal faction fighting (Sosibo
2013; see also Dhladhla 2014), in addition to its substantial membership
numbers, which cry out for good governance, make for a looming calamity. Its
Simangaliso Kumalo & Martin Mujinga
lack of leadership, administration, and good governance, and general all-round
good education and training (cf. du Toit & Ngada 1999), impact its members
negatively. Its promotion and catering for polygamous families, cause much
social harm, in so far as it implicitly condones multiple sexual relations outside
stable relationships. This is leading to the continuous spreading of HIV/ Aids
and STDs, among church members, even as there is a significant curbing and
downturn of this disease due to conscientisation and education nationally. In
addition, this system continues to promote a form of patriarchy that continues
to subordinate and subject, women to men, leading to forms of oppression in
contrast to the explicit constitutional values of our country. The fact that
leaders have poor education and training, exacerbate this problem. Shembeites
follow their leaders at all costs. In the political arena, the situation is not much
better, as some leaders openly propagate political agendas in conflict with
fellow Shembe leaders. For instance, Phakama Shembe is on record for
propagating membership and voting for the African Christian Democratic
Party (ACDP), openly, not only among Shembe, but also the amaZioni, and
the Apostolic Churches of South Africa (eNCA 8/4/14). These are just some
of the aspects of the conundrum in which amaNazaretha finds itself at present.
Given its history of factional splits and as these have been compounded with
the values propagated by the South African constitution, it does not augur well
for the future of the movement, as well as the well-being of its members.
Finally, as the court cases continue, it is evident that the amaNazaretha
continues to suffer socio-culturally, because of its leadership vacuum. For
instance, and in addition to reasons already put forward, when there are court
cases, they draw large numbers of followers to the courts. Here, they often
clash physically. For example Mosunkutu (2015) reports about two court cases
in Durban, where on 28 July 2015, police had to use rubber bullets to disperse
the two faction’s members. On 29 July, the following day, the ANN7 website
showed members of the two factions of the Nazareth Baptist Church arriving
at the court precinct wielding a mixed bag of hammers, golf clubs, knobkerries,
planks, sticks, baseball bats, hockey sticks and bricks. Chaos erupted when
hundreds of members from the two factions, clashed outside court in this video
clip, when they tried to enter the courtroom that only seats 50 people (cf.
Mosunkutu 2015). Even lawyers efforts to control the angry crowds proved
futile. In the words of one member, the Shembe church had moved ‘from faith
to fist. It appears, then, that the church has systematically strayed from its
ethos and theology, over the last number of decades.
The Struggle for Control of Isaiah Shembes Legacy and the Church
In conclusion, the Shembe church belongs to the Ethiopian type of churches
because of its emphasis on the significance of African culture for Christianity,
and vice versa. Whereas many studies on Shembe normally refer to three
factions, we have shown that there are currently in fact seven. That these
factions have formed due to the attraction of power and prestige, as well as the
income and wealth of the movement, is not to be doubted. We also pointed out
that, in the wake of the splitting into factions, amaNazaretha currently face
many socio-cultural challenges, not least, due to its failure to mentor, educate
and develop an able, capable, proficient, and competent leadership cohort.
These splinter groups have been in and out of secular courts due to the
succession struggles since the 1970s. These succession battles can be traced
back to 1935, following the discontent that followed the death of Isaiah
Shembe, to the latest, starting in 2011. We attempted to provide a brief over-
view of a very complex history, attending to the themes headlined in this
article, viz. the historical background of Isaiah Shembe, and the amaNazaretha
church, factors that lead to the rise of Shembe, the basic tenets, the leadership
structures and their politics, the power struggles and rise of the factions and the
impact of Shembe on society. From the discussions above, one is forced to
conclude that the future of the amaNazaretha as unified movement is bleak.
The possible chances of all uniting around and returning to the original
Ekuphakameni are very slim, given that the Shembe family is growing day by
day, and that all their lives are vested in their inheritance. AmaNazaretha is a
church of the book and their worship seem to honour Isaiah and Galilee more
than God, in fact deifying them. They can also not seeing themselves joining
another church. They believe their future is vested in Shembe and Galilee and
in the holy mountain Inhlangakazi, and that these are the answers to all the
friction in the church. Yet, the church faces serious challenges, and, against
this background, certainly, a lack in visionary leadership and the optimum
management, administration, and governance of the church.
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Hans, B. 2012. Plea to Shembe to Save Leopards. IOL News, 30 June.
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Fair. The Mail and Guardian, 19 February.
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Weapons. Sowetan 29 July.
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ANC. eNCA 8 April.
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Reuters 2006. Shembe is the Way for Millions in South Africa. 13 November.
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and Photos. Sowetan Feb 16.
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www.yourepeat,com/g/shembe?d=short. (Accessed on 22 September 2015.)
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tist_church. (Accessed on 12 September 2015.)
Simangaliso Kumalo
President of Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary; & Prof. in Public Theology
University of KwaZulu-Natal
Martin Mujinga
PhD Candidate
School of Religion Philosophy and Classics
University of KwaZulu-Natal; and
Methodist Church (Zimbabwe)
... Across southern Africa, large felids have a long history of both legal and illegal exploitation. African leopards (Panthera pardus pardus) have been heavily harvested throughout this region for their economic value as trophies in legal hunts (Balme, Slotow, & Hunter, 2010;Braczkowski et al., 2015;Swanepoel, Lindsey, Somers, Hoven, & Dalerum, 2011) and for mostly illegal use in traditional practices (Harries, 1993;Kumalo & Mujinga, 2017;Williams, Loveridge, Newton, & MacDonald, 2017). Many leopards are also removed in retaliatory conflict due to their real or perceived threat to livestock (Loveridge, Wang, Frank, & Seidensticker, 2010). ...
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Masculinity and manhood ideologies remain a serious theological concern in the context of South Africa and the continent of Africa. The masculinity ideology perceives femaleness as a symbol to be lower than maleness and thereby uses this as a strategy to dominate and oppress women. While the oppression and domination of women is experienced in many parts of African society, such experiences also exist within the church walls. The androcentric culture creates an unbalanced theology which then brings the entire discourse of theologisation into question. As this article grapples with these issues, it employs Mercy Oduyoye’s African women theology, particularly the model of ‘partnership between women and men’ in ministry, to reflect and respond to the issues raised. It further argues that as long as African women are subjected to oppression and domination by ideologies that are adiaphora, Oduyoye’s liberative hermeneutics remain relevant and necessary for doing inclusive theology in Africa. Contribution: While the article grapples with African women theologies within a theological terrain, the implications of the outcome are multidisciplinary as they aim to respond to challenges of oppression, masculinity and manhood ideologies that women face in their daily life.
South African Christian churches have been widely recognised as major civil institutions that play a role in the provision of social services to complement the state effort. But the concern is there has been an increase in the number of disputes involving leadership succession in these churches that have had to be adjudicated by the civil courts in the last decade. These disputes impact on the governance, growth, reputation and sustainability of churches. The South African Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission) identifies weak or lack of effective succession planning in the governing policies of churches as the major cause of these disputes. Against this backdrop, this article analyses some specific cases to explore how church policies influence succession disputes in South African churches. It further explores how the courts engage and interpret the governance policies of churches in the resolution of these disputes. The article reveals that the findings of the CRL Rights Commission are justified. It observes that, among other issues, some churches lack effective and workable succession planning in their governing policies. The policies on leadership succession of these churches are poorly drafted, thereby creating significant lacunae and vacuums leading to conflicts. The article concludes by identifying some lessons that churches can learn from the judicial approach in the resolution of disputes in order to enhance the quality of church policies, thereby reducing their exposure to succession disputes.
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Following Lemieux & Bruschi (2019) a product-based approach was adopted to develop a wildlife crime script using a combination of participant observations and structured or semi-structured interviews conducted as part of the Saving Spots Project in western Zambia. After the project’s inception, Panthera staff were invited to attend the 2018 Kuomboka to gather information on the scale of the event, details regarding the use of skins and the traditional values underpinning the ceremony. Data were collected through direct observation and ad hoc interactions with participants or spectators. Information relating to the hunting and trafficking of cat skins, particularly leopard, was obtained through a semi-structured interview conducted in 2019 with an interviewee who has a well-established knowledge of the relevant customs and traditions of the Lozi. Structured interviews were then conducted with Lozi paddlers to understand the use and process of acquiring skins prior to the Kuomboka ceremony. Data included skin cost (if purchased), the number of skins owned by paddlers, the longevity of skins, methods for storing skins when not in use, the geographic origin of the skins, the participants knowledge of conservation laws in Zambia, their perception of the population status of leopard, lion, serval and cheetah in Zambia and their opinion of the Saving Spots demand reduction project and its effectiveness in curbing demand for authentic skins.
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The Shembe Church‟s integration of African Traditional Religion and Christianity has been met by many challenges. This merger has been rejected by both African traditionalists and Christians. The Shembe Church has been met by intolerance even though the movement in some ways creates multiculturalism between different people and cultures. This thesis documents the Shembe Church‟s ideas and practices; it discusses how the Shembe Church combines two ideologies that appear to be at odds with each other. In looking at Shembe ideas and practices, the thesis discusses African religion-inspired rituals like ukusina, ancestral honouring, animal sacrificing and virgin testing. The thesis also discusses the heavy Christian influence within the Shembe Church; this is done by looking at the Shembe Church‟s use of The Bible and Moses‟ Laws which play a crucial role in the Church. The challenges the Shembe Church faces are another main theme of the thesis. The thesis looks at cases of intolerance and human rights violations experienced by Shembe members. This is done in part by looking at the living conditions at eBuhleni, located at Inanda, KZN. The thesis also analyses individual Shembe member‟s experiences and discusses how some members of the Shembe church experience the acceptance of the Shembe religion in South African society. This thesis concludes by trying to make a distinction between intolerance and controversy. I try to highlight the idea that what many Shembe followers see as discrimination and intolerance towards them is sometimes a difference in opinion from other cultural groups. Sometimes these differences are not geared towards criticising other religious groups or perpetuating intolerance.
Isaiah Shembe, founder of the Isonto IamaNazaretha, has been variously interpreted by scholars of African Indigenous Christianity. Some have called him a Zulu Messiah, others have doubted his sincerity and seen him as a false prophet in the tradition of MIanjeni and Nongqawuse. Following the collapse of the 'post-Christianity' debate started by the likes of G.C. Oosthuizen, more recent scholarship has explained the significance of Isaiah Shembe not only in terms of the religious tradition he formulated, but also the pervasive spirit that continues to perpetuate the Shembe faith. Some recent interpreters see Isaiah Shembe as a divine figure, perhaps with a stature on par with or even greater than such figures as Moses, Mohammed and Jesus Christ. Mthembeni Mpanza, an influential modern interpreter of the Shembe tradition, holds that Shembe was Holy Spirit, the third person in the Godhead. This essay critically evaluates Mpanza's assertions and considers whether Mpanza is re-creating the Shembe. If so, what is the meaning of such a re-creation in the cumulative tradition of the Shembe faith?
In 1936, Zulu patriot, John Dube, wrote a biography of local Natal prophet, Isaiah Shembe. Dube's biography – ‘UShembe’ – contained multiple authorial voices. Partly written by Dube, material was also contributed by Shembe and his followers. This collaborative literary method illuminates how rival theories of civic virtue interacted in early twentieth century South Africa.
African religion, as stated by Robert Farris Thompson, can be classified as a 'danced belief ' (Chernoff 1999: 172), as a form of worship that is visible and inherently attached to bodily action. The appreciation of such danced belief has led Western scholars of African religion to conversion-like experiences. In a revealing biographical note, the Swedish missionary Bengt Sundkler recalls an episode thatmade him turn his academic interest to the study of African Independent Churches (AICs) around 1940, at that time still a widely marginalised movement. He had conducted a week-day church service in his Lutheran congregation in Zululand, with prayer, hymns, and a short sermon. An elderly woman left the service and explained to Sundkler the reason why she had done so afterwards. While they were singing a certain church hymn she had missed accompanying it with a bodily movement. 'Since many years', she would complain, 'we are not allowed to shake in Church. So I had to walk away. I went to sit down under that tree, singing and shaking' (Sundkler 1976). The testimony of this elderly woman made Sundkler aware of the rich expressive culture of African religion. Finally, he pioneered in the study of AICs and their ritual creativity. He was convinced that AICs with their combination of conviction and African rhythm contribute to the 'treasure-house of the Church Universal, and therefore I could not but try to understand and interpret their life and death.'1 The following article tries to analyse some aspects of religious dance in ibandla lama Nazaretha, or Nazareth Baptist Church (NBC), both one of the most spectacular and most debated amongst all AICs in Southern Africa. In January 2003 the NBC witnessed a ritual innovation. Within the borders of the historic headquarter of this African Independent Church (AIC), the Holy City of Ekuphakameni ('The Elevated Place'), a younger group of the male section of the church performed an old established dance in an all-white kilted uniform. The dance was led by the young leader of the church, Bishop Vukile V. Shembe. He was clad in a blue and white coloured kilted costume. Full of awe, some of the more aged observers of the scene commented on the dancing. Seated in rows in front of the dancing ground and overlooking a broader spectre of different dance groups, they were drawing analogies to the dance performances of the church founder: 'He dances like Isaiah Shembe!' Another Shembe follower, much younger in age, approached me from the ranks of non-dancing male church members. Although Vukile Shembe himself was clad in a unique dress, unparalleled in church history as well as different from the dress of his followers, he explained to me: 'He looks just like Isaiah, Johannes Galilee and Londa himself.'2. These statements encode church memory with ritual aesthetics, and crystallise historical knowledge in religious performance.3 They evoke almost a hundred years of church history. The NBC was established in 1910 by Isaiah Shembe (c. 1870–1935), who soon built his headquarters in Ekuphakameni, in Inanda outside Durban, South Africa. Since its beginnings in Natal, the NBC attracted attention by its format of theological discourse and ritual performance. The creation of sacred space intertwines with the sacralisation of time characterised by dance activities. Shembe introduced his own liturgical calendar which climaxes in annual mass meetings of church followers. The most famous such church gatherings are two major festivals. One is a January pilgrimage of about three weeks to Mount Nhlangakazi, which church members call the Holy Mountain, some 50km away from Ekuphakameni. The other main festival takes place in July in Ekuphakameni. It is during those annual festivals that the most scenic dance performances are displayed. This practice of dancing as a legitimate bodily mode of spiritual expression in (South) African Christianity is strongly connected to the NBC. Isaiah Shembe justified the introduction of dance in the setting of a Christian church by referring to some biblical passages (cf. Ps.150.3; Jer.30.3). Contemporary mission Christianity, however, considered dance as a component of heretical behaviour. In its theological discourse mission Christianity favoured the realm of the spirit and – in consequence...