Natural order at Moria

2013-04-07 10:00

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This year’s Easter-weekend celebrations drew between 3 and 5 million to the Moria headquarters in Limpopo. Neal Collins joins the festivities Good Friday.

The R71 headed for Moria. No, not the biblical Moria, where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son.

Nor the home of the dwarves in The Lord of the Rings.

This is Moria in Boyne, just outside Polokwane in Limpopo, where millions make their Easter pilgrimage to the two sects of the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) every year.

They’re shrouded in mystery.

We do know that the ZCC members – their shirts adorned with either the Dove or the Star – don’t drink, smoke or eat pork.

Influenced by Scottish Presbyterians and American Zionist Christians, the approximately 8 million members constitute the largest religious sect in southern Africa.

Estimates of attendance this year range from 3 to 5 million – plus me, the curious Brit who came knocking to witness what goes on behind the great gates of Moria.

On the road, in an endless two-day convoy of smoke-belching buses, they sing, dance and sell mashuda, long, noisy ribbons to supplement the dancing.

I clambered on a couple of buses while they were stopped, waiting to get past a crash not 4km from the twin gates of Moria.

The buses are largely gendered.

On the women’s charabanc, noise and children among the blue-and-white and the green-and-yellow congregants.

The men sit in serried ranks, with the ubiquitous ZCC hats, khaki suits and white shoes – one long row of smiles.

Both are equally welcoming, ready to talk anything from Nkosi to Amakhosi, unholy kids to holy tea.

At the end of their long road, they are faced with a choice: the Dove or the Star.

Founded in 1910 as a breakaway from the Scottish Free Church by Engenas Lekganyane, there are now two branches of the ZCC.

First you come across the Star, led by Engenas’ grandson, Barnabas.

Then, under a bigger, more elaborate gate, there’s the Dove sect, inspired by another grandson, Saint Engenas.

Insiders suggest the Star congregation is largely urban, while the Doves are more rural and draw many from neighbouring nations.

I expected chaos. I have seen Glastonbury and the Isle of Wight when huge concerts are held. It’s a matter of grabbing a site for your tent and a place to do your business.

Not at Moria. Here, there is a natural order. People slip quietly into position.

Dozens of church workers are on hand to advise, guide, help.

Across hectares of barren veld, camps are formed, groups gather, locals stick together to sing and dance, and pray.

If you learn one line, make it “Kgotsong a e be le lena” (or the shorter “Kgotso e be le lena”).

It means “Peace be with you” and will earn you access to all areas.

The colours are important. Green and yellow are for the seaparo se segolo (the majority – this means “the respectful uniform” – for adults only), and blue and white for khwaere ya bomme (choir of women), who take pride of place at the big ceremonies.

Maroon and white belongs to those who help the church.

Everywhere, the army of men in hats and khaki, keep the peace, guiding the Easter campers through the food shops and latrines in a campsite 5km long, dotted with loudspeakers and huge video screens.

On Easter Sunday, Saint Engenas emerged in a Rolls-Royce Phantom with eponymous number plates to give his long-awaited sermon.

Like his father before him, Saint Engenas’ son drove the Rolls-Royce.

There is a collection of huge black limousines over the mountain at the Bishop’s home, including two Mercedes and older American Cadillacs.

This is the only obvious sign of wealth on offer.

The assembled masses go crazy.

Surprisingly, the presermon is given in Afrikaans by a white man with a high-pitched voice who even uses “Transvaal” to talk about Gauteng.

Every word of every service in both Dove and Star camps is translated from the original sePedi into English, Afrikaans, isiZulu and Xitsonga.

Such translations are not helpful for the flow of the message. But St Engenas has them hanging on his every word.

In the middle of his lesson, which starts with Noah and ends with modern, troubled South Africa, a woman in

blue and white is dragged out screaming. She’s been “taken by the spirit”, the Bishop’s wife assures me.

Saint Engenas steers away from politics – a pensive Julius Malema is there, after all – and talks instead about respect, crime, “looking out for our women” and “the pain of stealing”.

Afterwards, with the crowd going utterly bonkers, the Bishop takes my hand in his white glove.

He wears an almost ridiculous uniform, black with lashings of gold braid, the very model of a modern major general.

He says: “So glad to have you here. I hope you enjoy it. Watch this?.?.?.” I am waved to a golf buggy with Jacques, the manager of the Magoebaskloof Hotel up the road.

Saint Engenas takes up his mace and performs his ritual role as drum major to his ear-bashing brass band.

And we surge straight into the crowd, where a road with khaki-clad men as kerbstones has been steamrolled through the throng.

Just for a second, chaos threatens. The young women in blue and white, eyes glazed, surge forward to meet their bishop.

I’ve seen crowd trouble in Umlazi and Soweto, Paris and London, but nothing like this.

The road is eroded, the women reach out, inches from their prophet, their link to God.

Somehow the thin khaki line holds. The Bishop doesn’t falter. Like the Titanic, the band plays on. Loudly.

For an hour afterwards, my ears were ringing.

Saint Engenas twirls his mace with some skill. This is his time. For a good half-hour, we soldier on through the masses, past “Food Shop Number 5”, past the kiosks selling holy coffee and tea, past the endless buses, with human barriers holding back the thousands eager to see their spiritual leader.

Finally, unscathed, we emerge from the masses and retreat to a room upstairs in the pavilion.

Inside, Saint Engenas works the room, flanked by pictures of his meetings with Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma (who came last year, but wasn’t present this year).

The Bishop pumps my hand again: “Did you enjoy that? Will you come again?”

Saint Engenas moves smoothly between languages. An old white man explains how he used to serve the family at the KFC in Polokwane in the 70s, how they were always “fine people, the best”.

A man takes me aside. He tells me the prophecy: “One day the Dove and the Star will be reunited again. Soon. And the numbers will be incredible. We grow every year. The new farm will be for parking. We will transport the people. We get bigger every year.”

Outside, armoured cars filled with cash move slowly through the crowd.

The financial implications of 8 million-plus members doesn’t need to be spelt out.

I didn’t see a single collection plate, but the money offered is carefully ploughed back into the church.

It doesn’t get squandered. Corruption is a c-word here.

Ordinary parishioners insist there is no tithing in the ZCC.

“You pay as much as you can, normally R50 a month. For that we get free funeral insurance, a clinic and – if we apply – help with schooling.”

The Bishop is back. “Take a picture,” he beams. “You will be back. I know this. Do you need a police escort to get home? I can sort that out.”

And he did. A blue-and-white light leads us through the throng still awaiting a final appearance. We pass the first garage beyond the gates. It’s new.

It’s called “Total Nobody” in honour of a local dignitary who called himself “Nobody” to avoid an ancient curse.

But here, nobody is a total nobody.

All have their place in the vast ZCC scheme of things.

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