Who’s heir to the Shembe dynasty?

2011-11-19 18:03

The latest split in the Nazareth Baptist Church (or Shembe), playing itself out in the Durban High Court, may be about who assumes the mantle of
the prophet.

But underlying this is a contest for who assumes control of the church’s immense wealth and profit. Since the mid-70s when the original church – founded in 1910 by Prophet Isaiah Shembe – experienced its first split, a number of claims and counterclaims have been put before the courts by different members of the Shembe family.

In the latest challenge, Vela Shembe has gone to court to contest the legitimacy of the appointment of his second cousin, Mduduzi Shembe, as head of the church.

Mduduzi, known as Unyazi lweZulu (lightning), has taken control of the Ebuhleni faction of the church in Inanda. He is the son of the late and previous leader, Vimbeni, known as Uthingo lwenkosazane (rainbow), who was laid to rest in April.

Vela “Imisebe yeLanga” (the sun’s rays) claims he was nominated as next to the throne by his father through a signed letter which the late leader had instructed his lawyer to draw up and read at his funeral.

Giving evidence this week, Zwelabantu Buthelezi, Vimbeni’s lawyer, said the succession issue within the Shembe church was usually settled by the standing leader anointing his successor, who does not necessarily have to be the eldest son.

He gave an example that while the church founder, Isaiah, had an eldest son, he instead chose the younger son as heir, adding that the second leader, Johannes Galilee “Ilanga” (sun) Shembe, had more than 30 sons, but anointed his brother Amos “Nyanga yeZulu” (moon) to take over following his death.

Buthelezi told the court that Amos’ appointment resulted in a split in the church and the loss of lives. At the time, Amos took over the reins at the age of 71 and because of infighting, he ended up aetting up a new faction, known today as Ebuhleni, which has the biggest following of all the factions with a membership of about 5?million.

According to Buthelezi, Vimbeni had gone to great lengths to ensure that he left an official letter of appointment having had to deal with similar disputes himself after members of the family contested the validity of his appointment.

This week’s hearing has been a tense affair, attracting a large number of followers of both leaders. Gaining access to the court complex for other cases has been a nightmare, with police searching every person for weapons and ensuring that the two groupings do not clash during breaks.
The two factions enter the court separately, passing through a metal detector.

Vela’s camp attend the court proceedings clad in suits. Mduduzi’s supporters have not even allowed the rain to stop them from attending barefoot and in traditional white church robes.

Friday saw Buthelezi being cross-examined by Mduduzi’s lawyers, who are challenging the validity of the letter of nomination, which was not signed in his presence. This court process on the matter will continue tomorrow and the judgment is expected by December 22.

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