Hearts and minds

2010-05-18 00:00

AFTER almost three-and-a-half decades of ructions, it remains to be seen whether the coming court battle involving the Shembe Church’s rival groupings will finally produce a legitimate leader.

In what is described by church followers as the mother of all battles for the soul of the Nazareth Baptist Church, three factions will square up for the control of the six million-strong church at the Pietermaritzburg High Court on May 24. The case will be heard by Justice Isaac Madondo.

The split in the church started in 1976 after the death of its last legitimate leader, Inkosi Johannes Galilee “JG” Shembe. Contenders in the leadership battle are Inkosi Vimbeni Shembe, who leads the eBuhleni faction which is the biggest of the three; Inkosi Vukile Shembe, who leads the eKuphakameni faction based at the church’s traditional headquarters in iNanda; and Inkosi Mudliwamafa Sizwe Shembe, who leads the smallest faction of Ginyezinye based in Trustfeed outside Pietermaritzburg.

At the moment the burning question in church-follower circles is whether the Pietermaritzburg High Court will succeed where other attempts have failed, in finally naming the legitimate leader. In the past 30 years there have been numerous court battles and an attempt by the South African Council of Churches (SACC) to find a peaceful solution.

The split in the church developed after the death of its last legitimate leader Inkosi Johannes Galilee “JG” Shembe, who was the son of the founder of the church, Prophet Isaiah Shembe. JG, as he was affectionately known, died intestate in December 1976. After his death, his younger brother, Inkosi Amos Kula “AK” Shembe, took over as the leader of this church.

In 1977, his leadership was challenged by Inkosi Londa Shembe, who was one of many sons of JG. Eventually, Londa’s faction managed to expel the AK faction from the church headquarters after AK’s refusal to relinquish the leadership position.

On October 9, 1977, Londa was eventually ordained as the leader appointed by JG, by the faction that supported him. On December 11, 1977, two months after his ordination, a battle took place between AK’s and Londa’s supporters outside the holy headquarters of eKuphakameni, which left about 10 people dead.

People who were close to Londa described him as an Umkhonto we Sizwe member, who was also an underground ANC operative, who joined the organisation during his student days at the University of Zululand, in 1974.

When AK was finally driven out of eKuphakameni, he left with a sizeable number of the congregants and settled at Matabetulu in the Mzinyathi area, which is now the headquarters of the eBuhleni faction. When AK died of natural causes in 1995, his eldest son, Mbusi Vimbeni Shembe took over the reins in that faction.

Londa remained at eKuphakameni until his mysterious assassination in 1989. After his death no one was named as the leader of the church, until the then 18-year-old Vukile Shembe was ordained as the new leader of the eKuphakameni faction on July 4, 1998.

The Ginyezinye faction under Sizwe, came under the spotlight recently when Sizwe announced that as the official heir of Nkanyezi Shembe’s estate, he was the rightful leader of the church. Nkanyezi was JG’s first born and customary heir to his estate.

Prior to that, the Ginyezinye faction was understood to support the eBuhleni faction. No claim to leadership of the church is said to have been made by Nkanyezi during the tug of war between his younger brother and his uncle — Londa and AK.

Battles between AK and Londa

In what can be described as a war between the nephew and uncle, AK and Londa engaged in many battles for the soul of the church.

In the early eighties, rivalry between eKuphakameni and eBuhleni took an ugly turn when fighting between their supporters erupted. Many people from both sides lost their lives in the fighting.

According to Velemafini Ximba, who is the general secretary of the eKuphakameni faction, the consolidation of all the court cases, which was done last year and resulted in the coming case next month, is based on the consent of all parties as they believe it will bring to conclusion the leadership and unity crisis within the church.

“According to us, the battle for the control of the church is between eBuhleni and eKuphakameni. It has always been between Inkosi Londa and Inkosi AK factions before Londa was assassinated in 1989.

“Before he was assassinated, he wanted to challenge AK over the continued usage of the church’s name, hymns, vestments, method of worship and other things, as he believed he was not the titular leader of the church.

“Protocol 293 of the church’s constitution, which was introduced by Inkosi JG, stipulates what should be done to appoint the leader of the church should the presiding leader die before naming one,” Ximba said.

Ximba said the constitution says that the Executive Advisory Committee of the Church is the highest ruling body of the church and it must be the one that elects the leader.

“Not one of them is alive now, but when AK lodged a claim to leadership, two members of the committee, Zacharia Mgabhi and Kenneth Sabbath Gumede, were still alive.

“As the only surviving members of the committee, they signed a letter of appointment, appointing Londa as the titular head of the church,” he said.

Ximba said besides Mgabhi and Gumede’s approval of Londa’s leadership to the church, JG is said to have pronounced to his other “confidantes” that he wanted Londa to lead the church.

Ximba said their case is also bolstered by an agreement which was signed between Inkosi Vimbeni and Inkosi Vukile on February 16, 2007, where Inkosi Vimbeni apparently resigned as the church’s trustee, hence renouncing his leadership claim to the church.

The eBuhleni version

Although it is the eBuhleni faction that challenged the legitimacy of the Pietermaritzburg High Court decision to announce Sizwe as the legitimate leader of the church last year, this faction is now seen to be reluctant to continue with the court action.

The eBuhlenis’ challenge led to the consolidation of all cases, which eventually led to the May 24 hearing.

During the centenary celebration at eBuhleni on April 14, eBuhleni Evangelist Mandlenkosi Zwane insinuated that the eBuhleni faction would like the status quo to be maintained ●— all factions to be allowed to remain with their current leaders.

“We will not recognise a leader who will be decided by the court. Our leader is not going there,” Zwane was quoted as saying.

eBuhleni general secretary Chancy Sibisi said that when the prophet was still alive he prophesised a breakaway faction.

“The prophecy never said there will be unity afterwards, so it is impossible for us to unite with the people who spilt our blood. I will follow the one who was appointed by the late third Shembe,” Sibisi said.

On the Ginyezinye faction Sibisi said: “The church is not the estate of the Shembe family, so the Shembe family heir is not an automatic leader of the church.”

The Ginyezinye version

In an interview, Maqhawe Zondo, a Durban attorney who represents the Ginyezinye faction in the court case, said in order for one to understand the nature of the Shembe church conflict, one must understand the background and subsequent events that followed after the death of Prophet Isaiah Shembe.

“In his will, which was discovered after his death on May 2, 1935, the prophet allocated the church to his son JG on top of other personal allocations he made to him.

All properties belonging to the church were put under the Church of Nazareth Ecclesiastical Endowment Trust to ensure they were independent from JG’s personal inheritance. JG was declared the titular head of the trust and the church.

Zondo said by virtue of being the trustee and titular head of the church, he was like the sole owner of the church.

“JG led the church for 40 years and when he died intestate in 1976, he had many children from his 62 wives. Nkanyezi was his eldest son and hence a universal heir of the estate according to laws of intestate and customary laws,” Zondo said.

JG’s younger brother, AK, was appointed as the regent leader of the church after JG’s death. This means that he temporarily led the church until it appointed its titular head.

“In 1977, Nkanyezi was declared heir to JG’s estate, but by then a conflict had developed between his younger brother Londa and his uncle AK, who was the acting leader of the church.

Nkanyezi died in 1993 and his eldest son Mudliwamafa Sizwe Shembe became the heir of his estate.

When Vimbeni took the eKuphakameni faction to court in 2003, another faction broke away in support of the view that leadership must go back to Nkanyezi’s heir, Sizwe Shembe.

“In 2007, Sizwe intervened in the conflict between eKuphakameni and eBuhleni on the grounds that as the rightful heir to JG’s estate, including the church, he was the one supposed to be the leader of the church.

“We went to court and in 2009 Inkosi Sizwe was declared a legitimate titular head of the church. Unfortunately, it was discovered that a mistake was committed in the wording of the court order.”

The eBuhleni faction challenged the order on those grounds on December 10 last year, and there was an agreement that all pending Shembe leadership cases needed to be consolidated and declaration of the leader be made after presentations from all factions.

Implications of the outcome

Once the judgment has been made, the losing parties are expected to stop using all the symbols of the church in their services. Hymns, service books, church uniforms and other symbols will belong solely to the faction of the person who will be declared the titular head of this big church.


THE story of the Nazareth Baptist Church began many years before Prophet Isaiah was born. It started with his grandfather, Mzazela kaSokhabuzela, who was a great traditional healer of the time, using traditional medicines.

Mzazela was sleeping when God told him that he had to leave the Babanango area and relocate further south because in the area where he was living with his family, God was going to raise a powerful king in the house of King Jama, King Senzangakhona’s father (obviously King Shaka).

Mzazela left when he got news that Senzangakhona, the reigning king of the time, was going to assassinate him because Mzazela was being accorded the kind of respect that was only for a king.

About three generations later, God spoke to Sitheya, Prophet Isaiah’s mother, breaking the news that she was going to give birth to a son that God was going to use to stop black people from straying from his way.

Prophet Isaiah was born. According to Shembe lore, God told him to look for a mountain called Nhlangakazi in Natal where he promised to meet him in a flash.

God issued him with the founding principles of the church and gave him unprecedented powers to heal and communicate with the universe and spiritual beings.

The second leader of the church

WHEN Prophet Isaiah was looking after his father’s cattle, God revealed to him that he was going to have three wives. With the second wife he would father a son whom God was going to work with. That son was Inkosi Johannes Galilee Shembe, known as JG. He took over from the prophet from 1935 to 1976. JG played a pivotal role in “modernising” the church by doing things like writing more hymns on top of those composed by his father, taking the church to neighbouring countries and writing the constitution for the church.

The church

• The Nazareth Baptist Church or the Shembe Church was founded in 1910.

• It has approximately four million members.

• The religion bans smoking, drinking, and fornicating.

• It is seen as a mixture of Zulu tradition and Christianity. It reveres Isaiah Shembe as an African messiah and emphasises the Ten Commandments.

• The Shembe begin each year with a pilgrimage to Nhlangakazi, on the first Sunday of the New Year. They also hold a month-long celebration in Judea near Eshowe every year in October, where up to 25 000 members gather to receive the blessings of Shembe.

— Source: Wikipedia.com

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