PHOTO FEATURE: Shembe descend on holy mountain in KZN for annual pilgrimage

2019-01-20 10:13
A group of young girls known as makhosazane sit on the top of the Khenana mountain awaiting a sermon by their leader Mduduzi Shembe.

A group of young girls known as makhosazane sit on the top of the Khenana mountain awaiting a sermon by their leader Mduduzi Shembe. (Chante Schatz)

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A sea of singing Shembe worshippers, clad in white, ascended the holy mountain of Khenana, north of Durban, earlier this month as part of their month-long pilgrimage for 2019.

The green hills quickly became dampened with mist as men, women and young girls from the Nazareth Baptist Church walked barefoot up the mountain last week Wednesday.

There, they received a sermon of unity.

It is believed that the church's founder, known as Isaiah Shembe, initiated this pilgrimage in 1911 after receiving a call from God to walk to the top of the Nhlangakazi mountain.

Since then, the church has become home to more than a million followers who embark on this journey on the first Sunday of the new year.


Shembe men known as 'nhlalusuthi' ascend up the Khenana mountain during their month long holy pilgrimage. Picture: Chante Schatz

High Court judgment

While the pilgrimage appears harmonious, the church has been plagued by factionalism and battles for leadership. 

When former leader Vimbeni Shembe died in March 2011, his son Mduduzi and cousin Vela Shembe both claimed to be the church's rightful heirs.

At Vimbeni's funeral in April 2011, two separate announcements were made regarding who would succeed him.

In one, his lawyer Zwelabantu Buthelezi said that, according to the deed of nomination that Vimbeni had prepared before his death, Vela should be the successor.

However, Vimbeni's childhood friend, Inkosi Mqoqi Ngcobo, announced that Mduduzi was the rightful leader.

They could not settle the dispute themselves and approached the KwaZulu-Natal High Court in Durban.

In October 2016, the court found in favour of Vela. In a twist of fate, Vela died a short year later and was succeeded by his brother, Phinda Shembe.

Mduduzi's Ebuhleni conducts their pilgrimage at Khenana mountain, away from Phinda's Thembizinhle group, which follows the original route up the Nhlangakazi mountainside.


Shembe church women known as 'ngudlungudlu' walk up Khenana in a single file ahead of church proceedings. Picture: Chante Schatz

Still, Khenana has become a holy ground in its own right. Thousands of worshippers have continued the tradition for almost a decade since the church split in two.


A group of 'nhlalusuthi' stand and sing after leader Mduduzi Shembe gave his sermon on top of Khenana holy ground. Picture: Chante Schatz

A holy sight

These worshippers walk about 80km every year, setting up camp at the base of Khenana. There, they spend a month barefoot and dressed in white as their first prophet Isaiah once did.

During that month, they take multiple trips to Khenana's peak where they receive a sermon from Mduduzi.

On the Wednesday morning News24 visited the mountain, women known as ntethelelo and ngudlungudle, walked in single file as they quietly sang under their breath. The men (nhlalisuthi) walked alongside them, humming. 


Three young makhosazane Shembe girls smile curiously as they await leader Mduduzi's sermon. Picture: Chante Schatz

As a time of quiet singing passed, worshippers propped themselves in a kneeling position in respect for the arrival of their leader, Mduduzi, and began to worship as he prepared to deliver his sermon for the day.

The message of unity preached on the top of the holy mountain reminded worshippers that, despite the factions, they remained devout followers.

The pilgrimage has existed for more than a century.


A group of young girls known as makhosazane sit on the top of the Khenana holy mountain in KZN. Picture: Chante Schatz

Read more on:    durban  |  religion  |  good news

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