On Sunday 22 March 2020, when Covid-19 infections in South Africa had risen to 274, and the global level reached 300,000 with more than 13,500 deaths, the spotlight turned on religious organisations. There has been growing concern about how religious organisations were going to handle the new restrictions, especially on the limited number of people who are allowed to gather.
A week ago President Cyril Ramaphosa announced stringent measures aimed at capping the spread of the pandemic. In terms of the president’s regulations, gatherings of more than 100 people are prohibited.
“There is no cure for the disease… There is no logic in prohibiting divine intervention… and physicians have failed to find a cure up to now,” said a congregant of the now-defunct Kingdom Prayer Ministry which was owned by Angel Maninoo Nyamekye.
The Ghanaian pastor, popularly known to his followers as Pastor Bazooka, fled after getting bail for the alleged rape of a 15-year-old Soweto girl who died soon after leaving hospital. The church seemed full, but neighbours said that was a fraction of the crowd drawn during the self-proclaimed pastor’s time at the church.
It seems the church also has a new name, Faithful God Ministries.
The church had far more than the 100 people allowed at a single gathering.
At the entrance, a man who appeared to be a security guard said:
“The Lord is what we really need right now. This disease will be defeated only through divine intervention.”
According to one of the guards (who was wearing gloves) posted at Unity Fellowship Church run by Pastor Makhuba, police arrived at the church on Sunday 22 March, but found that the church had complied with the new regulations.
“Look, there is nothing we can do,” said the guard. “We have been turning people away since morning. They were told to access church events, including services on social media. That is as much as could be done.”
He asked not to be named for fear of victimisation.
The church provided congregants with sanitiser and encouraged social distancing. Church agents at the entrance monitored the number of people who entered through the gate.
Members of the central Zion Christian Church (ZCC) in Tshiawelo were defiant. When Daily Maverick popped in on Sunday morning, there were already more than 50 church members inside the church with dozens more walking in and dozens more coming down the street.
“We can catch the virus by talking to you right now, so what’s the point of stopping people from attending church? Only divine intervention will save us from this pandemic,” a ZCC member said.
An elderly lady with her said she was scared of the virus, but the church was connected to her livelihood – she sells spinach to community members. “I’m scared, but what can we do? Church is my way of life, my livelihood. I cannot just be prevented from going to church by some demonic virus,” she said.
Another woman said: “We, in this church, will gather. We have nothing to fear. The rapid spread of the virus is a sign that the virus will only be defeated through divine intervention.”
And another: “Do you drink? Do you smoke? Here is a church,” commented another lady to this reporter, pointing at the huge ZCC church less than a kilometre from President Ramaphosa’s family home in Tshiawelo, Soweto.
“Souls need cleansing more than hands in our current situation… stop encouraging our congregants to abstain from church. Church is their only solution. The government failed… they knew it [the virus] was coming here. Leave us to the Lord. Your science has failed,” another woman said as she walked into the ZCC church.
The pastor at the Reformed Church in Tshiawelo, Aaron Muswubi, told Daily Maverick that church members were continually encouraged to limit the spread of the virus by adhering to the regulations in force.
“We have made available all church resources to ensure that our members practise safe hygiene. We have also cancelled upcoming gatherings such as mass church meetings and other church events and made sure we stick to the regulations, especially with regard to keeping the number below 100,” said the pastor. DM