100 000 Shembe followers celebrate church’s centenary

Johannesburg, South Africa - More than 100 000 people snake around the hill in a press of bodies stretching back over 10km accompanied by the blare of horns and the beat of drums, their telltale white smocks faraway dots in the hot midday sun.

The Shembe have returned to the holy mountain of Nhlangakazi for the 100th time in as many years, their voices lifted in song and their brows covered in sweat.

The ritual is fast becoming a fixture on the KwaZulu-Natal tourism circuit. But for members of this devout sect of the charismatic ama- Nazarene religion, it is nothing less than a reaffirmation of their faith and a covenant with God.

In October, more than 20 000 Shembe flock to the village of Judea near Eshowe to receive the blessings of their charismatic prophet and perform traditional prayer dances.

But the pomp and splendour of this ceremony is overshadowed by the yearly pilgrimage to the sacred Ekuphakameni, the “Place of Spiritual Upliftment” near Inanda and the ascent of Nhlangakazi, about 30km to the north.

In mid-January, the faithful trek about 80km from their Ebhohleni church headquarters to the mountain as they have done since 1910.

The three-day pilgrimage re-enacts Isaiah Shembe’s journey to Nhlangakazi where believers say God told him to start the church.

The Shembe draw parallels between this event and God’s revelations to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Their beliefs are founded on a fervent belief in some books of the Old Testament, liberally sprinkled with the colour and rich texture of African tradition and culture.

Church leaders say: “In 1910, God sent his word to Natal and word spread through the African kingdoms that someone was coming to save Africa. All nations have their prophets, but this was an African prophet for the African people. The prophet met his God on top of the mountain and God put His word in his mouth.”

The narrative seems to resonate with a large cross-section of South Africans – the Shembe now count their membership in the millions.

The group has found fertile soil in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng and some Metrorail coaches between Johannesburg and Pretoria double as informal Shembe churches on the commute. It is also growing among Nguni-speaking people in Swazi-land, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Part of the appeal seems to be the Shembe’s deep respect for ritual and the departed ancestors that turns their events into a visual feast.

A local says: “The Shembe honour their ancestors and traditional culture, but also believe in the Holy Bible and in miracle healing … in baptism by immersion and honouring the Shabat and fasting before Holy Communion. Drinking liquor or smoking is frowned upon.”

Every year barefooted Shembe of all ages set out for Nhlangakazi. Along the way, they stop to weave the Inkatha grass crowns that are worn with a stone on top to symbolise their covenant with God. The crowns of the leader and those representing former leaders are laid down at the kraal to the holy mountain before the Shembe ascend.

Worshippers place sacred impepho mountain flowers on a huge pile which are set alight. In African traditional culture, the burning of impepho is said to assist in communion with the ancestors.

The Shembe Nazareth Baptist Church has continued to grow but internal divisions are now its biggest obstacle. It split into factions after its founder’s death in 1936 and has been involved in a bitter leadership dispute for more than 20 years.