South African Village, Fearing AIDS, Trusts God More Than Drugs

HLABISA, South Africa, Aug. 7 — A shimmering blue Mercedes-Benz carries the holy man toward the sickly flock that is awaiting deliverance. The faithful believe that he is a prophet, a savior, a man of miracles who can stop the plague that is killing this poor, rural village.

"God has sent the healer!" the women sing in his ramshackle church, where the sunlight glints between the wooden planks in the roof.

He is the Rev. Solomon Mahlangu, a former driving instructor who wears French suits, leather shoes and an air of prosperity that is as intoxicating as fine cologne. He claims that his healing hands have pulled the rains from cloudless skies, exorcised wayward spirits and, most important, cured dozens of people suffering from AIDS.

"They say it is impossible; but to God nothing is impossible," Mr. Mahlangu, 40, said one day this week as he settled into the church he built last year. "When I am facing an impossible situation like AIDS, I can feel the power of God coming on me and I know this person will be healed. I've been thinking about advertising what God is doing. There are extraordinary things that God is doing here."

In this community, where about 35 percent of adults are believed to be infected with the AIDS virus, he needs no advertisements.

When Thembalihle Xulu, 29, stood before the congregation last year and announced that Mr. Mahlangu had cured him of AIDS, the news spread like wildfire. Some called Mr. Mahlangu a swindler for promising miracles for money. That has not stopped the sick from flocking to God's Plan Church, which he created. Today, scores of people give their trust and their pennies to a man who promises to do what the government is still struggling to do: help this community cope with its deadly scourge.

South Africa has more people infected with H.I.V. than any other nation, and a furious debate is raging here over whether the government should provide the poor with the lifesaving AIDS medicines commonly prescribed in the West. Advocates for AIDS patients say officials have a moral obligation to provide the drugs. Officials, on the other hand, question the cost and the safety of the medicines.

The debate seems meaningless to many in this remote village, where goats and barefoot children skitter through the dust and dozens of promising young people are buried before they reach 30. Here, where clinics run short of even the most basic medicines, it is easier to believe in a miracle worker than in the possibility that the government might provide AIDS drugs.

With so many people dying and with no solutions in sight, many ordinary people are thankful that Mr. Mahlangu has come to town. He says he left his job as a driving instructor in Johannesburg when God told him to heal the poor.

"He's bringing miracles; he's saving the community," insisted Rose Zungu, 33, her brown eyes luminous with hope. "God is greater than pills. God is greater than the condom."

Mrs. Zungu's husband is infected with H.I.V. They cannot afford AIDS drugs, and before the pastor moved to town she worried about how to cope. Now she has an answer: She prays at least three times a day. She tested negative for H.I.V. last year, and AIDS counselors have begged her to protect herself, but she refuses.

Mr. Mahlangu says prayer is the best protection and Mrs. Zungu, a typist, agrees. "There are miracles happening here now," said Mrs. Zungu, who says her husband has gained weight since he began attending the church. "That pastor, there's not another like him in the world."

Ellen Dube, the overworked AIDS counselor at Hlabisa Hospital, remains unconvinced. She contends that the preacher is a charlatan who is using the AIDS epidemic to get rich. She begs her clients to continue to use condoms, telling them that God would not have created condoms if he did not want people to use them. But some of her clients refuse to listen, and some have already died.

These days, Mrs. Dube watches Mrs. Zungu anxiously, looking for symptoms. She shakes her head with rage and frustration when she considers that this woman, who could have protected herself, might be needlessly infected. "H.I.V.-positive people who have supported him, they are dying now," Mrs. Dube said, referring to Mr. Mahlangu. "He says that by praying they are going to survive, but they are just dying."

Mr. Mahlangu acknowledges that some of his parishioners have died, but he says it is because they sought advice from traditional healers and ancestors, which made God angry. Those who have remained true to God are living healthy lives, he contends. At his evening services, his followers clap, dance and call to the heavens. Among the poor people here with tattered trousers, there are also professionals — teachers, nurses and businessmen — whose faith in modern medicine has been eroded by the AIDS epidemic.

"He is very powerful," said Joyce Masondo, a nurse at Hlabisa Hospital and member of God's Plan. "People are coming because he is healing in this church. They can see wonders in this church."

Mr. Mahlangu says the wonders will multiply. He has already enlarged his church three times in the past year to accommodate his growing flock. He dreams of building a grand auditorium someday in this dusty village. He dismisses his critics, saying he is offering people infected with H.I.V. something the naysayers cannot: Hope.

"Some people say I'm making money because I'm driving a Mercedes," said Mr. Mahlangu, who insists that he collects money only during Sunday services. "You get people pointing fingers and saying my powers come from the devil, but I keep on going on. What matters to me is that the people are still flocking in. I'm making a difference."