‘Poor peo­ple will do any­thing for a mir­a­cle’

CityPress - - News - ZINHLE MAPUMULO zinhle.mapumulo@city­press.co.za

Des­per­a­tion for divine heal­ing and mir­a­cles is driv­ing South Africans to en­gage in harm­ful re­li­gious prac­tices. Ex­perts are also cit­ing poor self-es­teem and a lack of so­cial sup­port. In­ci­dents of con­gre­gants vol­un­tar­ily eat­ing snakes and drink­ing petrol in the be­lief that they’d be cured have dom­i­nated head­lines in the coun­try in the past 12 months, forc­ing chap­ter 9 in­sti­tu­tions to in­ves­ti­gate the in­ci­dents and the church lead­ers con­cerned.

Seleme Me­lato, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist based in Jo­han­nes­burg, says: “Churches that prac­tise these ac­tiv­i­ties are pop­u­lar among the poor. They seem able to con­vince church­go­ers to re­gard the church as a source of so­cioe­mo­tional sup­port, as well as a pro­tec­tor of those who are in need of de­liv­er­ance.”

Me­lato says there is more that drives peo­ple to risk their lives than just des­per­a­tion for divine mir­a­cles. The rea­sons some peo­ple have such ex­treme be­liefs in­clude men­tal disor­ders such as schizophre­nia, as well as stress and de­pres­sion caused by poor self-es­teem and lack of so­cial sup­port.

The use of snakes and petrol, which the con­gre­gants are en­cour­aged to con­sume, is seen as a process of help­ing the mem­bers achieve mean­ing­ful lives, self-es­teem and a sense of con­trol, she says.

“The poor will al­ways strive to im­prove their lives spir­i­tu­ally, phys­i­o­log­i­cally or ma­te­ri­ally. If there is a pas­tor out there who is said to per­form mir­a­cles that im­prove peo­ple’s lives with un­usual and even dan­ger­ous meth­ods, the ones who are most vul­ner­a­ble will join such a church.”

Me­lato says peo­ple’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity is be­ing used to con­vince church­go­ers to eat snakes and grass, drink petrol and al­low them­selves to be driven over by cars, among other harm­ful ac­tiv­i­ties.

Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, who chairs the Com­mis­sion for the Pro­mo­tion and Pro­tec­tion of the Rights of Cultural, Re­li­gious and Lin­guis­tic Com­mu­ni­ties, says what has hap­pened in re­cent months stems from sheer des­per­a­tion.

“What other ex­pla­na­tion is there for a sane per­son to drink petrol and eat rats and snakes, all be­cause a pas­tor or prophet in­structed them to do so?

“It’s clear that our peo­ple are des­per­ate for mir­a­cles, and they will do what­ever they are told, hop­ing that God will pro­vide in­stant in­ter­ven­tion in their lives,” Mkhwanazi-Xaluva says.

She agrees with Me­lato that the dif­fi­cult so­cioe­co­nomic sit­u­a­tion many South Africans face is largely the rea­son for peo­ple hav­ing re­sorted to en­gag­ing in these harm­ful prac­tices – they will try any­thing to im­prove their lives.

“It is about find­ing a so­lu­tion to their prob­lems, and this vul­ner­a­bil­ity is what al­lows them to be drawn to un­scrupu­lous pas­tors or prophets,” she says.

De­spite warn­ings from the com­mis­sion, con­gre­gants con­tinue to flock to such churches, and even de­fend the pas­tors against crit­i­cism and pub­lic con­dem­na­tion.

Pas­tor Le­sego Daniel of Rab­boni Cen­tre Min­istries in Ga-Rankuwa, Gaut­eng, is a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple of what Mkhwanazi-Xaluva is talk­ing about. He made head­lines in Jan­uary 2014 when he en­cour­aged his church mem­bers to eat grass, say­ing it would cleanse their sins and that it had heal­ing pow­ers.

Eight months later, a video of him sur­faced in which he was en­cour­ag­ing con­gre­gants to drink petrol.

Me­lato says some re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions – pre­vi­ously known as cults, but re­cently called new re­li­gious move­ments – are ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing a con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment within which peo­ple can “at­tain a cer­tain level of al­tered states of con­scious­ness”. These states of­ten cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment for the prac­tice of ex­treme acts such as glos­so­lalia, which is speak­ing in tongues, as prac­tised by Pen­te­costal and charis­matic Chris­tian churches.

“The use of petrol can lead to bod­ily re­ac­tions such as con­vul­sions and drowsi­ness, but, most im­por­tantly, it may cause delu­sions,” she said.

This may con­firm to church­go­ers that the petrol is not poi­sonous, but rather “a divine process of see­ing and hear­ing the Lord talk­ing to them”.

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