‘Poor people will do anything for a miracle’
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”.