Pentecostal promise and a South African dream deferred

Public anxiety grows over “prosperity preachers” who have dominated the religious landscape in South Africa and across the continent.

Image credit Babak Fakhamzadeh via Flickr CC.

The church had no outward sign to indicate it was a place of worship. As I drove up on a hot summer afternoon, the only thing guiding me was a set of GPS coordinates the pastor had sent me ahead of time. I had traveled from Johannesburg to one of the city’s outlying townships, marginal lands settled under apartheid to house black urban laborers that remain de facto segregated today. After greeting me and sharing a cup of tea in the unadorned chapel erected adjacent to his home, Pastor Mabuza told me of the challenges facing young people trying to grow up in a broken community: poverty, alcoholism, and a lack of social support that the years of post-apartheid governance has failed to reverse. However, what preoccupied him on a daily basis as he preached in the township—not far from where he grew up—was a frightful specter I came to hear described to me again and again: the “prosperity gospel.” He insisted that these prevailing Pentecostal or charismatic leaders around him, influenced by heretical teachings from abroad, were engaging in “false preaching” by manipulating Old Testament passages to promise their followers material riches on earth if they are faithful and loyal enough. Their churches may have been much flashier than his modest setup, but they harbored dangers behind a shiny facade.

Indeed, my time with Christians in South Africa was punctuated with whispers of likewise sinister threats about nefarious characters who take advantage of people’s often-desperate search for deliverance. The arrest of Prophet Shepherd Bushiri, the Malawian head of a South African charismatic church, on fraud charges in 2019 ignited public anxiety over the ethics and legitimacy of these preachers, who have dominated the religious landscape not just in South Africa but across the continent. Even when the bona fides of these pastors are not directly in question, secular media cast suspicion at the devotional fervor people exhibit toward them, as when three of Bushiri’s followers died in a stampede at one of his services. As Pastor Mabuza argued, blind devotion to charismatic figures misguided South Africans to ingest harmful substances like Doom, a popular pesticide, in a parallel to American snake handling or poison-taking, itself an expression of Pentecostalism across the Atlantic. Stories of pastors who abuse the trust placed in them mingle with fears of “cultish” worship of powerful men and women.

Placed in a broader context, it is not long before these worldly concerns meld into those of a supernatural order: rumors of occult powers and potent witchcraft brought in from afar. Who in South Africa has not seen advertisements for an exceptionally powerful sangoma or healer visiting from up north? Why do people in Africa—across cultural difference and the color bar—reach out to new avenues through which to access hidden possibilities? Black and white South Africans I spoke to, including both professed Christians and non-Christians, recounted fears of witchcraft entering the country from outside its borders at the same time as they expressed fascination with the powers these spiritual forces might conjure. Although at times voiced by different people, these widespread concerns move between material exploitation and otherworldly danger, perhaps blurring the lines between them.

The meteoric rise of Pentecostal Christianity around the globe, including in Africa, has motivated social scientists to put forward various models to make sense of it. Whether seen as a political critique of existing modes of capitalist distribution, a resonance with existing materialist practices that mix African traditions and Abrahamic frameworks, or a way to cope with the exigencies of urban life, these popular and relatively ecstatic forms of religious practice can be approached through their ability to speak to deep-seated socio-historical phenomena. Just as Pentecostalism and witchcraft have received such close scrutiny, so too should those—like Pastor Mabuza—who position themselves against the charismatics be understood as participating in a broader socio-political network. What are these Christians saying that reflects the conditions of living in contemporary South Africa, and perhaps the world?

In short, they, like their Pentecostal counterparts, are figuring out how to confront widespread suffering. Despite socially and theologically divergent responses to the problem, Pentecostals and non-charismatic Christians agree that all is not well in South Africa. Things have not been going right for some time, and something (or someone) is to blame, not necessarily in the sense of a scapegoat, but there is a need to explain why what liberation promised in the 1990s has not materialized. Take Pastor Mabuza’s concerns with prosperity preachers in the township. Although his criticism might be read as disdain for “improper” forms of Christianity or (more cynically) as hostility toward his competitors on the religious landscape, it also constitutes an answer to the age-old question of theodicy: from a Christian perspective, how to explain why an omnipotent and benevolent God allows bad things to happen.

For Mabuza, preaching focused on material prosperity ignores the true biblical message of spiritual salvation and, as a sinful misreading, deceives people into the false hope of escaping poverty. Yet his theodicy is not an abstract, universal theodicy, but one emerging from and inextricably bound to a place and time. With the rise of disaffection with the results of post-
apartheid reconciliation, anxieties about crime and social disorder, and a resulting pervasive suspicion, it is little wonder that South Africans target not only the demons and witches who terrorize worshippers, but also the charismatic leaders themselves, who are imagined to extract value in the form of tithes and empty promises. No one is safe from scrutiny, but that’s the point.

In the words of Langston Hughes, a “dream deferred” might “dry up like a raisin in the sun,” or perhaps it “sags like a heavy load.” The poet at last asks, “Or does it explode?” For South Africans 25 years after the supposed transition to democracy, the dream of a racially just nation has certainly been “deferred,” if not precluded entirely. Economic prosperity continues to accrue only to a sliver of the population, while the majority face increasing demands of poverty, joblessness, and a lack of societal transformation. In some ways, this story echoes contemporary conditions of societal angst not exclusive to this setting. Caught in a web of barriers to living the “good life,” South Africans turn, as do people the world over, to spiritual promises of deliverance in the absence of political or earthly ones, even if those supernatural promises turn out to be empty at times. It is unclear what the detritus of the “explosion” of a dream deferred might look like in a post-apartheid context, but religious critics, such as Pastor Mabuza, remind us that debates over religious orthodoxy—far from existing in their own hermetically sealed, esoteric domain—can be a marker of much deeper social discontent than they may otherwise appear.

Further Reading