By Pumza Fihlani*
There is clapping, dancing, jumping up and down as he makes his way into the hall, flanked by bodyguards.
Such is the excitement that a few of the congregants – some of whom have been waiting patiently for five hours to catch a glimpse of the man – collapse.
But why wouldn’t you? After all, this is a man who says he has cured people of HIV, made the blind see, changed the fortunes of the impoverished and, on at least one occasion, appeared to walk on air.
Prophet Shepherd Bushiri has come a long way from his upbringing in Mzuzu, a city in northern Malawi.
Nowadays, he can fill sports stadiums with tens of thousands of his devoted followers – followers who are prepared to travel across the world to see him preach in person.
He has regular visitors from the US, the UK and even Asia – today their flags fly proudly inside the packed church hall at the Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG) Ministries.
I meet the man known as “Major One” in his church complex in the South African capital, Pretoria.
We have been ushered into his sanctuary, which is marked by a red-velvet rope and a red carpet lined by bodyguards on either side.
Healing the lame
The 30-something preacher is well aware of the allegations he is little more than a scam artist, but they are accusations he shrugs off.
“My ministry is not for everyone, it is for those who have faith,” he tells me. “I’m just a messenger of God’s work. God heals people in our meetings.
“One time I got doctors here in Pretoria to bring patients with HIV – they tested them before to show they are HIV, I prayed for them and again afterwards and now they were HIV-negative.”
Who is Shepherd Bushiri?
- Malawi-born “prophet” who now runs churches from Ghana to South Africa
- Reportedly banned from Botswana over “miracle money”
- Claims to have cured people of HIV
- Appeared to walk on air in a video shared widely on social media
- Owns four private jets
Outside the room, his followers agree. They believe he is not only imbued with the power of prophecy, but also to heal the sick and pray for one’s prosperity.
“The miracles and the teachings that our father [Prophet Bushiri] teaches every week are so amazing,” 24-year-old Xolani Msibi tells me.
She said her sister who had trouble walking had been healed by the prophet “without even laying hands on her”.
“I’ve also been struggling to get a job and came here and I got two jobs at the same time and it was a matter of choosing.”
Men and women who proclaim to be able perform miracles are not unique to South Africa or even the continent – they are found in many parts of the world.
These include US-based Israeli church leader Benny Hinn, Grace Copeland and German evangelist Rienhard Bonnke to name a few.
While Christianity has been well-established in Africa for more than a century, many believe the more radical form we see today has some traces to the charismatic movement abroad.
‘Prosperity inspires my followers’
But back to Mr Bushiri. On a regular Sunday, about 40,000 people will gather to hear the Prophet preach, and potentially pick up some of the specially designed merchandise on sale at stalls dotted around the large church complex – anything from “miracle oil”, calendars and wrist bands, to branded towels, T-shirts and caps, all emblazoned with his face.
The vendors tell patrons that all the wares have been prayed over by Mr Bushiri and so have healing powers.
Over the years Mr Bushiri has amassed vast wealth. What about those who question how he has accrued the money?
“Racism,” he tells the BBC.
There is no readily available record of his net worth but he is known to have interests in several mines and owns four private planes and a number of hotels through his investment company Shepherd Bushiri Investments, headquartered in Johannesburg’s plush suburb of Sandton.
Questions over the manner in which his fortune was amassed are not exactly welcomed.
“My success should inspire people to be entrepreneurs,” he says.
“I am a businessman and that is separate from being a prophet. My prosperity is from private businesses. Such questions are not asked from leaders of white churches but when an African man prospers, then it’s a problem.”
Then, slightly agitated, he adds: “How is selling merchandise in my church different to the Catholic church selling a rosary and the UK churches selling the bible? It’s not fair.”