Religious groups. Cults by any other name

In a land of crippling inequality and crime, people look to charismatic leaders to sell them the promise of prosperity and paradise. South Africa is ripe for the taking. It is no surprise that these leaders can be found housed in inner cities where the new-age church is the only source of joy on a dirty, dingy street.

I started thinking of these kinds of churches when I saw some footage of Tim Omotoso, a Nigerian charismatic pastor who operates in South Africa, where, at the end of a sermon, the self-proclaimed prophet and his entourage make their way to a German car as the large crowd of congregants literally throw themselves at him. Even as he closes the car door, others kneel at the wheels to get a chance to touch him, and many cling to the vehicle as it speeds away on a crowded Durban street.

Pastor Tim Omotoso

“This is a cult,” I thought, amid all the chaos and extreme show of blind devotion. How far does this supposed devotion go? When news broke in early 2017 that Omotoso had been accused of kidnapping and the sexual assault of young female congregants, Hawks and Home Affairs employees who are members of his church allegedly tried to assist him avoid arrest.

One congregant said she was pained by the arrest and accusations. Another accused the alleged victims of lying about “Daddy”, a term of endearment for the leader.  

Then there is “Dr.” HQ Nala. I was told I live under a rock for not knowing about him, but he is evidently a self-proclaimed king who has openly denounced Christianity in favour of his own Jesus-flavoured religion that embraces polygamy.

He registered on my bullshit detector when I learned of his HIV-curing holy water sold at a premium price per bottle. I actually met the man when he came to a television station where I worked, accompanied by an entourage of bodyguards and servants who carried his heavy iPad for him.

I saw the charm attributed to many a cult leader swallow my colleagues at the TV station: friends scrambled to catch a glimpse of this new-age messiah clad in a shiny suit of his own unique style. The whole time I had thought they adored the man ironically, but I later found out I was wrong; even people outside his church (kingdom?) believe in his powers and divinity.

That includes the Umzimkhulu Municipal Council, it seems. Nala’s church posted a video of him receiving a royal welcome during a council sitting, complete with a standing ovation and praise-singing by councillors as he made his way to a white throne situated opposite the corridor, all king-like. Servants brought him his water and iPad, kneeling next to him, for Christ’s sake!

I have no idea what business he has with the Umzimkhulu Municipality but clearly his cult-leader charm has many in its grip.

So, is it fair to call such churches cults? Is it just a negative connotation I and others have because we find some of their practices harmful? Are they really harmful, or do I just disagree with these practices because I’m an atheist who hates personality praise?

These are just some of the questions that Dr Stephan Pretorius, of the University of South Africa, also raises in an article published in the Dutch Reformed Theological Journal. He warns against over-generalising what we call a “cult”, and that the label does not always have to be a negative one. The term cult can actually just refer to religious defectors who start their own church in protest of the teachings of another, or it can be a term incorrectly  thrown around to describe groups most of us consider weird.

He conducted a study in the Journal of HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, where he interviewed former members of rural and urban cults across the country. Preferring to call them “alternative religious groups”, Dr Pretorius writes that people are drawn to these movements because of the love they get from other members, among other benefits. Attractive is also the authoritative charismatic leader who easily convinces them to join.

In the same study, Pretorius notes that members of some alternative religious groups felt their churches did not have a positive impact on their lives, and that in fact, they struggled to “adapt to society and other religious groups after leaving the group”.

Cults or not, such churches have captured the hearts and minds of many poor and vulnerable people all over South Africa. They are convinced they’ve found their saviour, but I’m not so sure.

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