Preacherman Makandiwa's troubles raise troubling questions about a Zimbabwean herd mentality

Aug 13, 2011

A prominent, popular Zimbabwean evangelist has been caught up in a controversy in which he is accused of offering a telecommunications-related service that an entrepreneur says was really his idea, and that the regulatory authority says the pastor has no legal authority to offer. However, the most uncomfortable questions about the saga may have nothing to do with these technical aspects, but with how the 'man of god' achieved his prominence, and what it might say about the state of Zimbabwean society.Emmanuel Makandiwa, 32, apparently began making religious waves as a member of one of Zimbabwe's many and increasing number of 'indigenous churches' (as opposed to the older Europe/US-derived denominations), the Apostolic Faith Mission. As often happens, the more prominent he became as a pastor in the well-established AFM, the more conflicts arose over his position and influence. He was apparently eventually expelled sometime in 2010, essentially for being too big for his boots.

It seems that being freed from the strictures of that church worked out well for Makandiwa, who went on to form his own church, United Family Interdenominational. By all accounts, people not quite satisfied with what they were getting from other churches flocked to Makandiwa's in astonishing numbers. An oft-cited statistic is how he recently drew 60,000 worshipers to a service at Zimbabwe's biggest stadium, no small feat in a country of around 13 million people.

He got a reputation for out-doing other preachers in performing 'miracles' and making 'prophesies.' This is quite an achievement in a country where it sometimes seems the number of people claiming to be religious miracle workers is a thousand times the number of problems the nation faces. Clearly Makandiwa had something up his sleeve to convince many people that he was a preacher man with a difference.

Religion can be a very good business in Zimbabwe, even amidst a recession for most other more mundane types of businesses. The more numerous and fervent the followers you have, the more miracles begin to take place with your bank account. Offerings from the faithful hoping to be rewarded (whether by God or by the preacher man or woman is not always clear) fall like manna from heaven. A a shrewd churchman can then diversify into many other lucrative worldly business sectors.

And so Mr. Makandiwa was in short order said to have become a property tycoon, to have a car sales operation and so on. Along with the material rewards of his special 'anointing' came the favor of many of the rich and powerful of society. Life became very good indeed for Mr. Makandiwa. He was on a roll.

At some point Makandiwa was promoted, or promoted himself, from being just a plain old preacher man to being an 'apostle.' It is not clear how this came about but if one asks too many questions, it must be because one is an unbeliever; get thee behind me Satan! Zimbabweans are generally polite, trusting people, especially on matters to do with religion, so it was mostly generally accepted that Makandiwa be referred to as 'apostle.'

And so it came to pass that Apostle Makandiwa claimed to have come up with what he called a 'spiritual link card,' for his followers to be blessed with SMS cellphone messages from him. The details are a little complicated, but basically you could buy scratch cards of fixed dollar denominations that would get you a certain number of recorded messages from Makandiwa.

The experience of other similar religious movements in many other countries suggests that at a certain level of growth, everything that the specially 'anointed' preacher man and his movement touch turns to gold. That's how it initially seemed things were going to work with Makandiwa's SMS scratch cards, which many of the faithful apparently eagerly looked forward to purchasing. It looked like another easy money generator for the apostle; a step towards fulfillment of the prosperity gospel he preaches.

No story of a prominent, rising holy man is complete without the devil trying to trip him up. That's exactly what happened to our intrepid young apostle. Seemingly from nowhere, somebody came forward to claim that it was he who had sold the idea of the branded scratch cards to Makandiwa, offering a collaboration between them. He accused the apostle of then stealing his idea, only changing the name and a few details. He sued the preacher man, asking him to quit his hijacking of a business proposal he had offered the apostle trustingly and in good faith.

The government telecommunications authority then weighed in, saying Makandiwa did not have the required license to offer such a service. It was pointed out by observers that he could not offer the service without the cooperation of the country's three cellphone network companies, but they all denied any knowledge of the pastor's scheme. Makandiwa added to the mystery and growing questions by refusing to provide answers.

Then tongues really started to wag when in the middle of all this furore Makandiwa and family suddenly, quietly left the country! Had he run away and if so, why? What was he afraid of, what did he have to hide?

No, no said a spokesman on behalf of the great man: He was just tired and went on vacation 'to meet his spiritual father who resides overseas.' It wasn't said whether the spiritual father was of the earthly or heavenly kind, or whether 'overseas' was meant in a merely geographic sense, or in a deeper, more other-worldly meaning.

Had Makandiwa perhaps 'miraculously' gone on a brief visit to visit his father in heaven, or was it merely a more mundane trip to another earthly country? The ambiguous nature of the spokesman's words made it impossible to tell. Anyway, for now the holy man must be given the presumption of innocence on the charges laid against him, so it may be a little inappropriate to be too probing. All would be cleared up in a few weeks, Makandiwa's spokesman insisted. .

For the faithful this was sufficient assurance that there was no fire behind the smoke being raised. However, for the growing number of skeptics, all this confusion seemed to confirm their suspicion that Makandiwa was just the latest of a long line of Zimbabwean snake oil salesmen who come up every few years before disappearing into ignominy.

When the entrepreneur who claims Makandiwa cheated him went to the High Court to ask it to hear his petition as an urgent matter, the court ruled that it was not urgent, giving Makandiwa more time to work out his defense, eagerly awaited by religionists and heathens alike. In expressing satisfaction with the court's ruling, Makandiwa's lawyer said, “We are happy. I think it was frivolous for them to approach the courts. They should stop bothering the man of God. However, they are free to negotiate with us but the concept of the cards was my client’s.”

A certain heathen immediately became suspicious of this odd statement. What was there for the 'man of God' to 'negotiate' with any one if the suit was frivolous and the concept of the card was indeed his?!

The technical and legal aspects of this saga will be decided by the relevant authorities. For the faithful, Makandiwa is a miracle worker par excellence who walks on water, at least for now.

Freedom of religious choice and of worship are taken very seriously in Zimbabwe. At least on the surface and by appearances, rituals and Bible-quoting, it is a very religious society, although whether that means anything in practical terms depends on the observer's point of view.

The right of Makandiwa's fans to believe anything they want to about him is not in question. Even if he is ruled to have stolen another man's business innovation, the nature of movements like his is such that many of his followers will find a way to explain it in their hero's favor. It would take a transgression much more serious than this to turn a significant portion of his following away. So however this immediate issue turns out, his hold on his religious empire is likely secure for the foreseeable future.

But here is the thing: Is there not something scary about a society that seems so eager to be led without questioning; to follow someone on thin grounds and to easily suspend a healthy skepticism; to so quickly believe in messiahs offering seemingly easy, 'miraculous' answers to complicated questions and situations?

Is this the picture of a society that is merely God-fearing in a way that can be considered hopeful and healthy? Or are these signs of a gullible society that makes itself easy to be taken advantage of, and therefore to be easily ruled by oppressive demagogues, or led astray by charismatic charlattans?

Which is it?

The Zimbabwe Review

2 comments: said...


Anonymous said...

be very careful wn dealing wth pple who on the surface r proving 2 b mighty men of God o/wyz f u touch the annointed ones of God u may b unfortunate

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