Religious entrepreneur Emmanuel Makandiwa made a lot of waves in Zimbabwe in 2011. In status-obsessed Zimbabwe, at year end the ‘prosperity gospel’ preacher and purported miracle worker added considerably to his mystique by giving a young couple the wedding gift of a Mercedes Benz car. What are some of the messages of this gesture that had so much of the country talking?
‘Prophet’ Makandiwa seems to hold much of the society, including a media which should be more questioning and circumspect, in his thrall. Whether you are a believer or a skeptic, there is no doubt that Makandiwa has made himself into a social and media phenomenon. Many weary, beaten down Zimbabweans who have been betrayed by the country’s politicians and other ‘leaders’ find the idea of a man who promises to miraculously solve problems somehow attractive and believable.
‘Prophet Makandiwa buys Mercedes Benz E320 as a wedding present’ was a December 2011 Herald headline that grabbed one’s attention. The idea of a middle- range luxury car as a wedding gift in a Zimbabwe where most people struggle to get by from day to day was certainly newsworthy.
The Mercedes Benz may be one prominent emblem of German technological and manufacturing prowess, but it also has the defacto status of National Car of Zimbabwe (perhaps of Africa.)
Owning, or merely being seen in a Mercedes Benz, says in Zimbabwean social parlance that ‘you have arrived.’ Anybody who is really anybody must have a Mercedes Benz. And sometimes, it is more socially impressive to have the trappings of material success than it is to actually accomplish anything. So the politician or company executive who has achieved nothing concrete in particular is more ‘respected’ for the Merc and other prestige trappings of his or her position than they are questioned or disparaged for doing nothing. No one really cares if you ‘earned’ the prestigious trappings, stole or borrowed them. All that matters is that you have them. Those are the unofficial rules of the Harare social prestige game.
So imagine how much more impressive it is when you can afford not just to buy a Mercedes for yourself, but to donate one to someone else as a gift! That is not just a sign of being a BMIT (Big Man in Town), like the top politicians and businessmen. That is a sign of being huge in Harare social terms. It is to take one-upmanship to a dazzlingly new level.
‘‘Popular evangelist Prophet Emmanuel Makandiwa,’’gushed The Herald, “sprang a surprise when he splashed newly-weds Michael Mahendere and Vimbai Nyatsambo with a Mercedes-Benz E320 during the couple's wedding. An ecstatic Vimbai burst into tears of joy as the two lovebirds unlocked the doors of the trendy car and got a feel of it before the cheering crowd.”
"We are humbled by this gesture. It shows how God's hand is working in the United Family International Church and the position that the prophet gives to the Mahendere family," said Amos, brother of the groom.
Michael, Amos and two other brothers compose a well known gospel music group. The paper gives us the brief background that the bride and groom met at the ‘prophet’s’ church, and had been dating for a year before they wed.
Makandiwa, as the chief executive of his religious business, has every right to give whatever gift he wants to give to anybody. However, it gets a little trickier when this gift is examined from the point of view of his being an example and teacher to his many adoring followers.
The very ‘expensiveness’ of a Mercedes Benz is part of why it is a status symbol. While Makandiwa’s gift may serve to make a public statement about his own financial means and social status, it may very well send confusing signals to the impressionable married couple. They instantly got a gift with huge social prestige value, but these are young people just starting their lives. Unless they are already very wealthy and have all the basics young couples often struggle for over many years, an expensive-to-maintain prestige car is one of the very last things they need at this stage.
Did Makandiwa also donate the costs of car insurance, fuel and regular maintenance for some years? If he did, that was even more generous, kind and thoughtful of him, as the young couple is otherwise likely going to really struggle to afford them. It might also be fair to ask if they should be encouraged to spend their money this way at their tender age, even if they could afford the running costs of such a car. In terms of practical life-planning, would it not be more useful to encourage them to get themselves established in their chosen careers first, acquire more important life basics, and then later possibly think about expensive status symbols?
Unless the bride and groom are already persons of great achievement in their respective fields and already used to the trappings of relatively high living, it is possible; even likely, that the prestigious Merc gift they have been landed with could become an albatross around their necks. They are being taught the benefits of social prestige that is bereft of achievement. This has admittedly become a Zimbabwean obsession and social phenomenon (look at the prestige perks of the politicians, and compare that to the state of the country) but one could argue that it is not an example a ‘popular prophet’ of a religious leader should be setting for his followers.
If the married couple are average, struggling working stiffs like most people, and if they had won their Merc in, say, a lottery, they would be well advised to sell the car, buy a far more modest one and use the rest of the money for more important basics, or to invest for their future. But how are you going to sell a car gifted to you by the ‘prophet,’ Executive Chairman, CEO and majority shareholder of your church?! For better or for worse, they are probably stuck with the Benz, even if the ‘prestige’ of owning it impoverishes them.
The young newly weds have every right to be ecstatic about their prestigious gift. It is a clear sign that churchman Makandiwa has a big soft spot for them. The couple will enjoy the considerable buzz, at least for a while, of being so obviously highly favored by the prominent CEO of their church. Some of his current social glow will rub off on them.
Makandiwa’s gesture of generosity to this couple may also invite jealously and dissension amongst the ranks of his followers who are not similarly favored. The big public display of his ‘bigness’ may have sown the seeds of division amongst his flock. One of the things the ‘new churches’ are good at is being able to quote a verse that seems to show biblical precedence for and approval of almost anything. But human nature being what it is, it may well turn out to have been ill-advised for Makandiwa to show such blatant favoritism for one of his followers.
Makandiwa is a peddler of the ‘prosperity gospel’ that so many in Zimbabwe and across Africa obviously find very appealing. His gift example/lesson of naked materialism that is not related to productivity and achievement perhaps serves to entrench the idea of ‘miraculous’ blessings through his intervention. But it arguably also sends a much distorted message to his followers of the means required to attain the trappings of material prosperity that so many seek. Is it to simply be in the good books of the leader of the church, or is to work hard and smart?
Because this method of receiving ‘blessings ’is also inherently unpredictable and unsustainable, there is a real risk of sharply risen expectations from his followers which Makandiwa can not continue to satisfy from his bag of purported miracles. He may be said to be a miracle worker, but it seems highly unlikely that he will be gifting a Mercedes to every couple that marries in his church.
The attention-grabbing gift of a Merc is brilliant self-promotion, and of marketing for Makandiwa’s religious business. He got a lot of associated fawning media coverage (free advertising) and public attention. It would not be surprising if part of the public response to this ‘special end of year Mercedes promotion’ (just like the retail shops do!) was a rise in the number of potential ‘customers’ attending the church. They know they can’t necessarily expect the gift of a Merc, but might not perhaps a fridge, a motorbike or a cellphone come their way, especially if for some months or years they tithe faithfully every time the collection plate is passed? So the Merc gift could also be seen as a type of ‘sales promotion’ for Makandiwa’s church.
Yet the danger is that there will also be dramatically risen expectations of the material ‘anointings’ which the church’s ‘customers’ can expect from their attendance. It is this kind of over-reaching that has brought down many similar religious ventures in places like the United States, the home of much of this kind of very slick but dubious religio-entrepreneurship. At a certain point there becomes a disconnect between the rising numbers of members/customers doing miracles to the church’s bank accounts, and the declining benefits those members perceive to be getting from the enterprise. If the ‘miracles’ people are made to expect from their church are luxury cars and other hard goods, that is clearly a pyramid scheme of expectations that will collapse sooner or later.
Older, more traditional churches that many Zimbabweans seem to increasingly find boring, un-entertaining and unfulfilling generally don’t promise the kind of instant material benefits of many of the new churches. While they don’t have the sex appeal of the new churches, because they generally emphasize spirituality and introspection more than bling and instant material gratification, they also don’t tend to run the same risk of a dramatic crash and burn the new breed of ‘magic’ churches do.
But oh well, even if the Merc falls apart for lack of maintenance, at least the young couple would hopefully have enjoyed it for a while, and after all, they didn’t pay a cent for it. It miraculously dropped on them like manna from heaven, to use a religious metaphor. The donor of the gift, ‘popular prophet’ Makandiwa, has created a huge social, media and marketing buzz by showing what a Big Man in Town he is. He has upped the stakes of what one has to do to show who is who in Harare. Perhaps it is really all just a game at this level, thinly disguised in religious garb.
The deep societal wounds in Zimbabwe have created long-term hurts, fears and phobias which many traumatized, vulnerable people are searching for solutions to and comfort for. As in any situation of a widespread, unmet need, there is always someone promising a quick, definitive, easy ‘solution;’ for a price, of course.
Let’s all bow our heads in prayer as the collection plate is passed around. Dig deep in your pockets, give generously, miracles can’t be free. Your ‘gifts’ will all come back to you several-fold anyway, perhaps next time in the form of a BMW, if you’re especially favored and ‘anointed.’
The country has undergone many kinds of brutalization and the trauma will be generational. It needs healing and recovery, not even more cannibalization by yet more flavors of leaders promising easy milk, honey and luxury goods.
Lord, have mercy on Zimbabwe. Almost all of its leaders have failed it; have proven to be dangerous wolves in sheep’s clothing. Protect it from any new false prophets that may be wandering around in the land; open the eyes of the people for them to see beyond the confusing, misleading gloss slickly packaged as easy ‘miracles.’