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Prophets Of Profit

It’s one of the fastest growing and most controversial businesses in Africa. Many pay millions in the cash-for-prayers-answered game that has fostered a $10-billion investment company.




It was a strange and unsettling experience on a Thursday night; easier to shrink from than describe.

It was Walter Magaya’s first South African crusade at the Pretoria Showgrounds; 54 kilometers from Johannesburg. The crowd sang and danced as the Zimbabwean founder of Prophetic, Healing and Deliverance (PHD) Ministries took the stage.

As we sat, there was a sudden, soul-rattling chill; accompanied by shrieks. A woman ran through the congregation. Speaking in a strange language no one could understand. She sounded like two different people; one male, one female. She lost control.

“Leave me, Leave me!” she screams, as Magaya’s ushers shepherded her to the front of the stage; closer to the charismatic preacher.

In a green shirt and jeans, the woman squirmed on the ground; tearing her hair. Her eyebrows knit as she appeared consumed by rage.

“Leave me alone!” she shrieked; trying to bite the ushers’ gripping hands.

From the stage above booms the voice of Magaya.

“Come out, come out,” he says, attempting to command the demons he believes are in the frantic woman. The woman vomits.

There are 50 more people; screaming, rolling on the ground and vomiting.

This is the theater of the faithful on which the curtain went up with the arrival of Magaya, at OR Tambo, two nights before. Hundreds filled the Johannesburg airport to welcome him. They sang, danced and carried large posters like he was a rock star or politician.

This is more than worship. It’s also a thriving business that’s turning over millions every year. People risk their lives to get close to Magaya. Last year, 11 people died in a stampede during a crusade in Kwekwe in Zimbabwe.

“We have put measures in place to make sure something like that never happens again,” says Magaya.

On this night in Pretoria, people ran to the stage to offer cash for the answer of prayers.

This frantic scene is being played out across Africa. The commercialization of churches is arguably one of the fastest growing businesses in the continent.

Magaya claims to pull 200,000 people every week to his Harare church. Many of the faithful dig deep into torn pockets. Most earn about $350 a month; yet they pay handsomely for this spectacular display of power from above.

Money is scarce in Zimbabwe right now. According to independent Harare-based economist, John Robertson, the total workforce in the formal sector is about 700,000 people; out of a population of 14 million.

“We employed that number in 1968 when the population was one third of its present size. So employment has gone backwards at an alarming rate,” he says.

“Part of our problem is that production workers’ wages are making many of our goods uncompetitive. Wages are lower in China and many other countries, but productivity is higher elsewhere because businesses have been able to keep up with changing technology. Zimbabwean factories have not. So, wages plus productivity are working against us as all imports are now cheaper than local products.”

No matter how hard times are, still they come. Thousands offer money in hope of riches and health. They call it partnerships; giving to receive.

Magaya claims he is a trillionaire in spirit; but is unable to calculate his worth, that could be frowned upon by the scriptures.

“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” so says Matthew 19, verse 23, in the Bible. Magaya believes people should also live comfortably on earth.

“We all want to go to heaven but we all want to stay on earth. No one wants to die now. Before you go to heaven, what about now? [Jesus] was rich yet he became poor for our riches and we should not only focus on one part. We are underutilizing Jesus. He wants you to go to heaven, but he also wants you healthy on earth. He wants you to be happy, married,” he says.

“I don’t see anything wrong with people in ministry living a good life because they represent the largest corporation (Kingdom of God) on the earth.”

It is wealth that began with 45 followers and now has hundreds of thousands who give. His ministry has no board or clear means of regulation. Many, outside the church, question how he maintains his alleged lavish lifestyle. Word is, Magaya makes around $2 million a month.

Critics say churches like Magaya’s exist to boost wallets and egos; without transparency, nor accountability. Magaya counters he is accountable to his financial director.

“I created a team which governs me. My wife has a salary and I have a salary. If I go to [the financial director] and ask for $20,000 to give to someone, they know how God speaks, I have trained them, they will give me that money,” he says.

Magaya says his ministry does not depend on offerings and tithes. It is bankrolled by a multitude that understands, have been healed, or merely want to support – the churches call these donations seed.

“The finance team has pushed a lot for me to have nice things. The people that give money actually think my living standards are low and I should upgrade them. Whenever the church and my financial directors decide to get me things; that’s the only time I get them,” he says.

The Financial Director of PHD Ministries, Nelson Marimo, every inch the accountant, says he makes sure every penny given to the church is banked and accounted for.

“Three people in the ministry, including myself, have access to the account. The prophet has no access to it. He doesn’t have anything to do with the money. It’s our decision what he gets. If he needs anything we advise him correctly about the funds available,” says Marimo.

“We cannot put a price on what he is worth or what he should have. He has done so many things for us and the people.”

Brendon Strauss, the Food Distribution Co-ordinator for the Bryanston Methodist Church in South Africa, says prosperity churches give a bad name to other churches. He says the church is not meant to be run as a business.

“The bible says people should give 10% of whatever God blesses them with to say thank you and that’s all God asks for,” Strauss says.

He says his church helps people in the community without demanding money from the congregation.

“We for example get food from shops and give to the needy in shelters and HIV support groups. We don’t subscribe to selling things in the church. Pastors get stipends for their role and it is enough for them to survive.”

Father Xolani Dlwati of St Monnica’s Anglican Church in Midrand, South Africa, says the most import thing is to help people understand that healing comes from God and churches are just vehicles of healing.

“The challenge is our ignorance where we don’t study the bible and see what the bible says. People need knowledge so they can see if they are being taken for a ride. The grace of God is sufficient for all. You cannot be paying back the priest for blessings God has given you. If you want to give, you can do so voluntarily through giving thanks and not because you are being forced to,” says Dlwathi.

Prosperity preachers sometimes find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Many followers give money for results. A problem arises when the promises are not kept. In Magaya’s words, “When people give money, they partner with the vision [of the ministry]”.

It’s not always that simple. Earlier this year, Magaya was hit with a nearly $2-million lawsuit by a Harare couple who allegedly gave him money and cars to fulfil a prophecy that they would own an airline. The Zimbabwean entrepreneurs, Upenyu and Blessing Mashangwa, behind the lawsuit, allegedly also “seeded” $15,000 towards this prophecy.

Blessing says they came into contact with Magaya when they were selling their eight-bedroom house in the Harare suburbs.

“Magaya requested to see us… about an airline vision he claims he had received from God when he visited the property we were selling. We worship in (UFIC Prophet Emmanuel Makandiwa’s church) and we felt if there was any airline deal then Prophet Makandiwa would tell us, therefore there was no need to meet him and we denied meeting him,” she says.

They eventually sold the house for $450,000 to Magaya.

“At the time we had three offers ranging between $500,000 to $550,000. We sold the house for a lower offer because we felt we were supporting the work of God,” she says.

According to her, Magaya asked them to “seed” for the airline prophecy to come to fruition. The couple seeded a 2014 Land Rover Discovery 4 Limited Edition. Magaya denies this.

So, does Magaya accept gifts from the poor?

“I accept gifts because whoever gives is blessed. If I don’t accept, I will be blocking someone else’s blessings,” he says.

Magaya says that he educates more than 5,000 children each year and passes on 90% of all he receives.

PHD Ministries is not the only church accepting gifts and it can turn ugly.

Zimbabwean single mother, Amanda Tshuma, says she left the Roman Catholic Church in search of miracles. She went to a Pentecostal church in Bulawayo.

“The situation in Zimbabwe is very hard. I was starting a business because I had lost my job. Every Sunday, the pastor would tell us to give money in tithe and offerings and also seed so that God can bless us,” she says.

Because of her search for economic emancipation, Tshuma did what she was told.

“I seeded almost everything I had. I even took the little money I had to start my business and gave to the church.”

After two years of waiting for a miracle, life became unbearable.

“I had debt and couldn’t afford food or a place to stay and I got kicked out,” says Tshuma.

The church, the one place she expected help from, didn’t help.

“The pastor wouldn’t even let me and my children sleep in the church while I thought of a plan. That’s when I saw that he doesn’t care. I left the church and I no longer attend any church because I don’t know who is after my money and who wants to help me go to heaven.”

Tshuma refuses to name the church for fear of retribution.

Like Magaya, many of these preachers are seen to be as much about profit as prophecies. Nigeria’s TB Joshua, Chris Okotie, Matthew Ashimolowo and Chris Oyakhilome live like rock stars and pull large congregations. In South Africa, some pastors have been known to make people eat grass, hair, snakes and drink petrol, all in the name of Jesus.

In the Christian Bible, Jesus turned the money changers out of the temple.

“It is written,” Jesus said to the traders, “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers”.

In the 21st century, money has a home in many churches which sell copies of the sermons, gospel music videos and anointing oil. During Magaya’s crusade in Pretoria, worshippers bought both a DVD and anointing oil for R100 ($7.5).


Like in any business, style and reputation are huge marketing and selling points. This is not just an African thing. In Los Angeles in the United States (US), some pastors flaunt their wealth through a television reality show called Preachers of L.A. These pastors live in mansions, drive expensive cars and wear the latest fashion.

“P. Diddy, JZ, they are not the only ones that should be driving Ferraris and living in large houses,” says Bishop Ron Gibson on the show’s 2013 trailer.

Pastor Jay Haizlip says “the Bible says that those who sow among us should reap from us, that’s implying that preachers should be taken care of.”

“The Bible says I wish above all things that you would prosper and be in health, even as your soul prospers. I believe that,” declares Bishop Clarence McClendon, one of the stars of the show.

Most of those who believe in these charismatic pastors don’t mind coughing up.

“It is our will as congregants to make sure they [pastors] are safe and all their needs are met. The only problem comes when they get richer and forget the poor. The media is only focusing on one side of the story. A lot of good things are happening in the church but no one is reporting about it. Most of them are rich but they take care of the poor. No one sees that,” says one of Magaya’s followers, Panashe Mandebvu.

These fundraising schemes make religion more emotive and controversial. Governments and religious groups in Africa are taking notice. The State is wading into the realm of prayer.

The government-backed Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, in South Africa, recently launched an investigation into the commercialization of religion.

“We are launching an investigative study on the commercialization of religion and the abuse of people’s belief systems in terms of when these institutions are being run, how are they being run, where is their funding going into, who collects how much and what do they do with the money, where does the money eventually go to, what are the governing principles that are there,” says chairperson Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva.

Findings will be released in April.

Magaya’s advice?

“If you feel like someone is eating your money, the best thing is not to give them.”

According to Statistics South Africa, based on their 2001 study, almost 80% of South Africa’s population follows the Christian faith. This means about 80% of the population are inclined to give money towards the Christian churches, steering the debate towards church taxation.

In South Africa, churches are classified under Section 15(1) of the Constitution, one of the most liberal in the world. This means they are registered to provide services without intent to make a profit.

According to the South African Revenue Services (SARS), non-profit organizations take a shared responsibility with government for the social and developmental needs of the country. Preferential tax treatment is designed to nurture non-profit organizations.

“The preferential tax treatment for not for profit organizations is however not automatic and organizations that meet the requirements set out in the Income Tax Act, 1962, must apply for this exemption. If the exemption application has been approved by SARS, the organization is registered as a Public Benefit Organisation (PBO) and allocated a unique PBO reference number,” says SARS on their website.

A 2012 report by The Economist estimated the annual spending by the Vatican and church-owned entities in the US to be around $170 billion. According to FORBES, Catholic Charities USA has annual revenue of $4.39 billion. According to a 2012 University of Tampa study, not taxing churches is costing US government coffers an estimated $71 billion each year.

Steven Friedman, a University of Johannesburg political scientist, who has specialized in the study of democracy, says governments need to be careful when they come up with ways to curb the rise of churches making money.

“Some churches are exploitative but it’s simply not clever people preying on the poor. We need to be careful with the interventions we put in place. Everybody should pay tax but where do you draw the line? How do you put it into law when there are so many different churches,” he says.

“I am not sure there is a solution beyond encouraging people that are being exploited to stop being exploited.”

Magaya counters that churches are neither businesses nor exploiters.

“It is very wrong to tax churches because churches are not being celebrated enough for the job they are doing. They [authorities] must actually look at areas where they can make sure that they celebrate churches,” he says.

In Kenya, the government has had enough of fly-by-night churches. Last year, it issued a ban on the registration of new churches; following a television exposé of a Salvation Healing Ministries pastor, Victor Kanyari, tricking his followers into donating seed money.

Kenya’s Attorney General, Githu Muigai, said in a press conference early this year, it is not the policy of the government of the Republic of Kenya to interfere with the freedom of religion and worship. The government also called for fresh registration of existing churches. The religious bodies were also required to file details of their financial returns with the registrar of societies.

“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world,” so says the Bible. Maybe words worth thinking about if you go to church this Sunday.

The Day I Was Attacked By Demons

“If I could hit her with my camera, I would have,” I remember thinking.

In the midst of Walter Magaya’s service, it was drama. One by one, men and women were flocking to the stage claiming they were possessed by demons. I clicked away.

Suddenly, like a rugby tackle, I felt someone grab me around my thighs; it was a woman. She grabbed me, lifted me, and the next thing I was on the ground fighting. My one hand was in the air to protect my camera and the other was pushing her away to protect the sensitive parts of my body. She was mumbling loudly and crying. It took three ushers to make her let go.

I got up, ran away from the demon zone to where I was seated, checked for vomit, I was clean but felt dirty nonetheless. An usher who saw the attack ran to me and asked if I was okay. I was fine, but I looked back and thought “what the f**k did I just go through?”

For a split second during my ordeal, I thought the demons were coming for me. Had I known the day was going to be dramatic, I would have taken a long lens, worn a pair of work boots and a helmet.

Despite the ‘demonized’ woman, the hospitality shown by one of the members, Jerome Galiao, was great.

All I have now is a cut on my finger as a reminder.

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Going Once, Going Twice! The Evolution Of Auctions



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Online auctions are gaining popularity, but the traditionalists are still sold on the idea of live auctions that guarantee a good show, with emotions and bids running high.

In an industrialized area approximately 30 minutes from Sandton, the commercial hub of Johannesburg, is a shining fleet of trucks, parked and ready to be sold to the highest bidder.

The sun reflects off the windshields in the direction of the registered bidders as they sit under red outdoor umbrellas at the entrance of the property. 

Some opt for refreshments, while others make small talk with their competition.

A man uses this time to make phone calls to a mechanic, who discourages him from making a regrettable bid on a “non-runner”.

He runs towards the towering fleet of trucks, where he joins the eager buyers as they take a final peek before the auction begins.

We are at Aucor Auctioneers’ popular commercial auction, at their head office in Midrand.

After spending four hours traveling to Johannesburg from Nelspruit (in South Africa’s Mpumalanga Province), for the auction, Charles Malibe gets into a heated bidding war that lasts no longer than a minute but is packed with plenty of fervent action.

Charles Malibe in a heated bidding war for a truck. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

It is noon and an overjoyed Malibe has just won a R465,000 ($32,401) bid on a second-hand truck.

“I attended my first auction three years ago. Sometimes you get it wrong and sometimes you get the right stuff at the right price. It is good to be exposed to new things. I went to Durban once, but I did not get anything there. It was not a waste. It is not only about getting things, it gives you exposure,” he says.

As Malibe heads back to Nelspruit, the auctioneer remains chanting until the last vehicle is sold, with the crowd getting smaller with each purchase.

Wasim Babamia, Aucor Auctioneers’ multimedia consultant, manages the national marketing for the 51-year-old auctioneering company.

Digitalization has disrupted traditional norms of advertising, and has made the industry more accessible for both buyers and sellers. 

“Selling any asset boils down to supply and demand. The advantage of buying in an auction is cutting out the middleman, saving that money and getting something of real top value,” he says.

Wasim Babamia, Aucor Auctioneers’ multimedia consultant. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

 Marketing the call to action remains a vital component for the business. 

“Social media has to be on point when we market a particular auction,” Babamia says.

Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn are some of the biggest platforms, apart from the traditional pamphlets and website advertising strategies.

According to Babamia, online bidding has pulled in more numbers over the past four years.

He sees a rapid transformation in the auctions landscape in the foreseeable future.

According to a South African Institute of Auctioneers (SAIA) report, Gauteng is the highest province of interest with over 6,000 potential buyers (for all kinds of auctions including residential properties, retail vehicles, jewelry and collectables) on its website, while the Northern Cape is the lowest with just over 1,000 buyers.

The traditional means of auctioning have had to make way for digital platforms that have been steadily increasing over the last decade.

SAIA records close to 100,000 visitors to online auctions in 2010; the first half of 2019 is already at 400,000 visitors.

Last year’s record 600,000 visitors reflect that the online market could be just as lucrative as the live auctions.

READ MORE | ‘Stolen’ Tutankhamun Bust Puts Britain’s Museums And Auctioneers Back Under the Spotlight

As the state of the South African economy remains uncertain, Babamia suggests that auctioneering will always provide a cheaper option to consumers.

An industry that has been in existence for more than 2,000 years continues to grow despite its many iterations over the years.

Ancient Greek records on auctions dating as far back as 500BC show women were auctioned off to become wives.

Auctions were popular for family estates and the selling of war plunder in Rome.

As a result of the great depression in the 1900s, the United States opened auction schools to generate income as businesses and individuals needed to liquidate assets to withstand the economic crisis.

In recent times, market trends have changed dramatically to adapt to socioeconomic norms.

A shift to online auctioneering has been a great development and contributor to the fluid industry.

 Orbis Research reports that the global online auction market is expected to grow during the period 2018-2022 with a 7.2% compound annual growth rate.

“Another major trend witnessed in the online auction is the immense impact of artificial intelligence (AI). AI’s main role in an online auction is to perform different tasks such as processing internal operations, customer-service inquiries, delivery and product packaging. In the last years, AI has instigated a gradual shift, from conventional auction to online auction,” the report states.

The increase in sales of art-based goods through online auctions is a key market driver.

Traditional live auctions, however, are still a preferred option for bargain-hunters, despite the global steer towards digitalization.

This is according to fine art specialist Luke Crossley who manages Stephan Welz & Co. in the affluent northern suburb of Johannesburg, Houghton Estate.  

Fine art specialist Luke Crossley who manages Stephan Welz & Co. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

Moving to simpler models will improve the industry by providing a greater competitive edge, he says.  

“There is a growing interest and understanding of auctions across a broad section of people where, maybe, a couple of decades ago it was seen as just for the very rich people doing very rich things.

“People are realizing that it is a great way of finding weird and beautiful objects, artwork and furniture at quite reasonable prices,” he says.

The increase of auction houses in South Africa offers a variety to buyers and sellers, with SAIA having 80,546 members registered by April 2019. As a result, the art and design market is at an advantage.

“The South African art market on auction is always evolving and broadening. The importance to history and art history is being realized and there is a growing interest and demand for these. It is encouraging a lot of the younger artists working with galleries to look at the history and heritage of artistic practice in this country,” Crossley says.

“With growing appreciation for South African and African art overseas, a couple of international houses based in England regularly do sales of more historical work. The audience overseas means a lot for the artists, the country and the future.”

Selling or buying art on auction engages the audience as well as the creator.

“The gallery, thus, becomes the primary market where young artists can build their careers; whereas auctions and private individuals with a passion for art can sell work they own, re-invest in other artists, or buy.

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‘South Africans Love Martyrs’



The first 100 days of any presidency are often harshly scrutinized as they set the tone for what citizens expect. South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa is under the magnifying glass as all await his next tactical move.

At the end of May, South Africa’s sixth democratically-elected president, Cyril Ramaphosa, took an oath of office at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria. In his speech, he touched on many issues that resonate with South Africans, including corruption, poverty, equality and youth unemployment.

These burning matters prelude what is to be expected from him in his first 100 days in office.

Ramaphosa’s period at the helm of power (before the elections) has been typified by repeated calls for a ‘New Dawn’. It seems the man who made it to the 2019 Time magazine list of 100 Most Influential in the world has a laundry list of issues to attend to if he is to set the tone for the rest of his presidency.

READ MORE | IN PICTURES | Looking Back At The Vibe Of The South African Elections

The challenge that has deeply affected how South Africans and investors view the country is that of corruption.

“Let us forge a compact for an efficient, capable and ethical state, a state that is free of corruption, for companies that generate social value and propel human development… We must be a society that values excellence, rewards effort and rejects mediocrity,” Ramaphosa said at his inauguration on May 25.

 In the first 100 days, analysts say he needs to demonstrate he is a proactive leader; one who takes decisive action to address the plight of those who live in a society as unequal as South Africa. The gaping chasm between the richest and poorest has widened since the end of apartheid 25 years ago. This information is not lost on citizens whose lived experiences and disenchantment were in evidence during the elections.

A specialist in social economic development and political commentator, Kim Heller, is of the view that Ramaphosa has some way to go to address the resolutions of his party, the African National Congress (ANC).

 “There are critical social maladies that need to be treated with the urgency they deserve… One of the key things people are looking for is a decisive man and decisive leadership,” she says.

Political analyst, Prince Mashele, ventures: “He is yet to act on resolutions because he is navigating complex political infighting in the ANC, which is why he can’t move boldly and faster…”

Economic transformation has been seen to also imply redistribution of the means of production, which currently has been reiterated in the call for land redistribution without compensation. This is among the duties citizens and investors will keep a close eye on as it is a contentious matter.

Leading up to the elections, Ramaphosa said to apprehensive farmers, “the land reform process is something we should never fear. It is going to be done in terms of the constitution”.

Heller says that, “the question of land is unresolved, despite very solid ANC resolutions from branches, and despite extensive consultation”.

The president will to have to choose whether he wants to be investor-friendly or whether he wants the interests of his own political party to find expression in policy.

“The investors have become the supreme branch of the ANC. So Ramaphosa certainly, is spending a lot of time on their concerns rather than ordinary people…,” Heller says.

READ MORE | Poll Position: The South African 2019 Elections

Mashele echoes: “He has been a market-friendly president. He has railed against his comrades calling for the nationalization of the [South African] Reserve Bank”.

Another matter influencing investment into the country is red tape that inhibits instead of encouraging business. South Africa dropped from 34 out of 181 countries on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking in 2009 to 82 out of 192 countries last year, leaving the country trailing its African peers, including Mauritius (20), Rwanda (29) and Kenya (61).

In his address to the nation, Ramaphosa continued with the mantra thuma mina (which means ‘send me’) and committed to continue to build South Africa. In his rebuilding, he will have to take a closer look at the factors that infringe on those looking to conduct business while straddling the line in ensuring that (natural) resources are not further depleted while failing to trickle down to those who need it the most.

Heller is of the view that the expectations created by the president serve as a double-edged sword: “Some quarters have built him up to be the Messiah we have all been waiting for. He may have embraced that but it’s actually going to damage him. Because there is no individual who can save this country without looking at doing serious things in terms of economic restructuring… Until we address structural issues in this country, shifting the economy to favor ordinary people, not markets, we actually aren’t very benevolent.”

Also affecting business has been the view that South Africa is amongst the most corrupt on the continent and viewed as one of the murder capitals of the world. The Zondo Commission has illustrated the stark reality of the malfeasance the president will have to address to change these perceptions and in so doing, hold high-profile individuals accountable.

READ MORE | Ticking The Right Boxes: Will The South African Elections Come Down To The Wire?

 In line with building an equal society, the president made mention of the prevalence of violence against women at his inauguration.

“Let us end the dominion that men claim over women, the denial of opportunity, the abuse and the violence, the neglect, and the disregard of each person’s equal rights. Let us build a truly non-racial society, one that belongs to all South Africans, and in which all South Africans belong. Let us build a society that protects and values those who are vulnerable and who for too long have been rendered marginal,” Ramaphosa said.

Leading up to the resolution of the president’s first 100 days in office, the public is watching with bated breath. 

“I pity him. He’s made big promises on housing and unemployment. Those are not going to magically change overnight. The problem with South Africa is that we love martyrs and here we have a president that we have martyred and who is actually going to fall on that. To replace one man with another, is not going to replace problematic policies, poor implementation and poor conceptualization of economic solutions. So I think in the next 100 days, I don’t expect to see anything unless the fundamentals are changed,” Heller says.     

No doubt, it is going to take a concerted effort from all institutions, including those that have been revealed to be compromised. The first 100 days will certainly determine the rest of the president’s term in office.

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Lifting The Heavy Veil On Wedding Costs



With pockets as deep as gold mines, how far are couples willing to go to have the picture-perfect luxe wedding?

The lagoons overlook the snow-white beaches with its swaying coconut trees, embraced by the turquoise waters of the sea in the island nation of Mauritius. It’s a scene straight out of a movie, with a couple cavorting in the distance.

Over 100 guests from South Africa have also gathered on these sands for the weekend wedding of businessman Lebo Gunguluza and his long-term girlfriend Lebo Mokoena. 

The total cost of this union: almost $300,000. 

“I didn’t mind exceeding the budget, because you only do this once,” says new bride Mokoena.

The couple flew over 30 guests and provided them with five-star accommodation at the LUX* Grand Gaube.  Part of the guest contingency included the behind-the-scenes crew for the wedding, as well as the speakers who had to spend four to seven days in Mauritius to prep up.

“We did not want to have a local wedding because we wanted our guests and family to have a different experience. We also wanted our family members who did not have passports and have never flown out of the country to experience a different country,” Gunguluza says.

Snow-white beaches of Mauritius. Picture: Supplied

The weekend celebrations started on a Friday last September with a cocktail meet-and-greet party. Belly dancers who were dressed in floral red and yellow danced the evening away with guests, with a local band taking them to the all-white party on Saturday.

This was just a build-up to the romantic wedding reception with shades of blush, ivory, and gold which was to take place on Sunday at 4PM.

“Every time I think about that day, I want to do it again,” the new bride says.

The couple chose not to have bridesmaids and groomsmen and the guests were encouraged to dress in black and white.

“I didn’t have bridesmaids because it makes you choose between your friends. I felt that if you got an invite to our wedding, you were worthy enough. So, we wanted everyone to be bridesmaids and groomsmen. I think we made it intimate and everybody felt like they were VIPs,” says Mokoena.

Everything fit perfectly as the bride’s two white wedding dresses were designed by Antherline Couture.

For the ceremony, she wore a white ball gown with a diamanté top heavily embellished with beads; while the groom looked dapper in a white tuxedo jacket designed by Master Suit SA.  

The color white was indeed conspicuous.

“I have always felt that white is pure and because I was signing my life away, I felt I needed to be pure, hence I said my husband needed to wear white as well,” she adds.

The lavish white wedding was organized by renowned wedding planner Precious Tumisho Thamaga who ditched her seven-year career in Public Relations & Marketing to become an event planner.

Thamaga organizes events and weddings for affluent clients such as the Gunguluzas.

“They are busy people and they don’t have time to do the administration and the back and forth of vetting in suppliers,” Thamaga says, as she takes over the pain of wedding planning.

Lebo Mokoena and Lebo Gunguluza (middle) with wedding guests in Mauritius. Picture: Supplied

While working in the corporate world, she had attended many weddings that she felt were put together in a way that created a disconnect between the guests and the wedding couple.

“So I saw an opportunity in the fact that there were not a lot of wedding planners that were black,”  Thamaga says. 

She decided to focus on corporate clients in order to turn her passion into a profitable business.

“A lot of people did not expect a black person to be professional and take the business seriously.

“It was not just a hobby or someone helping out a family. It was an actual business and I made sure that I got taken seriously from the onset,” Thamaga says.

In order for Precious Celebrations (the name of her company) to prosper, she had to have a business strategy in place.

“I made sure that I put a lot of time and effort and strategized properly what it was that I wanted to actually focus on, and find a niche [in]. I believed that would separate me from somebody that was already in the industry,” Thamaga says.

However, her job is not always alluring.

Lebo Mokoena and Lebo Gunguluza’s wedding in Mauritius. Picture: Supplied

“When I started in the industry there weren’t so many wedding planners and now it is a different story and everyone thinks it is easy-peasy and it is glamorous,” she says. 

Planning a luxurious wedding takes eight to 12 months and can cost anywhere between R300,000 ($20,813) to R4.5 million ($312,203).

The most expensive wedding Thamaga planned was for a public figure she cannot disclose the name of. 

“It was a destination wedding and the experience from when the guests arrived to the wedding day was memorable. When they arrived, we had a cocktail party and we had activities like canoeing and on Sunday we had an all-white party. [This is] so that people don’t depart on Sunday and may leave on Monday.” 

Only the affluent sign up.

“The smallest wedding that I have had to plan had 80 people and it cost R2 million ($138,000),”  Thamaga says.

She has turned away some clients in the past because their budget was insufficient for the type of wedding they envisioned. 

Thamaga organizes 26 weddings, on average, annually, from countries such as Mauritius, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Botswana and now she plans on taking her bespoke company global.

One of the unique aspects of her business is that she has maintained a good relationship with the suppliers she has in each country, and has kept her expenses to a minimum.

“The wedding planning-event planning industry is quite lucrative if you do it right. I am not the type that would have too much inventory because I want to feel like the inventory belongs to me; that would limit my creativity,” she says.

“I make sure that I don’t have a lot of expenses, I have coordinators that I have worked with for years and they have full-time jobs.”

Thamaga’s greatest challenge so far was whether or not to outsource other wedding planners when her business was increasing.

“It can be a bit daunting to realize that your business is growing,” she says.

But she opted to remain boutique.

“I had to decide that it is not about the money. I am building an empire where I want a legacy and an ongoing relationship with my clients.” 

She involves her clients every step of the way to bring their vision to an unforgettable reality, and believes that weddings are expensive because of the growing aspirations of the young.

“It is not just in South Africa, it is worldwide,” she says.

Despite the tangible costs of conducting these dream events, the wedding industry in South Africa is largely unregistered as it is a fluid market where services and costs are difficult to track and document accurately.

Fred Elu Eboka, a Nigerian designer who dresses delegates as well as the rich and famous. Picture: Supplied

Africans, no doubt, spend millions per year on costs associated with marital ceremonies. This is the reality of the unregistered wedding industry. Despite the recession and slow economic growth, the wedding industry continues to attract many entrepreneurs to its lucrative opportunities.

As, people never stop getting married.

The Marriages and Divorces report released by Statistics South Africa last May shows an upward trend in civil marriages. Civil marriages increased by 0.6%, from 138,627 marriages registered in 2015 to 139,512 in 2016.

A wedding dress is an important part of a celebration and the bridal couture market continues to show growth.

Wise Guy Reports Database Global Wedding Dress Market Insights, forecast to 2025, states: “The wedding market demand grows continually, and the wedding garments market has notable increase every year. In this case, the competition is also very intense among companies. The involved companies should seize the opportunities to expand the gold mine.”

A previous client of Thamaga’s has spent R200,000 ($13,876) on two wedding dresses and this is nothing for Fred Elu Eboka, a Nigerian designer who dresses delegates as well as the rich and famous. 

He moved to South Africa in 1992 at a time when African designs were not being celebrated globally. 

Twenty years ago, Eboka sold wedding dresses for R15,000 ($1,041) a piece, and now sells for R250,000 ($17,344) a piece, depending on the design. 

“A designer of my caliber in South Africa is undersold because there are people in the United States selling wedding gowns for $250 and I am here selling them for maybe $80, it just doesn’t make sense. It shows that our economy is really bad because a designer of my caliber should be operating on the same level as them, or very close,” Eboka says.

He is a luxury designer. 

“When you think of luxury, it is not just the product, it is not just the textile – it is the whole experience from when you drive in, to when you sit down and have the designer talk to you and learn about your life. The whole artistic process contributes to the cost value of the gown.”

He says that the reason wedding gowns are expensive is because they are meant to be timeless pieces.

“Traditionally, wedding gowns are classical couture. It is not like the normal evening dress that you wear to look beautiful on one night. A wedding dress is like training for the Olympics. You train for them for the rest of your life,” he says.

Eboka also says when designing a wedding gown, you need to take time to know the client, family and their fancies in order to meet the clients’ need.

The material of the wedding gown is usually expensive because he sources the textiles from across the world, and he takes two to three months to create a gown, depending on the embellishments.

Fred Elu Eboka, a Nigerian designer who dresses delegates as well as the rich and famous. Picture: Supplied 

“My designs have a lot of artistry,” he says.

Eboka is a wealthy man but he still believes that the industry is not as lucrative as it could be.

“But we do well, without being arrogant about it… You have to be fully aware of the industry and have the intellectual capacity to understand the potential of the market,” he says.

Pictures are an important element of a wedding because they capture the moment for life.

International award-winning photographer Daniel West meets his clients in a restaurant so he can get to know them better and learn the history of their relationship.

“We, as photographers, need to click with each couple, it is actually vital because we are going to be in their space from the beginning to end.

“So, when we do not gel, we are going to find ourselves in an awkward situation on the day because we, as photographers, are also problem-solvers. We don’t just take pictures on the day,” West says.

His packages start from R18,000 ($1,248) to R60,000 ($4,163) and he says it is because the couple is paying for the quality of the work. His packages include waterproof genuine leather-bound photo albums that he says last a lifetime, as well as 500 images that are both edited and unedited. He also arranges the location for the photoshoots.

“It is more than about taking pictures on the day, anybody can take pictures but the work that I do has more of a boutique feel,” he says.

“You pay to have something like this on the table that will last you a lifetime,” West says.

He does not only take pictures on the day but the photoshoots can take up to three months.

“Each couple that I take pictures of has a different story and that is where I draw my inspiration.”

West says that it takes a while for the business to get to a point that is profitable because photographic equipment is expensive.

“In the beginning, it is unfortunately not lucrative because you have to look into getting the equipment that is up to standard, however, it took me about seven years where I could get to a point that I could make a business out of it,” West says.

International award-winning photographer Daniel West with his clients. Picture: Supplied

His annual turnover before expenses is R800,000 ($55,502) and he has about 25 clients a year.

He believes that the industry is regarded as valuable in South Africa and it is growing because people are becoming more enlightened about the photography industry. And social media has become an important motivator driving this industry.

“It is vital to have a good photographer for your wedding, because you as a bride are not quite educated of what is out there and what is not [in terms of photography].”

A good photographer needs to have foresight.

“The quality and charisma of your photographer is really one of the most important things you pay for because if something were to go wrong on your wedding, like rain, what does your photographer do? Do they stand back or make a plan?” he says.

Other luxe services associated with weddings include limos and chauffeur services, and florists, live music bands and gourmet caterers flown from around the world. The more money you are willing to throw, the more sparkling the champagne, crystal and caviar on the beach

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