Skip to main content

Prophets Of Profit

Published 6 years ago
By Forbes Africa

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.

Sign Up for Our Newsletter Daily Update

Get the best of Forbes Africa sent straight to your inbox with breaking business news, insights and updates from experts across the continent.
Get this delivered to your inbox, and more info about about our products and services. By signing up for newsletters, you are agreeing to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.
Related Topics: #Bible, #Christianity, #Church, #God, #Healing and Deliverance (PHD) Ministries, #Money, #November 2015, #Tithing, #Walter Magaya, #Zimbabwe.