The profits of Prophet Mboro
Township ‘miracle worker’ predicts that commission chairwoman investigating him ‘will fall’
Empty coffins lie in front of the elevated stage that forms the centrepiece of the white marquee. The half-open caskets can be seen from any point in the church, giving the morning church service a funereal feel.
On the stage stands Incredible Happenings Church Pastor Paseka Motsoeneng, the charismatic maverick and self-styled prophet who has been attracting a lot of controversy lately.
The sprawling tent is packed and the cleric's flock listens quietly as the man on the podium speaks loudly in a mixture of English, Zulu and Sotho.
Prophet Mboro, as Motsoeneng is popularly known, has dedicated today's service to his arch-nemesis, Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, chairwoman of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, who has been the bane of charismatic church pastors since she started an investigation into their unorthodox religious practices.
She has also recommended that the government tax the churches because some of them have been piling up profits way beyond what the law allows non-profit organisations to keep in their coffers.
The service begins to feel even more macabre when Mboro orders ushers to light red and white candles, and to spread them throughout the church.
"She [Mkhwanazi-Xaluva] will fall," he declares to loud applause before he leads his followers in prayer. The commission chairwoman, he warns, will not keep her position for longer than nine weeks.
The coffins, it turns out, have nothing to do with the fate of the head of the Chapter9 institution. They are there purely as a marketing gimmick because Mboro is also launching a funeral scheme. He wants as many of his followers as possible to dump their own schemes and join his for an "incredible exclusive send-off" when they die. Touts are on standby with pamphlets explaining burial options and prices.
This is vintage Motsoeneng. He's as much a "man of the cloth" as he is an entrepreneur. His eccentric way of doing things doesn't always endear him to people. He's been something of an itinerant pastor over the years, and has now erected his marquee on a vacant parcel of land in front of the DH Williams community hall, behind Letsoho shopping centre in Katlehong on Gauteng's East Rand.
His fleet of vehicles is among the many cars parked in the vicinity of the church, including the famous BMW i8 he reportedly bought for R2-million last year.
If it is true that a prophet is not honoured in his hometown, then Mboro is an exception. He is loved and reviled in equal measure by the residents of Katlehong. Those who like him say he has been generous to the poor and has not hesitated to use his money to help bury a pauper or rebuild an indigent person's house when the situation required that he do so.
To his critics, Motsoeneng is a charlatan whose church is mainly patronised by people from outside the township. By the look of things, some of his members aren't locals. A random old woman who asks me to fill her prayer form during the service comes from the far East Rand.
The same goes for Sandra Johnson, whose family drives all the way from the North West town of Carletonville to attend Mboro's services every Sunday.
The 42-year-old explains why she's stuck with her pastor since the days he conducted church services in a rented building on Black Reef Road, midway between Katlehong and the Wadeville industrial area. "I come here because Mr Mboro's church helped me a lot. I used to be poor and suffered from bad health. It afflicted the whole family. I saw Mr Mboro's advert on television and told my husband that I'd get healed if I went to that church. I felt much better after the first service."
used to squeeze my testicles and penis while I was
sleeping. They used to make me
fly to places I do not know
Let there be sanitary pads
She explains that her chronic high blood pressure did not respond to medical treatment. But Mboro's prayers and "holy water" did the trick. Johnson and her husband also miraculously found employment around that time.
I catch up again with Mboro three days later in Alberton. He agrees to meet me at a Wimpy, where he arrives in a sleek black BMW sedan more than an hour late, accompanied by a hefty man who speaks English with a West African accent.
When he shows up, looking a bit tired in his black coat and jeans, I am not sure if the plan is to drive to one of his four houses. But it soon becomes clear that he wants to be interviewed at the fast-food outlet.
He sets the limits upfront and makes it clear he doesn't want to discuss his family, or certain aspects about his life because he's saving these for a documentary he's working on.
In many ways, he is very much the man he was in the early 1990s when he set up his Living Hope Family Church, which he later renamed City of Hope Church when he operated from a small brown tent in Katlehong's Hlahatse section.
The authorities evicted him in the early 2000s from that strip of land to make room for the development of a service station and a shopping arcade. Back then he used to preach at schools, to the elderly at pension pay-out points, and at some of Kathorus's notorious hostels.
He often ferried his musical instruments to his open-air services in a rickety red Mazda 323. He lived in a rented backyard garage then and financed his ministry by selling whatever wares were in demand at the time.
At that point, the younger version of the scrawny 49-year-old was already making a name for himself with his preaching and the stories of his faith healing. It was only later that he stopped being known simply as Pastor Frans and branded himself "Mboro" - a corruption of the word mprofethii or moporofiti (prophet).
A local pastor, who has known him since the late '80s, says it started when Motsoeneng began praying for sanitary pads that he would dole out to men and women to cure their "biological problems". His style and language alienated many local pastors who still publicly shun him.
"I am regulated by the Bible. Jesus used different methods to heal people. Water was used in the Bible. I am using it. Handkerchiefs and aprons were used in the Bible. I called fellow pastors and asked them to quote me verses that show that what I am doing is wrong. They couldn't," he says.
Why is he so obsessed with people's reproductive organs, I ask as he awaits his meal of lamb chops, eggs, fried chips and mineral water.
"I used to have bladder, kidney, chest, and testicle problems. Spiritual forces used to squeeze my testicles and penis while I was sleeping. They used to make me fly to places I do not know," he explains. "So I wanted a spiritual solution for my problems."
Although his mother - herself a mamosebeletsi (seer or miracle worker) of the St Johns Apostolic Faith Mission - helped to manage his many ailments, at some point she decided to take her 13-year-old son to the church's leader, Petros John Masango, for prayers. Buses ferried pilgrims from as far afield as Lesotho and Swaziland to receive prayers and holy water from the late Archbishop Masango, who died in 1984. His church has been headquartered in Katlehong's Zuma section since its founding in 1971.
The archbishop's followers still visit his mausoleum, which is located in front of St John's, for prayers and healing.
That's where Mboro, who is the last-born of three siblings, got the first epiphany of his divine calling around 1981.
"Bab' uMasango didn't talk to me directly. He said, 'God will use this child. He's God's chosen. He'll do wonders.' Then he hit the floor with his staff and said no one will touch [spiritually initiate] me," he recalls. "In short, I can tell you that the power I have was motivated by my troubles. It was a calling by God."
Soon afterwards, he encountered charismatic churches and worked with some of the roaming white evangelists who used to host "revivals" in townships around the then Transvaal at the height of the state of emergency in the late 1980s.
But it was not until Motsoeneng heard Rhema's Ray McCauley preach in the early 1990s that he became convinced his mission was to become a charismatic church pastor. The rest is history.
This probably explains his eccentric brand of religion that seems to borrow liberally from the prosperity gospel of charismatic preachers and prophetic traditions of the independent Zionist churches.
Ascent to heaven
He says it was only after he registered his Incredible Happenings Church that he started calling himself Mboro because he saw himself as a "prophet like Bab' uMasango". Although Masango's spiritual biography starts with his encounter with both St Peter and St John in heaven, Mboro assures me that the recent stories of his own ascent to heaven are fake news manufactured by a rival pastor.
His flirtation with Julius Malema's EFF - he was the only priest who blessed its first election victory rally in Atteridgeville in 2014 - was partly due to his struggle to secure permanent land for his church.
"The municipality didn't want to give me land. Comrades used to evict me. That's why I moved from one place to another," he explains.
He claims Malema had come to him for prayers and blessings when he was considering the idea of forming the EFF, before his pilgrimage to Nigeria's Prophet TB Joshua.
"I saw it as an opportunity. Other pastors were scared of being associated with Julius because no one would stand up to the ANC," he says.
But he is now firmly back in the ANC, working closely with ruling party personalities associated with the bid to elect Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as the next president.
His return is largely due to Ekurhuleni mayor Mzwandile Masina who, says Mboro, also sought his prayers before he successfully contested the party's regional chairmanship.
Masina, who is also from Katlehong, seems to be the link between Mboro and some of the personalities in President Jacob Zuma's camp who have hobnobbed with the controversial cleric. They include Dlamini-Zuma, Hlaudi Motsoeneng (no relation), and former Hawks boss Berning Ntlemeza.
"ANC councillors have always called on me to help, despite what they've done to me in the past. I donated to the ANC. I'd buy them food at voting stations and would lend them my cars.
"I helped Julius because I believed that he'd contribute positively to the country's politics. I went to him at a time when he was broke and facing many cases. I didn't judge him. I am very proud to see the EFF today. I just didn't want to involve myself in his personal fights with Msholozi because I am a prophet," Mboro says.
Walking through water
When a drought was threatening to plunge Gauteng into a water crisis last year, Masina and Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane turned to Mboro for prayers. A few days later, floods brought the province to a standstill, cementing Mboro's reputation among his supporters as a man of miracles.
While he boasts about this and other "miracles", he conveniently forgets his failed predictions, such as his promise that Ntlemeza would retain his job at the helm of the Hawks.
Mboro has also not been shy to embark on publicity stunts. He offered R20,000 to anyone who could help the police nab the killers of Senzo Meyiwa, the late Bafana Bafana captain who was killed in Vosloorus.
The power I have was motivated by my troubles. It was a calling by God
In a way, his threat to shut down his church if his followers fail to help him raise funds for his mooted court battle with Mkhwanazi-Xaluva's commission can be seen as yet another stunt to hog the headlines. Why would a man who claims to have his own successful businesses rely on offerings from poor congregants? He insists, however, that he wants them to show their loyalty to his ministry.
In five weeks, the nine-week lifespan Mboro set for Mkhwanazi-Xaluva's tenure will be up. Is he confident he'll be proven correct this time around?
"This commission is operating illegally. It doesn't have the right to demand any documents. It doesn't have power to harass us and lie about me going to heaven when I haven't. I want her to bow on her knees and apologise. She must fall. Even if she remains, she doesn't represent us. The integrity of that commission is damaged. That commission is dominated by izangoma and is fighting churches," he says.