Shepherd Bushiri and his 'misguided' flock
In his first major sermon since being charged with fraud, self-styled prophet Shepherd Bushiri compared himself with the apostle Paul and warned his detractors that he was protected by God.
"One thing I want to start with tonight is that if you are vilifying for my downfall, you have so much work to do," Bushiri told congregants of his Enlightened Christian Gathering church on Friday night.
"This is not because of who I am, but who is inside me."
He went on to quote from a section in the Bible that describes how Paul and his companion Silas were thrown into jail in Philippi after their enemies denounced them to magistrates. They were released after an earthquake brought down the prison walls.
On Wednesday, Bushiri and his wife Mary were released on R100,000 bail each on charges of money-laundering and fraud.
Hundreds of devotees, who refer to Bushiri, 35, as Papa or Major One, gathered at the commercial crimes court in Pretoria in support, praying and crying for his release.
Every weekend, Bushiri draws 25,000 adoring followers to his church headquarters at the Tshwane Events Centre.
On Friday night, frenzied congregants crammed into the centre to celebrate his release. The three-hour wait for their spiritual leader to arrive - the service started at 6pm but Bushiri stepped on stage only at 9pm - was filled with prayers and songs of praise and worship.
Congregants screamed and jumped up and down when the couple made their appearance. Many fell to their knees, tears streaming down their faces.
Psychologist Saths Cooper said the church leaders were taking advantage of the congregants.
Cooper - an anti-apartheid activist who was jailed on Robben Island - said people like Bushiri preyed on the weak, vulnerable and needy.
"His charismatic approach draws parallels with celebrities or sport heroes where adoring fans become cult-like in their behaviour," he said.
"It's interesting he chose the name Shepherd. He has assumed the role of leader of the flock. He is God on Earth."
One church member who spoke on condition of anonymity said Bushiri claimed to have been born into Islam and to have been disowned by his family when he became a Christian preacher at the age of eight.
The worshipper said that as "proof", Bushiri displayed a scar on his foot where his father allegedly shot him when he ran away.
Bushiri's father, Huxley, and mother, Cristina, a Zambian by birth, raised him as Chipiliro Gama. Bushiri and his wife have two children, Israella and Raphaella.
In December 2017, he posted a picture of the gift he bought Israella for her fifth birthday - a Maserati Levante costing about R2m.
On his Shepherd Bushiri Investments web page he claims to have stakes in an airline, oil and minerals, a hotel, mining and a mobile network service.
Another source in the church said Bushiri had been ordained by "Major", the charismatic Zimbabwean preacher Uebert Angel, 40, who founded the Spirit Embassy ministry in 2007.
A security official at the Tshwane centre said Bushiri preached in a hall that could accommodate 1,000 people, but several thousand more paid a fee to be able to gather outside and "be close to the prophet".
Cooper said Bushiri's followers would feel an adrenaline rush during worship sessions.
"The endorphins released by this behaviour create a high. The rush of adrenaline takes over congregants' thinking, you lose a sense of who you are, you just want to be close to the prophet.
"The rush lasts for a short period but it creates a sense of belonging, and it makes people outside the church seem like the 'other'."