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OUR TAKE: Bushiri’s escape and the case for regulation of SA churches

Editorial

It is no coincidence that while self-proclaimed prophet and pastor, Shepherd Bushiri and his wife Mary were having their bail revoked in a South African court on Monday, at a separate hearing in downtown Johannesburg, harrowing testimonies of human rights abuses at churches were heard.

The question of how the Bushiris managed to leave the country unnoticed is one thing. 

Also read: Who is Shepherd Bushiri and how did he escape? 

Quite another, is how they managed to do business in South Africa under the guise of bona fide religious operations, undeterred, for so long. Bushiri had a private chopper which was confiscated by the South African authorities as part of their fraud investigation, and a fleet of luxury vehicles. Did Bushiri tell Sars that he purchased these with the honest proceeds of missionary work, with the same straight face he used to tell his followers he could walk on air?

On regulating churches, SA appears to be behind the curve.

In January 2018, Botswana shut down Bushiri’s Englightened Christian Gathering (ECG) church after the church could not provide its audited financials for the previous three years. In Rwanda, pastors have to have obtained a three years theology degree to register a church.

In SA, churches are pretty much unregulated. They can apply to become registered public benefit organisations, which have substantial tax breaks such as zero income tax. Tithes and other donations are then also not taxed. However, salaries that are paid within a church are taxable, and must be declared to Sars, former acting Sars head Mark Kingon explained two years ago. Kingon reportedly said many churches were under-declaring in this regard.

But many churches continue to operate as businesses, despite being registered as public benefit organisations. Sars has warned for a long time that it intends clamping down on them.

Chapter nine organisation, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL), is currently holding hearings into church abuses.

This was the evidence being given in Johannesburg on Monday morning as the Bushiris no doubt enjoyed their poached eggs in whatever Malawian mansion they are probably hiding in. While not necessarily involving the ECG, the CRL has heard harrowing testimony, with allegations of pastors being involved in rape, money laundering, and even allegations that pastors are trained in secret societies. 

Regulating religious institutions would mean putting certain conditions in place to make it more difficult for alleged snake-oil salesmen to start up churches and take their followers for a ride. It would mean that they’d have to behave like other institutions in terms of being transparent about their financial affairs, so that they’re not able to become millionaires without paying their fair share of taxes. 

Traditional or mainstream churches are managed top down and in general have better accountability and governing structures. But some evangelical churches in SA have become a free for all, with almost zero accountability unless the leader “chooses” it. 

For example, a leader of an independent evangelical church can choose to “relate” to other churches and their network and be accountable to other leaders. They can choose to update their congregants on how finances are being spent. They can just as easily choose NOT to do so. 

It would also be in the sector’s best interests to start regulating itself. Remember the media tribunal that the ANC threatened to impose on the media in SA? That was a grave threat to press freedom, but it jolted the media into action and it tightened up its own rules and standards. If churches don’t want the government to regulate them, they may consider doing something similar. 

So why does the sector remain unregulated in SA?

It is not clear. But it is evident that religious leaders hold considerable sway, politically.

In June, President Cyril Ramaphosa inexplicably allowed religious gatherings to resume under Level 3 lockdown, while family gatherings remained banned.

Until there is greater regulation of religious institutions in SA, Bushiri and his ilk will continue to make a mockery of our justice system. 

It’s easy to feel hopeless reading tales of poor congregants drinking petrol, or eating grass. But just because evangelical churches have a much looser organisational structure, and trying to regulate them seems like a losing battle, it can be done. Evangelical pastors in the US are also known for predatory behaviour and financial misdeeds, but they have formed a self-regulatory body called the Evangelical Free Church of America – a voluntary association of churches. To become a member, churches have to abide by a strict code of conduct that includes strict controls around how the organisation is management, to reduce the risk of fraud and corruption. 

Churches in SA could take a page out of the EFCA’s book and come up with a similar mechanism. It would really help restore public confidence in evangelical churches. 

Because, whatever our reservations, Bushiri has extremely loyal followers who truly believe their pastor can help them. They’ve been calling in on radio stations in defence of Bushiri, and have protested outside court in his defense. We owe it to them to ensure that he and others like him, with such enormous influence in particularly vulnerable communities, have to play by the rules.