LEGITIMATE: These supporters are 100% behind Mduduzi Shembe succeeding his father as leader of the Nazareth Baptist Church. Picture: PHUMLANI THABETHE
Thousands of members of the Nazareth Baptist Church gathered outside the Durban High Court yesterday, where the case to determine the church’s legitimate leader had started.
They came clad in the church’s customary white attire and many of the women wore headgear, some carrying placards stating their support for Mduduzi Shembe as the legitimate leader of the church.
The matter was adjourned to August 29 for argument.
The battle for the leadership of the 5 million-member church, popularly known as the Shembe Church, started shortly after the death of its elderly leader, Vimbeni Shembe, earlier this year. Some church elders and local chief Mqoqi Ngcobo appointed Vimbeni’s son, Mduduzi, as his successor .
But the late Shembe’s lawyer, Zweli Buthelezi, produced a letter, purportedly written by the late leader on his death bed. The letter stated that he (Vimbeni) had chosen Vela, his half brother, as his successor.
Both leaders have claimed the mantle of the church leadership since then.The group led by Vela then went to court for a legal ruling on the legitimate leader.
Yesterday’s hearing came just days after the church started its ceremonies for the “holy” month of July, when worshippers participate in a month-long series of prayers and other rituals. These are held at the church’s headquarters in Inanda, north of Durban.
Many of those who were in court yesterday had been attending the ceremony. They ranged from young children to old men and women.
Ntombizonke Mshengu, 58, from Pietermaritzburg’s Sweetwater area, said she felt compelled to go to court.
“We only know Unyazi (Mduduzi Shembe) as our leader and don’t know what these pretenders are feeding us,” she said.
“This thing is clear, Vimbeni could never have appointed these people because they didn’t like him. No matter what they say, we will stay with Mduduzi.”
Before Vimbeni’s death, the church had four factions – three in KZN and a fourth in Gauteng. Vimbeni led the biggest, with about 5 million followers.
The Nazareth Baptist Church was founded by Isaiah Shembe, in 1910. The church has been plagued by often violent family disputes over succession since the ’70s.