Foreign Affairs

South Africa’s most powerful religious leader has become the voice of migrant rights

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The controversial Shepherd Bushiri has established himself as an important figure in the South African political landscape, filling a vacuum many politicians have ignored. 

‘Christian Prophet walks on air’: the 2015 video, supposedly showing Prophet Shepherd Bushiri walking above the ground, was widely circulated by news outlets including the Daily Mail and BBC. 

Many responded with ridicule at what appeared to be a poorly faked ‘miracle’. Some commentators went beyond this and lamented his followers’ gullibility. In almost all cases Bushiri was presented as a charlatan, certainly not as one of South Africa’s rising political stars. 

Yet five years later, Bushiri is becoming an almost untouchable figure, causing division within the country’s major political parties and meriting a private meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa himself. 

Bushiri is a Malawian. Born in a rural village in the northern region of the small nation, he began his career as a prophet by attracting crowds of subsistence farmers and preaching to them in the local language. 

As his success grew, Bushiri adapted his image. Despite having no formal education, he learnt English, opening up a career-defining move to South Africa. His churches have experienced exponential growth over the past five years, one in Johannesburg attracting 40,000 every Sunday. 

Many different people attend Bushiri’s churches. Although the vast majority of attendees would identify as black, this is in fact a diverse grouping of Zimbabweans, Zambians, Malawians, Nigerians and many more. In short, Bushiri draws on many migrant communities for support. 

The NGO Africa Check estimated the size of South Africa’s foreign-born population at approximately 4 million in 2017, most of which came from the African continent. Some estimates have put the figure even higher, although these are contested.

Add to this the South African-born second or third generation African migrants, and Bushiri has an enormous support base to draw on. As a Malawian migrant himself, he has become an icon of success for South Africa’s diverse migrant populations. 

However, Bushiri’s rise has not been without difficulties. In February 2019 he was arrested on charges of fraud and money laundering by South Africa’s investigative crime unit, The Hawks. The arrest also followed several years of complaints by former church-goers concerning Bushiri’s behaviour. 

As thousands of supporters gathered outside the court where Bushiri was being charged, the prophet’s own political networks began to mobilise.

The first evidence of this was a statement by the leader of the small but vocal Black First Land First Party (BLF), a pan-Africanist revolutionary socialist group, who demanded President Ramaphosa apologise in person for the harassment of Bushiri. His arrest, according to the party, was motivated by xenophobia. 

Similar statements by other supporters helped to politicize Bushiri’s arrest, connecting it to the issue of black on black xenophobic violence in South Africa. 

When released on bail, Bushiri drew attention to this narrative. As xenophobic riots spread through Durban in early April last year, Bushiri used a sermon to publically ask the President to do more to end the attacks, concluding with the statement “we are all Africans, let us learn to live together”. In doing so, Bushiri positioned himself as an antidote to South Africa’s ‘Afrophobia’ problem. 

Attacks against migrant communities is not just an internal problem for the South African government. They have damaged the country’s relations with other African nations in the past. Drawing on a large committed support base, Bushiri’s new role as a spokesperson for African migrants had a sense of legitimacy that no other political figure could muster. 

This may go some way in explaining President Ramaphosa’s astonishing decision to hold a private meeting with Bushiri whilst the prophet was still awaiting trial. In return, Bushiri told congregants he believed the ruling African National Congress (ANC) no longer ‘hated’ his church. 

Meanwhile, a member of the ANC’s National Executive Committee informed Bushiri’s congregations that the party would ensure the charges against the prophet were dropped. Soon after this, Bushiri’s court dates were postponed to November 2019. Since then they have again been postponed to July 2020. 

Attendance at Bushiri’s church has now become a political statement. Naledi Chirwa, a South African politician with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has been videoed bowing before Bushiri at his church. Chirwa, who has Malawian heritage, was publicly rebuked by her party leader, Julias Malema, who told her she owed her political career to him, not Bushiri. 

Several EFF members have apparently visited Bushiri, asking that he pray God would realise their ambitions. Malema’s tirade against Bushiri caused a small political storm, with politicians from several parties suggesting his speech was encouraging ‘Afrophobia’. 

In all of this, Bushiri has shown himself to be an expert politician, mustering grassroots support, engaging in high political discussion and establishing himself as the political voice of migrant rights. He has now reached a position where the leader of South Africa’s third largest party, Julias Malema, cannot criticize him without garnering a considerable amount of backlash. 

What is next for Bushiri? Rumours have begun to circulate that he now has his eye on the Presidency of Malawi. There is evidence he has been selling cut price maize in his home country for the past year, a standard tactic used by emerging politicians to garner support. 

If these political ambitions are eventually realised, then many foreign media outlets will be left mystified by the disparity between their often condescending coverage and Bushiri’s spectacular success. The case of the often crude but politically effective Donald Trump comes to mind. 

In the meantime Bushiri must wait for his day in court in July 2020.

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