Virus, curse or prophecy? African Pentecostals making sense of the COVID-19 pandemic

Tinashe Chimbidzikai is a PhD candidate with the Georg-August University of Gottingen and an external PhD candidate in the Graduate Programme of African Studies, African Studies Centre Leiden. He is also a doctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. The working title of his research is (Re-) production and imagination of urban social space by Pentecostal immigrants in South Africa: A narrative ethnography.

Thursday, 12 March 2020. A week earlier, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 is reported by the South African health minister. Fast forward a week later, it is still business as usual at this bustling, overcrowded market place in the north-western suburbs of Johannesburg. I spot a few people with face masks and hand sanitisers here and there. The rest seem oblivious to the impeding pandemic that has already wreaked havoc in parts of Asia, Europe and now United States of America. I normally hang out at the market place with one of my interlocutors, Thomas, who on this day is busy as any other day.

The Bible warns us
‘As a Christian, I’m always prepared [for anything], for the Bible warns us to keep watch, because you don’t know the day or the hour’, opined Thomas, a thirty-nine years Zimbabwean Pentecostal immigrant living in South Africa, unfazed by the growing confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa. Nonchalant, he goes about his daily business, selling mabhero (second-hand clothes) without any facemask, disposable gloves or hand sanitiser at this busy marketplace. At 1,462, South Africa has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Africa, with five fatalities in this economically advanced yet extremely unequal nation of 58 million people. ‘If I stay at home, I won’t have food on the table. Should the situation stay like this, I won’t be able to pay my rentals this month as well as send money home to my wife and my mother in Zimbabwe. So, I have to work until the government orders us to stop. Only God can protect me from this thing [coronavirus]’.
‘Even if I get infected, I’ll be okay because I’m healthy. By His stripes I’ll be healed. The problem is that Christians are driven by fear not faith. We need to stand on the word of God. This is just a blowing wind that will soon pass’, declares Thomas as he attends to his customers rummaging through second-hand clothes on his busy stall.

Pentecostal dominance in South(ern) Africa
Religion is an indispensable reality in the everyday lives of the vast majority of African people. The Pew Research Center reports that six in every ten people self-identify as Christians, followed by three in ten who are Muslims. About three percent do not identify with any religion, and a similar percentage follow various forms of African traditional religions. Hindus, Buddhists and Jews each make up less than one percent of the Sub-Saharan African (SSA) population. In South Africa, 80% are Christians with 55% self-identifying as Pentecostal/Charismatics. South Africa has a long history with Pentecostalism, dating back to the first decade of the 20th century. The Pentecostal configurations have transformed over the centuries as the political, economic and sociocultural landscape of the country changed. For instance, with increased inflows of immigrants from neighbouring countries and beyond, following the end of apartheid in 1994 and the ushering of a new democratic dispensation, South Africa has experienced a huge growth of immigrant-established Pentecostal churches. As immigrants settle in the major cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town, they bring with them different forms of Pentecostal beliefs and practices, giving credence to Pentecostalism as a religion ‘made to travel’. Owing to the eclectic complexion of Pentecostalism in Africa, scholars describe the movement as African Pentecostalisms (Kalu 2008:5)[1], as acknowledgment of the diversities in history, schisms and varied beliefs and practices within the movement.

Prophetic healing ministeries
However, what brings these diverse forms of African Pentecostalisms under the same canopy, is the emphasis on the importance, power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of followers. Pentecostals also generally believe in speaking in tongues, prophecies, visions, healing, miracles, and signs and wonders. Lately, there has been a growth in prophetic healing ministries (‘health and wealth gospel’) in which ‘neo-Pentecostals take the power of amulets and fetishes with utter seriousness […] including alternatives in the forms of anointing oil, blessed water, calendars or handkerchiefs’ (Kgatle 2017:3)[2]. So cogent are Pentecostal pastors that in the recent past in South Africa, some have instructed their congregants to engage in controversial practices like eating grass and snakes, praying with Doom, a multi-purpose insecticide to cure various ailments, drinking engine cleaner, among other bizarre healing methods.

National state of disaster
Four days following my conversation with Thomas, South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster on 16 March, announcing a raft of measures to contain the spread of coronavirus infections. A week later, Ramaphosa announced a three weeks nationwide lockdown, escalating the nation’s response to the spread of coronavirus. The outlook certainly looks bleak in most African countries, considering the odds of generally weak health systems, high levels of poverty and inequality, poor urban water and sanitation infrastructure, endemic conflicts and overcrowding in most urban areas such as vibrant market places, public transport spaces and informal settlements. Containment measures are made even more cumbersome by vastly porous borders across most African neighbouring countries that have declared travel bans on non-citizens.

‘Coronavirus will disappear on March 27
As we conversed, a couple of Thomas’ friends from church joined us at his stall. Ronald works as a security guard at a supermarket chain store while Tafadzwa is a general hand for a construction company. ‘Did you see prophet TB Joshua’s prophecy?’ enquired Tafadzwa. I had not seen or heard about the prophecy. Tafadzwa explained that Nigerian pastor TB Joshua, leader of the Synagogue Church of all Nations (SCOAN), ‘prophesied’ that the coronavirus will disappear on March 27. This did not make sense to me as the COVID-19 was gaining momentum in Africa, with more cases reported across the continent. In fact, WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was urging Africa to ‘prepare for the worst’ as the continent lags behind the global curve for COVID-19 infections and deaths since outbreak in January 2020. ‘Africa should wake up […] in other countries, we have seen how the virus actually accelerates after a certain tipping point’.

A pastor’s WhatsApp message
Ronald jumps in the conversation and declares that his pastor says COVID-19 is a curse, as people have failed to obey God. He takes out his phone and shows us a WhatsApp message shared by his pastor that reads:

Is coronavirus a curse from God because we have failed to obey Him? Let us look at these Bible verses - Leviticus 26 vs 14 – 16; Deuteronomy 28 vs 15 and 22; and Isaiah 26 vs 20 – 21. Let us be in an attitude (sic) of repentance for this is what will calm everything on earth. God is looking for a repenting heart. A heart that cries for His mercy, a heart that begs for His forgiveness, a heart that is ready to repent and leave its past life. Let us cry out for repentance. Let us put on aches and wear sacks and cry before Him as we repent ourselves. God is looking for a repenting heart!!! Let us repent! [Message dated 06 March 2020].

Since the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on 11 March, social media have been inundated with ‘Pentecostal voices’ whose narrative conceptualises and depicts COVID-19 as either a ‘curse’ or fulfilment of a ‘prophecy’ by multitudes of ‘men of God’. Generally speaking, these are common themes in the Pentecostal movement although at times at odds with public health messaging, as some pastors encourage followers to ‘repent’ and pray against the COVID-19 ‘pestilence’ with little regards for promoting measures such as isolation and social distancing.

Church without walls
As cases continue rising, one Pentecostal prophet in Johannesburg has called for a twenty-one days (24/7) prayer chain against the ‘curse of the coronavirus on our nation and Africa at large’. With over 400 predominantly immigrant congregants, the chain prayers coincide with the 21 days of nationwide lockdown. Pentecostal sociality has been consolidated on virtual platforms where members engage with each other. Some have dubbed it ‘church without walls’ as members meet and interact virtually.

Gamechanger
As I part ways with Thomas and his two friends, I realise that more needs to be done to educate and sensitise communities of faith such as Pentecostal Christians, to increase their knowledge and dispel beliefs and attitudes that may hinder measures and hygienic practices. Appreciating the value of communities of faith to effectively respond to COVID-19, President Ramaphosa met with religious leaders as part of wider stakeholder consultations. Ramaphosa had a follow-up meeting with leaders of one of the largest indigenous churches in Southern Africa, Zion Christian Church, ahead of the Easter pilgrimage which normally draws hundreds of thousands of congregants. Pentecostalism could be a gamechanger in disseminating correct information in Sub-Saharan Africa, considering its numeric dominance and the influence of Pentecostal leaders in the everyday lives of followers. Both mainstream media and social media platforms could be an effective vehicle to disseminate information among the massive Pentecostal community in South Africa and the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa. I believe Pentecostal leaders have a moral duty to spread correct information among their followers, consistent with public health guidelines, to avert an impending catastrophe across Africa.


[1] Kalu, O (2008) African Pentecostalism: An Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Kgatle, M.S (2017) The unusual practices within some neo-pentecostal churches in South Africa: Reflections and recommendations. HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 73: 3 – 8.

This post has been written for the ASCL Africanist Blog. Would you like to stay updated on new blog posts? Subscribe here! Would you like to comment? Please do! The ASCL reserves the right to edit, shorten or reject submitted comments.

Also read the other blog posts dealing with the impact of corona in Africa on the ASCL Africanist Blog.

Photo credits: both photos by the author.

Tags

COVID-19
coronavirus
Pentecostalism
religion
pandemic
lockdown
South Africa
Southern Africa

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