Inside the most powerful church in south Africa

Jacob Zuma attends. So do many of the ANC's most senior figures. But suspicion of Rhema's materialist message has left outsiders worried at its growing influence. Daniel Howden reports from Johannesburg

Pastor Sifiso leans back into an ample leather armchair and prepares to explode what he sees as the misconception that a rich man cannot enter heaven.

"Listen, the bible tells us that the streets of heaven are paved with gold," he says. As the young preacher speaks there's a glint of the precious metal from the jewellery under his shirt cuffs.

"Where there is Jesus, there is gold everywhere," he insists.

We're coming to the end of a religious induction at the headquarters of Rhema, South Africa's most influential church, which has assumed a significant role in the country's government since President Jacob Zuma came to power.

To its supporters, who include some of the country's most powerful people, it is a welcome coming together of two of South Africa's favourite pastimes, conspicuous consumption and Christianity. To its critics it's a prosperity cult.

Set in an estate of it own in the comfortable Johannesburg suburb of Randburg, Rhema has a vast car park that is made to resemble the forecourt of a luxury vehicle dealership every Sunday. The charismatic Christian evangelical organisation goes out of its way to make the well-heeled feel comfortable, and so the pastor, who is dressed in a shiny black shirt with contrasting white stitching, is happy to boast of Rhema's status.

"We are not an ordinary church. The president comes to us to ask for advice," he says proudly. "We are very influential and very active on social issues."

Those issues include abortion, the death penalty and gay marriages, he explains in a diplomatically roundabout fashion. The extent of Rhema's influence is worrying an increasing number of South African liberals, who are concerned that the evangelical outfit is intent on overturning some of the more progressive aspects of the country's constitution.

Rhema's prosperity gospel, which preaches that "successful lives" are achieved through materialism, networking and faith, and characterised by conspicuous consumption and celebrity, is proving a powerful draw. It offers members the chance to network with insiders in the worlds of business, sport and politics.

In real terms Rhema remains a minnow with fewer than 50,000 members – but they include a who's who in the pew. Its status was underlined last year when Mr Zuma was given the pulpit – exclusively among the presidential candidates – to address the congregation. An influential group of MPs from the ruling African National Congress has joined the church and a conveyor belt of connections has been delivering Rhema publicists on to the president's government staff.

At the centre of the church's own success story is Ray McCauley, an unlikely character who could have stepped from the pages of an Elmore Leonard novel. A former bouncer at Johannesburg's Go-Go club who dropped out of school to become a hairdresser, the pinnacle of his early success was placing third in the 1974 edition of Mr Universe – an event won by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

These days he is a religious leader whose materialist message can sell out 40,000-seater venues like the Coca-Cola dome. The body building, the preacher has explained in interviews, was his attempt to deal with a propensity for over-eating and insecurities bred by a rough childhood with a gambling father and an alcoholic mother.

A "born storyteller" in his own estimation, Pastor Ray found his true calling in Tulsa, Oklahoma at a comparatively obscure bible school with his first wife Lyndie. The pair eventually returned home and set up their own Rhema franchise in a spare room at Mr McCauley's parents.

The back-room evangelical church celebrated its 30th birthday last year with a party that attracted pop stars, sporting heroes and the most controversial of President Zuma's wives, Ma Ntuli, whose spending habits have drawn the attention of local media.

The strongest indication of Mr McCauley's status in South Africa's new order was his appointment to head up the newly created National Interfaith Leaders Council (NILC), a body meant to advise and aid the government on the delivery of social services – among other things.

The leadership of the NILC, which abruptly displaced South Africa's Council of Churches, saw the former strongman dubbed the "high priest of South Africa".

The accumulating power of the evangelist has caused deep concern in South Africa's intellectual community. Jacques Rousseau, an academic at the University of Cape Town and the director of the Free Society Institute, is among Mr McCauley's more eloquent critics.

"It's a prosperity cult," he explains. "It teaches you that wealth is the same as happiness and that all this is possible if you give money to Ray McCauley."

Rousseau, who has written some fierce editorials condemning the growing influence of Rhema, says it is not just secularists but "people of faith" who are concerned by Rhema's "fast food beliefs".

He points to recent discussion over a new bill cracking down on pornography. The only religious groups that were consulted were Christian, and the chief among them was the NILC, which is headed by McCauley.

"We're living in a poor country and people are looking for a way out," says Rousseau. Rhema, he says, is exploiting them by selling an empty "rock and roll religion" with a US flavour that leaves no room for the "quiet voice of reason".

Giet Khosa, a spokesman for the church, says that joining Rhema has taken him from a tough life "in a shack in the townships" firmly into the middle classes. He says the church has the right to enter the public debate over issues such as gay marriage and abortion but denies that it is preaching a prosperity gospel.

President Zuma's critics accuse him of using this movement for his own benefit by publicly consulting groups like the NILC and courting Rhema during the campaign.

More worrying still has been the apparent overlap between the ruling ANC and the charismatic church. A number of Rhema publicists, including Carl Niehaus, who was forced to resign from a senior government post over fraud allegations, have moved from Randburg to senior roles in the party. Mr Zuma's current director-general of communications, Vusi Mona, has followed the same path. McCauley's interfaith council has even issued its press statements direct from ANC headquarters at Luthuli House.

According to Jeremy Gordin, Mr Zuma's biographer, the interest in evangelical Christianity is about political expedience, not faith. "As far as I know he still goes into the forest at Nkandla to commune with his [Zulu] ancestors," he says.

But having a friendly moral authority on hand to pronounce on public issues has proved useful for the president.

Pastor and president have found common ground in the distance between their public statements on conservative morality and their rather messier private lives. Pastor Ray is on his second divorce, while Mr Zuma is eyeing a sixth union.

When the openly polygamous president was engulfed in a scandal over fathering children out of wedlock earlier this year, the NILC publicly forgave him.

Pastor Ray was even called on this month to bless the national football team on live television, an event during which he looked unwell and was later taken to hospital. He is now recovering after a heart bypass operation.

Steven Pienaar, the Bafana-Bafana star player, is another Rhema regular and was seen before the kick-off in the World Cup engaging in some sort of laying on of the hands with his teammates.

Health problems have temporarily removed the body-builder turned preacher from the pulpit of his 8,000 seater auditorium at Randburg, but the church has plans afoot to make it even bigger and more glamorous than ever for his return. A multimillion pound conversion is on the drawing board, with international architects invited to create what the local press has dubbed the "Oscars church".

Religion in South Africa

*Introduced by Dutch and British settlers in the 17th century, Christianity dominates the South African religious landscape. According to the 2001 census, around 80 per cent of the nation is Christian and the majority worship at independent African Zion Christian churches. Christianity is most common among white South Africans and those of sub-Saharan ancestry, and slightly less dominant among the black population. During the Apartheid years, some interpreted Christian doctrine as a justification for racism.

The Dutch are also said to have introduced Islam and Hinduism by bringing Muslims to the Western Cape from Indonesian colonies, and Hindu servants from India. Today, around 1.5 per cent of the population are Muslim, 1.2 per cent are Hindu and 0.2 per cent are Jewish.

Approximately 0.3 per cent hold traditional African faith, rooted in cultural beliefs that ancestral spirits are more powerful than a supreme being, though they are not regarded as gods. And 15 per cent of South Africans claim to have no religion. ENJOLI LISTON

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