SOUTH AFRICA

Pretoria church burnt down in raid on 'Pastor Snakes'

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A South African pastor has gained quite a reputation in the past few months. The self-styled prophet undresses churchgoers and walks on their bodies, whilst publishing photos of his rituals online. Fed up with what they see as the pastor's abuse of the poor and downtrodden, outraged residents in his Pretoria neighbourhood have taken matters into their own hands by torching the church.

Pastor Penuel Mnguni heads an evangelical Christian congregation called End Times Disciples Ministries in Soshanguve, a shantytown in northwest Pretoria. His bizarre rituals have made him a regular feature in South African media outlet over the past few months. Pastor Mnguni undresses his congregation to cleanse their sins, he flings himself on top of them and feeds them "chocolate-flavoured" toilet paper. The so-called "church" posts about each "miracle" on its Facebook page.

WARNING: SOME OF THESE IMAGES MAY SHOCK VIEWERS

The pastor's latest antics even saw him incur the wrath of animal rights activists when he was summoned by police on charges of animal cruelty after feeding snakes and rats to his followers. Penuel Mnguni told them that eating these animals would earn them God's blessings. Despite photos published on the congregation's Facebook page (shown below) the police released the pastor owing to "a lack of evidence and witnesses".

For the pastor's neighbours in Soshanguve, however, his impunity had lasted long enough. On Sunday, a group of residents decided to pay the congregation a visit. They were accompanied by EFF militants. EFF, or Economic Freedom Fighters, is an anti-capitalist party founded by Julius Malema, an inflammatory politician banished from the ruling ANC party in 2012 for slandering white South Africans.

They had hoped to find the pastor to force him to eat rats and snakes himself. But when they couldn't find him, they decided to burn down the tents that form the congregation's place of worship, sparking violent clashes with his followers.

Photo taken by a student from the University of Tshwane during an attack on the congregation's place of worship. Photo reproduced here with the permission of Hilke Steenkamp.

"This church conceals deeper problems that plague the shantytown"

Hilke Steenkamp is a journalism professor at Pretoria's Technology University. The institution's journalism campus is based in Soshanguve. One of her students, Kgalaleo Tlhoaele, was filming the congregation's rituals on Sunday when she was attacked by churchgoers after the pastor's assistant had persuaded them that her hair was food.

The young student got very scared when church members tried to chew her braids. But in the end she decided not to press charges [Editor's note: In an interview with a South African channel, she explained that she hadn't been injured and wanted to put this matter behind her].

We were a bit surprised that the ordeal got so much attention in the national media, even if it clearly does have a "viral" potential. For me, these events reveal the underlying tensions that exist in this Pretoria suburb, where extreme poverty is deeply rooted. Focusing on this "church" is a bit like focusing on a tree that conceals a hidden forest of deeper social and economic problems, such as squalid homes with scarce access to electricity, scarcity of clean water, and a lack of jobs. As eccentric as this congregation may be, it’s not surprising that it exists, given that these people are waiting for a "miracle" in their life.

Just after being attacked by the churchgoers who thought that her braids were food, Kgalaleo Tlhoaele filmed believers frantically eating tree leaves. Video posted on Rekord Pretoria.

"We think there are many other pastors who aren't in the media spotlight but behave in a similar manner"

South Africa's constitution guarantees freedom of religion. That means that unless authorities can prove that Penuel Mnguni has broken the law - which they haven't - Pretoria's eccentric pastor can go on preaching unimpeded. For Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, a member of South Africa's Council of Churches, this situation has become intolerable.

This pastor has every right to found his own religion based on swallowing mice and snakes. But right now he's doing it under the guise of Christianity! Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. Last September, a pastor based in Durban [Editor's note: Considered to be Penuel's mentor] told his congregation to graze on grass.

We think there are many other pastors who aren't in the media spotlight but behave in a similar manner: taking advantage of society's poorest and most vulnerable to attract new believers and enrich themselves at their expense [Editor's note: The pastor's church in Soshanguve doesn't charge for entry, but relies on donations. The pastor has also asked journalists for 100,000 rands - about 7,000 euros - a pop for interviews].

"Pastor Snakes" has laid low since his place of worship was torched, but he'll be able to go on preaching so long as charges aren't pressed. In the meantime, South African police have announced the opening of an investigation to identify the EFF militants thought to have been involved in setting fire to the tent. The party has for its part denied any responsibility.

Despite the clashes that ruined the tent under which the congregation normally gathers, the pastor's followers continue praying. Photo taken August 9 by a student at the Tshwane University of Technology and reproduced here with the permission of Hilke Steenkamp.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Alexandre Capron (@alexcapron).