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.
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.