DURBAN – Millions of followers of the Nazareth Baptist Church will have to wait until Tuesday to hear who their legally appointed leader is.
Two factions within the church, popularly known as Shembe, have been embroiled in a five-year legal battle since the death of its leader Vimbeni Shembe in 2011.
Vimbeni’s son, Mduduzi Shembe, and his cousin, Vela Shembe, have both laid claims to being head of the church and sole guardian of its substantial trust.
Judge Achmat Jappie started delivering his judgment in the civil trial on Monday at the Durban High Court.
Judge Jappie gave an overview of how the church was founded in 1911 by Isaiah Shembe, who died in 1935. The church has seen succession battles ever since.
“This is not the first time there has been such a crisis in the history of the church,” said the judge.
Judge Jappie said Zwelabantu Buthelezi, Vimbeni Shembi’s lawyer, told the court that Vimbeni came to his office in January 2000 and told him he did not want any more succession battles after he died.
Vimbeni had himself been caught up in a battle for succession in 1995.
Vimbeni told Buthelezi that his cousin, Vela Shembe, was to be “titular head of the church and sole trustee of the trust”.
According to Buthelezi’s testimony, Vimbeni said that Vela’s leadership role was be announced at his funeral “to avoid any disputes within the church”.
Buthelezi said in March 2011 he received a letter from Vimbeni, telling Buthelezi he was not well and reminding him that at his funeral that Vela was to be introduced to congregants as “leader of the Nazareth Church”.
After Vimbeni’s death, Buthelezi approached church leadership asking to speak to the family of his client and tribal leaders to tell them he had an announcement to make at the funeral.
He was told it was “unnecessary” and “not keeping with protocol” to speak to the family during mourning.
Armed with the deed of nomination letter from Vimbeni and a police escort because things had “become tense”,, Buthelezi attended the funeral, ready to address the crowd.
But before he could do so, church leader Mqoqi Ngcobo announced that Vimbeni’s eldest son, Mduduzi, would take his father’s place.
Minutes later, Buthelezi told the crowd that it was Vimbeni’s wish that Vela succeed him.
Judge Jappie said the case saw three handwriting experts offer their opinions on the authenticity of the letter Buthelezi said he received from Vimbeni.
There was a strong police presence inside and outside the court as tensions between the factions remain high. About 150 supporters of Mduduzi gathered outside the court.
The church has about five million followers, with assets worth up to half a billion rand.
Assets have been frozen pending the outcome of the trial.
Judgment continues on Tuesday morning.