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Lions, lies and hope

Amid waves of deadly violence — fueled by misinformation on social media — South Africa’s Churches of Christ go online to call their nation to prayer.

Johan Gerber remembers praying for rain — and the cloudburst that followed.

It happened in the 1980s, during a period of extreme drought in the Highveld, the interior plateau of his native South Africa. Gerber and his family bowed their heads during a national hour of prayer in the city of Welkom.

Johan Gerber

Johan Gerber

His father was working near Johannesburg and prayed with the Boksburg Church of Christ. There, Gerber said, an older gentleman known as Oom Jaap — “Uncle Jaap” in Afrikaans — “did not simply lead the church in prayer but instead spoke to God in his plea for rain and had the whole church in tears.”

As the family drove home, from Welkom to Riebeeckstad, Gerber saw flashes of lightning on the endless horizon. That night, and in the days that followed, rain poured from the sky into the parched lands.

Four decades later, South Africa is again “in dire need of godly intervention,” Gerber said, after what some news reports dubbed the worst wave of violence since the end of apartheid. The mayhem in two of the country’s nine provinces claimed more than 200 lives, cost 50 billion rand ($3.4 billion) in lost output and placed 150,000 jobs at risk, according to Bloomberg.

That’s why Gerber, a member of the Bellville Church of Christ near Cape Town, and fellow Christians across the nation of 60 million souls organized #PrayerHourSA, an effort to bring South Africa to its knees before God.

Gunshots at night

The recent jailing of former South African president Jacob Zuma sparked days of protests and looting.

“At night you could hear the gunshots and the helicopters,” Lou Theron, a member of the Turffontein Church of Christ, told The Christian Chronicle via WhatsApp from his home in Johannesburg.  

Former South African President Jacob Zuma.

Former South African President Jacob Zuma.

Zuma was charged with contempt by South Africa’s highest court after he failed to appear before a commission investigating multiple accusations of corruption during his years in office (2009 to 2018).

Doctored images and false claims on social media — including a fake story that protesters had released lions from a game preserve — further fueled the violence.

In a fact-checking post, the BBC labeled a claim about lions being released in the midst of protests as misleading.

In a fact-checking post, the BBC labeled a claim about lions being released in the midst of protests as misleading.

In Zuma’s home province, KwaZulu-Natal, some church members spent days manning barriers or patrolling farms to keep looters at bay, said Shane Sweeten, a missionary from Texas who works with the Dolphin Coast Church of Christ in the town of Ballito and on a farm outside the small town of KwaDukuza.

In the Soweto suburb of Eldorado Park, “the community risked their lives and formed a cordon around their neighborhoods, preventing the looters from entering,” said Pieter Gerber, a member of the Rietfontein Church of Christ in Pretoria and Johan Gerber’s cousin. “They stood shoulder to shoulder and braved the danger and cold, as it is mid-winter in South Africa. These civilian groups included Christian brothers and sisters.”

‘Positivity and hope’ go viral

Long-simmering social and economic issues set the stage for unrest, church members said.

More than 27 years after South Africa’s segregationist apartheid system ended, the nation suffers from a widening gap between rich and poor, COVID-19 lockdowns and, most recently, an aggressive wave of the virus’ delta variant. The lockdowns prevent churches from meeting in person, so many congregations use digital platforms including YouTube, Facebook, Zoom and WhatsApp.

Protesters march to Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, to demand that the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, step down immediately in April 2017. Zuma resigned in February 2018 after he was recalled by his own party, the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Protesters march to Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, to demand that the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, step down immediately in April 2017. Zuma resigned in February 2018 after he was recalled by his own party, the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Johan Gerber, himself recovering from a recent bout of COVID-19, and fellow Christians contacted more than 200 church leaders across South Africa about #PrayerHourSA. The team reached out to media outlets, more than 100 of the country’s largest denominations and the South African Council of Churches.

Devereaux Manuel, who grew up in the Athlone Church of Christ and now worships with the Bellville congregation, designed social media posts for the event and promoted it on Instagram and Facebook. “I am just glad I could be used as a vessel to spread some positivity and hope into the country,” she told the Chronicle.

Motshabi Sophia Mtshazo

Motshabi Sophia Mtshazo

Nearly 700 miles away, Motshabi Sophia Mtshazo, a member of the East London Church of Christ, helped to translate the prayer request into multiple South African languages for the #PrayerHourSA website. The site included contacts in 13 languages for Churches of Christ across the country.

“We know that when the church comes together to pray, the Lord will intervene,” Mtshazo said, citing 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

In crisis, opportunities and open arms

Brian Lister

Brian Lister

Southeast of Cape Town, five members of the Somerset West Church of Christ said prayers during the church’s #PrayerHourSA service. One noted that “today is national day to pray for our country, but this day should be every day,” Mtshazo said.

In coastal KwaZulu-Natal, elders of the Durban Church of Christ prayed for their government, for medical personnel and for Christians to remain strong in their faith during this time of testing, church leader Brian Lister told the Chronicle via WhatsApp.

Despite his homeland’s hardships, “the Gospel always thrives when things go bad,” said Lister, who was baptized by the late missionary Tex Williams at age 11 in 1968. “There are opportunities right now, and we need to grab them with open arms.”

‘The gospel always thrives when things go bad. There are opportunities right now, and we need to grab them with open arms.’

In Pretoria, Kobus Gerber read from Psalm 10 (“Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”) during the Rietfontein church’s service. He also read from the next chapter, Psalm 11 (“For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice”).

“This reminded us that there is a God. He is alive,” Pieter Gerber said. “In him we live and we survive.” In the sermon that followed, he stressed the need for unity in worship, in compassion, in relationships and in love.

‘A comeback nation’

Johan Gerber said he was impressed by the Christians who helped organize the nationwide effort.

“There were all these talented, eager, willing people who rallied behind the idea,” he said. Since the event, he has received several messages from participants who said, “We should think outside of the box more often; we should mobilize the whole country more often.”

Johan Gerber captured this image of a rainbow near his home in 2021.

Johan Gerber captured this image of a rainbow near his home in 2021.

“Even when churches are small,” he said, “these days we have all the tools to make a massive impact if you put in the time.”

Despite the recent tension, turmoil and negative news, “South Africa is a story of hope,” he added, “of how we’ve overcome and kept on overcoming a lot of differences and difficulties, all through my life.”

Lou Theron

Lou Theron

Lou Theron agrees. He’s a graduate of the Southern Africa Bible School in Benoni, near Johannesburg. More than half a century ago, the government told school officials that they could train only White evangelists. The school, now named Southern Africa Bible College, trains ministers of multiple ethnicities from countries across the region.

Theron and his wife are the only White members of the Turffontein Church of Christ, a multiethnic congregation whose 60 members hail from a dozen different nations.

“We’re known as a comeback nation,” Theron said of his homeland. “Currently, what’s happening is that people are standing together, probably stronger than ever before.”

Filed under: #PrayerHourSA African Christianity Churches of Christ Churches of Christ in South Africa International Jacob Zuma Prayer Hour Prayer service South Africa South African riots Top Stories Zuma protests Zuma riots

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