Every Easter weekend the enigmatic Zion Christian Church (ZCC) members gather at the foothills of the craggy Moria Mountain that bursts into life.
The penurious village of Boyne, 40km outside Polokwane, the seat of the century-old ZCC, drew a staggering number of worshippers from around the world this year again.
The church does not keep a record of how many people visit Moria for the annual Easter pilgrimage. But conjectural and back-of-envelope calculations suggest that it’s between 3 million and 5 million worshippers.
By Friday afternoon, hundreds of thousands of parishioners in buses and cars from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana and all over South Africa were pouring into the church. On the R71 between Polokwane and Tzaneen, another 8km of buses and cars were queuing patiently to be ushered into the church complex.
Outside the enclave, a group of men in a whopper of a circle, wearing khaki blazers and trousers, police-lookalike hats and white shoes, erupted into trippy songs. They jumped up and down in well-choreographed unison carried out with military precision.
The women were not to be outdone in their own, smaller groups, clad in blue tunics and jerseys; they swung their bodies to and fro, sending strains of melody into the sun-blasted atmosphere.
At the main gate leading into the church premises, security guards were hard at work searching people for prohibited items. But they could not keep up. The meandering queue was long and stretched for more than 2km. The sweltering afternoon heat was unforgiving. A group of men in the queue remarked that the rate at which the queue was moving would even have put the enduring forbearance of Jesus Christ himself to the test.
I asked them what it was about the church that made them willing to put up with the queues, year in and year out.
A Zimbabwean couple based in the UK, Murungu and Sylvia Marufu, were part of a group that travels to Moria at least once every five years.
“[Church leader] Papa Lekganyane is god himself. He is not equal to God the creator, but he is god in his own right. He remains secretive, in a way, just like God operates in secret,” said Sylvia.
To thrust the message home that the ZCC is a titanic player in the church business, Sylvia revealed that a branch in the UK was opened last year.
“This is the first African church to be exported to Europe. Normally, it is the other way around; Europeans export their churches to Africa. And that is why we love our church and bishop,” she said with a notable devotion to Lekganyane.
Zachariah Mahlatsi from Alexandra in Johannesburg hurled a quick answer when asked what attracted him to the church.
“What could be better than coming here to soak ourselves in the presence of our leader, Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane, and our God?”
Only a precious few get to see the legendary and shy Lekganyane. Victor Numa, Mahlatsi’s friend, said that out of the church’s reported 8 million members, very few had ever seen Lekganyane in person. “He is a special emissary of God, and he is holy. Why should we all see him? We are content with hearing his voice,” he said.
What heightens the mystery around Lekganyane is that, unlike his counterparts in charismatic Christian churches who fly around in private jets, he shuns the gaudy trappings of success and prefers a frugal and humble existence in rustic Moria, despite his vast wealth.
The climax of the weekend will be this morning when the bishop delivers his eagerly awaited sermon. It will be broadcast to the millions via a loudspeaker system.
Like thousands of others, once they overcome the checking-in hurdle, Mahlatsi and friends will head to the campsite to pitch their tents. Those who can afford them bring them along, pitch them at the site and use them as and when they want to rest or sleep. Others sleep in the buses, and many others barely find time to sleep. They spend the entire Easter weekend lost in song, dance and prayer.
“I’m telling you my friend, we get refreshed, we refuel and get a rebirth of sorts. What we get here keeps us going until we come back again,” said Mahlatsi. His account of their annual stay in Moria was florid and riveting.
Perhaps it is the allure of the nirvana described by Mahlatsi that makes the millions embark on the perilous and treacherous trip to Moria. Many may not make it because of traffic jams, breakdowns and epic bloodletting on the roads during Easter. Durbanite Bonga Mavuso’s car broke down just before the Kranskop Toll Plaza on Friday morning.
“There is a strong chance I won’t make it to Moria. My trip ends here. It is sad, but the Lord knows I tried. And I will be back again next year, and the year after, Lord willing.”