The right to worship should not violate the rights of others or degenerate into a cacophony of noise that disturbs peace, writes Lucas Ledwaba
We had had enough of bazalwane.
They had arrived suddenly in our neighbourhood one day and set up a giant white tent on an open field just across the street from our homes in Allandale, Midrand.
Before we knew it, our once-peaceful neighbourhood was no more.
Even in the comfort of my bedroom some 300 metres from the tent, I could feel my ears aching from the off-key guitar and wild drumming of the worshippers.
Shutting the doors and windows didn’t keep out the frantic voice of who I gathered to be the preacher, grunting and shouting some words in a strange language I couldn’t fathom.
This went on for hours, well into the night on Wednesdays and Saturdays when bazalwane were allegedly practising their music.
Sundays were the worst. The discordant guitar and wild drumming that could have irritated even the dead and the deaf broke the morning peace just after sunrise.
You had to be really strong-willed to endure that noise without being driven to drink.
The keyboard, played by someone who would have earned a good klap from Ray Charles for disgracing the gods of the instrument, sent the windows vibrating just as you were about to enjoy your breakfast.
The shouting, yelling and singing from the invisible pastor and his equally loud congregants, who appeared to be vying for God’s attention all at once, added to the chaos.
Sundays were no longer the same. You could not just sit in the garden with a drink, soft or hard, cold or hot, and enjoy the eclectic sounds of Malombo in peace.
Bazalwane had taken over.
At times I even wondered if the man from Nazareth himself would approve of such a noise.
If you had needed some peace on a Sunday you would have had to make a plan not to be home – the very place where you were supposed to relax peacefully after a long week running the rat race.
From just after sunrise to sunset the noise would go on and on and on. This went on for well over a month. The tent became the subject of animated and frustrated conversation in the community.
A few, and I mean a small number of people from the community, joined the noise-making brigade.
But the majority of the people worshipping there drove in or commuted from somewhere else.
They were not from our community. They just came there to shout at the devil and go back to their homes and leave us irritated and depressed.
Ours was a community where everyone pretty much minded their own business. It was a fairly new township-style development with a community that was still developing its own culture and structures.
So, unlike in old townships such as Mamelodi or Umlazi, we had no solid committees that would have either engaged with the bazalwane the minute the tent went up or, in an extreme case, melted the tent under a ball of fire.
But you can only push people up to a certain point. After enduring this torture for months, we appeared to all be reaching a collective breaking point.
One early weekday evening, while nursing a cold after-work drink, I was surprised to see a group of neighbours moving towards the tent.
If you have lived in the township, then you somehow become sort of an expert in group behaviour.
You can tell just by observing a group whether they are taking a lazy walk to the tavern, walking home from a game of football or on the way somewhere to sort out someone.
My neighbours’ movements that evening suggested they had either decided they were going to warn the noisy people from the tent or, if it came to that, sort them out – if you know what I mean.
I hate violence. And I’m really not one who supports the settling of issues by force. I believe in dialogue and the extreme application of common sense.
But after having endured one too many week nights and Sundays whose peace had been molested by the terrible, inharmonious, coordinated noise masquerading as music, I was ready to suspend that application of common sense.
It was time to act. So I ran after my neighbours, some of them much older than I was, and others my agemates.
I had guessed right. My neighbours had decided the activities at the tent had reached unacceptable levels.
The leader had even introduced so-called all-night prayer services that went on from Friday right up to Sunday morning.
We descended on the tent as the band was still setting up and doing a sound check (why did they even bother?). One of the older men in our delegation summoned one of the youths to call the leader of the church.
A tallish, thickset man with a 1970s-style Afro appeared from the tent. He greeted us in the name of Jesus. We actually didn’t care in whose name he was greeting us. He could have greeted us in the name of Ace Ntsoelengoe or Boris Becker, we wouldn’t have given a hoot.
Instead we all descended on him with questions. Who was he? Where did he come from? Who gave him permission to occupy that space?
He had been sent by God, he responded. What? Did God send him to come and cause this kind of noise in our neighbourhood? Did God conveniently send him away from his own neighbourhood?
We were on the verge of polishing off the self-styled messenger of God when the eldest of our neighbours intervened.
What followed afterwards was months of frustration, trying unsuccessfully to get the authorities to act against the illegal occupiers who had not the faintest respect for by-laws.
The inconsiderate messenger of God went on as before. In his head he was doing no wrong and we who were offended were devil worshippers who needed salvation.
This unfortunately is a cancer that has been left to gnaw at communities for many years without restraint.
By-law enforcement remains the privilege of the rich in the suburbs. Had this tent been in Hyde Park or Rosebank, it wouldn’t have lasted even one hour. The Metropolitan cops would have descended on it with all their might.
Why can’t the same attitude apply in the townships? Why are township people left at the mercy of those who have absolutely no respect for the rights of others and the laws that have been set up to ensure we all live in relative safety and peace in communities?
I was reminded of this ungodly episode by the recent announcement by City of Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba that he was going to clamp down on these noisy churches.
People need to learn to practise their religion without imposing it on others.
A clampdown on such establishments should not be seen as an attack on Christianity or the right to freedom of association and so forth.
It should be seen for what it is: reinforcing the ethos of good neighbourliness and common sense.
When I moved out of Allandale seven years ago, that tent was still up and running and the guitarist had not improved one bit.
But I left without carrying out my threat to unleash a boxful of venomous snakes on the congregants.
Ledwaba is an author and editor of Mukurukuru Media