A visit to a booming South African indigenous spiritual movement, founded in 2009 by Dr. Samuel Radebe, regarded as a high-level spiritual guide (IMboni) by his followers.
by Massimo Introvigne
Article 1 of 4.
For those of us from European countries where churches of various Christian denominations are sold to become warehouses or restaurants because they have become too large for their dwindling congregations, the sight of places of worship packed to capacity and with those who cannot be accommodated inside hosted in “overflow annexes,” or even in the open air, comes as a cultural shock. Yet, this is precisely what I and colleagues from different countries saw in January in Johannesburg, where we went for a visit to a booming South African indigenous spiritual movement called The Revelation Spiritual Home and for a small conference where we interacted with the group’s own scholars.
There is a significant literature on South African religious movements, particularly on Zion Christian Church and the spectacular pilgrimages to its headquarters in Limpopo Province. And, as we learned in Johannesburg, Western groups that immediately come to the mind when discussing new religious movements, such as the Church of Scientology or the Unification Church/Family Federation, also have a significant presence there. However, The Revelation Spiritual Home (TRSH) is something totally different. If we believed we had learned something about new spiritual movements in Africa, we quickly realized we needed to unlearn it, and look at the group without pre-determined categories.
In truth, there are elements in the Sunday service of TRSH that one can find in other African religious and spiritual movements, such as the presence of women in uniforms reminiscent of the military, and a musical style that may sometimes (although not always) have something in common with Zionist and Pentecostal churches. The occasional similarities in language and communication should not, however, hide the fact that the message is different.
Dr. Samuel Radebe (who earned a doctorate from a Bible college in the United States) is known to his followers as IMboni uZwi-Lezwe Radebe, and commonly referred to as “IMboni,” a word used in several different African languages to indicate a high-level spiritual guide. Although he is often referred to in the media as “Prophet Radebe,” he explains that there is a difference between prophet and IMboni. A prophet is an inspired preacher and speaks for God, but an IMboni is much more than that. IMboni is a spiritual guide who possesses immaculate spiritual foresight and indigenous spiritual wisdom.
Importantly, IMboni’s spiritual revelations are primarily of national importance. He comes from a lineage of IIMboni (plural of the word IMboni) and has been designated by the Creator God (UMfihlakalo) to be the spiritual guide of a whole nation. An IMboni is born as such, not taught or elected by a group. In addition to the powers of prophecy and spiritual guidance, he has the power to heal both spiritually and physically.
The coming of an IMboni should also have been predicted by other IIMboni and spiritual masters. TRSH found predictions easily applicable to Radebe in words by Simon Kimbangu (1887–1951), the founder of the large Congo-based Christian religious movement known as Kimbanguism, and Mantsopa Anna Makhetha (1793–1908), the most renowned spiritual guide in present-day Lesotho in the 19th century. (A recent book written by University of Fort Hare’s Felicity Wood and economist Michael Lewis reports that Khotso Sethuntsa, 1898–1972, who was born in Lesotho but spent most of his life in Lusikisiki, Eastern Cape, gaining international fame as a herbalist, also operated in the tradition of Mantsopa).
TRSH sponsors a research organization called African Hidden Voices (AHV). It is of great service to scholars, as it collects testimonies and documents about often forgotten African spiritual masters. Not surprisingly, it also gathers testimonies announcing the coming of a future IMboni they identify with Radebe.
Radebe was born in 1977 as Samuel Mbiza, and grew up in Gugulethu, Western Cape, near Cape Town. He came from the Radebe clan, which had given to its AmaHlubi ethnic group several spiritual guides. According to TRSH sources, traces of Radebe’s spiritual calling began from a very young age when he was only 4 months old. At the age of 4, signs of his spiritual calling intensified. It is at that time when he began experiencing visions and other spiritual phenomena.
He saw multi-colored lit candles on the grounds whenever he would put his foot there. These visions continued, and left him scared and with problems in moving and speaking until he was six, when an elderly woman known for her spiritual gifts visited the family and explained that the boy was not sick. His Izithunywa (spiritual guides) were calling him to his spiritual mission. After the woman performed a ritual of placing a block of camphor and lighting a white candle (izibane) to appease the Izithunywa, Samuel was able to talk, move, and go back to school, but the visions continued.
Radebe lost his father when he was a toddler, and later when he was a teenager he lost his mother. It was after the passing of his mother when the young Radebe decided to serve his Creator, and moved to Johannesburg where he joined a Brazilian Pentecostal denomination called the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) which had a considerable success in South Africa. Soon, the young Radebe conducted his own healing services, which attracted new members to Johannesburg’s UCKG.
According to Radebe, his move to Johannesburg was spiritually predetermined by his spiritual guides in order to begin his spiritual mission of reviving the spirituality of the African people. However, in order for him to do so, he had to first understand the reason behind the demise of African indigenous spirituality.
His success notwithstanding, Radebe felt out of place at the UCKG (in fact, having studied the UCKG in Brazil and elsewhere, I found no apparent traces of their theology and practices in present-day TRSH). The apparent mistreatment of African pastors within the church sparked a curiosity in young Radebe, who wanted to know “why are black people until this day victims of segregation and brutal treatment even after democracy.” It was after continuous self-introspection that Radebe was led to Ncome (a river in Kwazulu-Natal. The river called Ncome in isiZulu is also known as the Blood River in English or Bloed River in Afrikaans). This was one of the two experiences that would later lead to the establishment of TRSH.
The second experience was the trip to the Vaal River where Radebe was spiritually initiated by his spiritual guides. TRSH members see it as a turning point in African spiritual history. While at the Vaal River, he saw a golden lampstand emerging from beneath the waters. This lampstand had seven lit candles in different colors (white, two baby blue, green, red, yellow, and royal blue). Again, on another occasion, young Radebe saw beings with abnormally big heads and some with a third eye. It was at that moment when he was told by his spiritual guides that the time had come for him to establish an African indigenous institution.