Durban - Gary Purchase is a fighter. He has fought drugs, alcohol and a life of crime before finding his calling.
Now heading the Arauna Ark Ministries at Cliffdale, near Cato Ridge, he is fighting allegations of ill-treating some of the broken people who turn to him for help and pocketing money they have earned.
“Nobody wants these guys. Nobody,” said self-ordained “Pastor” Purchase, waving his hand across a sea of about 60 weathered faces in the Arauna Ark restaurant.
“Stand up!” Purchase shouted to one of the men.
“Do you see this guy over here? When he came here he was masturbating outside here. His family doesn’t want him, nobody wants him,” he shouted. The men were subdued, silent, all eyes focused on him.
He takes in ex-convicts, convicts serving community sentences, the elderly, alcoholics and drug addicts. Many are thankful for a roof over their head and a plate of food and in exchange they help him run businesses including a nursery, the restaurant, an automotive workshop, second-hand shop and a vegetable garden.
Purchase, who became an alcoholic at the age of six and led a life of crime before having an encounter with God, believes this is his life’s calling.
The stocky man with tattoos has been described as “the swearing pastor” and he is proud to explain that he got the name after he told a woman who questioned his smoking - which he has since quit - to “F*** off”.
Indeed, some look up to him as God, but others have described him as self-ordained – he has no formal qualifications – and one who allegedly lords it over the residents in a labour camp for personal gain. Those with state pensions and grants pay him R750 a month and they allegedly work for little or no payment, according to former residents.
Heather Clarence’s son, Eric, who has a schizo-effective condition and was on medication paid R1 500 a month to live at the Ark for almost two years.
She has alleged that her son was beaten by residents working for Arauna and that there was no one qualified to dispense medication or counsel him at what she was told was a rehabilitation centre.
Craig Cameron, who previously was in charge of workers at Arauna, said he was “at first very impressed with the place and how it helped the elderly and people off the streets”.
“After about six months I realised as far as the slave labour goes that it was not the place I thought it was. I could see the suffering of the people, especially the elderly who were made to work all day in the sun,” Cameron said.
“I was also paying R1 500 a month to work for Gary and every two months he was somewhere around the country with his horses. It didn’t make sense,” Cameron said.
Cameron said he had nearly died from food poisoning after eating donated food that had been frozen and reheated.
“I was sick for three weeks and Gary and his guys wanted to cut open my door and throw my stuff out. He told me to get out,” Cameron said.
Cameron alleged that he was threatened by a man who pinned him to the bed and held a screwdriver to his neck.
Westville resident and former police captain Donna Myburgh, who worked there for two months, said she was banned after she started asking questions about the ministry’s finances.
Myburgh said she knew a businesswoman who wanted to help the men get jobs, but Purchase was not interested.
Responding to the allegations, Purchase rallied the 60 men around him in the restaurant.
“It’s not a labour camp. Here’s the labour, let them tell you,” Purchase said.
He gave a platform to residents such as George Tsigourakos, Malcolm Nothling, a former polygrapher, Anthony Kelly, Dustin McClusky and Tony Clothier to vouch for his ministry. Each man stepped forward to speak of the good Purchase had done for them in providing them with shelter.
“The guys that get their pensions and grants pay half of the grant, which is the least in South Africa. Manpower said I could take the whole grant if I want to because it’s for accommodation. If they are involved in an income-generating area then they do get a profit share,” Purchase said.
He said he could not be everywhere at once and sometimes there were fights.
“This is 22 years of my life I have given up. Not one church supports me and not one government organisation, but I supply the place through the businesses. All the cases you mention are cases I should never have taken on,” he said.
Anthony Venter, who said he dispensed medicine and looked after Purchase’s finances, said the medication was locked up to keep it safe. He said the finances were above board and produced a letter from Sars showing its registration as a Public Benefit Organisation for a tax exemption.
However, department of social development spokeswoman Ncumisa Fandesi said the organisation was illegal as it had been deregistered as an NPO in 2005 for non-compliance.
“The department will investigate and take appropriate action based on the findings. If it means that the place must be closed the matter will be referred to our legal services for advice to ensure that we follow the letter of the law to stop the illegal operation and protect innocent citizens,” she said.