Durban - A five-year legal battle to determine the successor of the Nazareth Baptist Church is expected to come to a head on Tuesday as KwaZulu-Natal Judge President Achmat Jappie concludes his judgment.
Opposing factions within the church, also known as the Shembe Church, have been embroiled in a leadership dispute since the death of their leader, Vimbeni Shembe, in 2011.
At Vimbeni Shembe’s funeral, Inkosi Mqoqi Ngcobo announced that Shembe’s son, Mduduzi, was the new leader.
However, Vimbeni’s cousin, Vela, claimed he was the rightful leader and had a deed of nomination, which he said had been signed by Vimbeni.
This led to five high court applications in 2011, which were consolidated in August of that year.
Jappie began his judgment on Monday, saying this was not the first time the church had such a crisis, referring to the birth of the Baptist Church of Nazareth in 1911 and the succession battles since then.
Some of the issues Jappie had to decide on was: whether the late leader had nominated either men or both of them to be the titular head of the church, whether the letter and nomination form given to the late leader’s lawyer, Zwelabantu Buthelezi, was written and signed by Vimbeni Shembe, whether the church’s executive committee had any power to nominate and appoint a successor, whether Mduduzi was in contempt of court for holding a function declaring him as the leader; and whether he should purge this contempt of court.
Twenty-two witnesses testified during the marathon trial – 15 testified on behalf of Vela including three handwriting experts, and seven witnesses testified for Mduduzi. There were 38 exhibits which included three DVDs and speeches translated into English.
During his speech at Vimbeni Shembe’s funeral, Ngcobo said he was the only person who would announce the successor to the eBuhleni house and not anyone else. He had warned Buthelezi not to read his letter because he did not want any conflict among the members.
“You are not going to split this church. I’ll make the announcement,” the inkosi said.
He then announced Mduduzi as the new leader. Soon after, Buthelezi addressed the crowd and read from the deed of nomination, saying Vela was the new head of the house.
Outside the Durban High Court on Monday, it was a relatively quiet day in comparison to previous court appearances when rival factions came to blows.
There was a heavy police presence inside and outside the court building with crowd control barricades erected at the main entrances to the court.