Mduduzi Shembe

Durban – Mduduzi Shembe sat stony-faced as his self-proclaimed leadership of the Nazareth Baptist Church and its over five million followers was swept aside in the Durban High Court on Tuesday.

Concluding the judgment he started on Monday, KwaZulu-Natal Judge President Achmat Jappie said that he found in favour of Vela Shembe, the cousin of Mduduzi’s late father, Vimbeni, as titular head of the church, popularly known as Shembe.

The succession battle started in 2011 with the death of iNkosi Vimbeni Shembe and led to a schism between followers of Mduduzi and Vela. Mduduzi is the eldest son of Vimbeni and has a much larger support base than Vela.

Mduduzi appeared in court for the first time during the five-year long trial on Tuesday. His followers laid down a mat and a lounge-chair for their leader, which Mduduzi occupied throughout the judgment.

Mduduzi’s advocate, Rajesh Choudree SC, greeted his client while kneeling before him.

Vela’s supporters started whispering “Amen” and smiling as it became clear in which direction Jappie would rule. Dressed in a suit and tie, Vela sat amongst his followers with a smile on his face.

Within seconds of Jappie’s conclusion, and not unexpectedly, Choudree rose and let Jappie know of his intention to lodge an application against “the entire judgment”.

“Leave to appeal to the full bench of the KwaZulu-Natal High Court is granted,” said Jappie after a short discussion.

Vela’s advocate, Archie Findlay SC, said his client was seeking finality as the case had run over five-years.

Mduduzi was regarded by his massive following to be legitimately chosen by his father to lead the church and take control of its substantial assets and trust, which some sources estimate to be worth around R500 million.

Mduduzi’s case relied mostly on oral testimony from his mother and church leaders, who told the court that Vimbeni had let them know it was his wish for his eldest son to take over leadership upon his death.

But Jappie said Choudree “failed to show on the balance of probabilities that there had been an oral examination,” as the oral testimony did not include any direct or indirect speech from Vimbeni.

Vela’s case relied on the written documentation provided by Vimbeni’s lawyer, Zwelabantu Elias Buthelezi.

Buthelezi was able to produce a deed of nomination and a letter signed by Vimbeni stating that he had chosen Vela as his legitimate successor. Jappie said the deed was “the foundation of [Vela’s] case”.

Jappie said that two handwriting experts testified that the signature on the deed and the letter was Vimbeni’s, while the handwriting expert for Mduduzi said it was fraudulent.

“There is no evidence that casts the slightest doubt on Buthelezi. He did not stand to gain whatsoever by forging the signature of Vimbeni,” said Jappie.

Mduduzi left the courtroom first, under police guard, with his supporters looking stunned and unhappy.

Vela left after speaking to his supporters and the media. As they left, Vela’s supporters were openly praying and shouting “Amen”.

According to SAPS sources, over 40 officers were stationed in and around the courtroom to avoid similar scenes from last year when fistfights broke out between supporters and random shots were fired.

Jappie said it might be possible to hear the appeal early next year.