The late Baptist Nazareth Church leader Vimbeni Shembe File picture: Siyabonga Musonkutu

Durban - Over five million followers of the Nazareth Baptist Church, popularly known as Shembe, finally have a legally appointed leader.

During the conclusion of his two-day judgement at the Durban High Court on Tuesday, KwaZulu-Natal judge president Achmat Jappie said that he found in favour of Vela Shembe to lead the church.

The judgment follows a five-year civil suit that started in 2011 when iNkosi Vimbeni Shembe died.

Vimbeni’s eldest son, Mduduzi, and his cousin, Vela Shembe, both claimed to be chosen by the deceased leader to head the church.

There was a strong police presence at the court to avoid similar scenes to a year ago, when supporters from both factions got into fist fights in the courthouse and on the streets.

Mduduzi’s counsel immediately asked for leave to appeal the judgment by a full bench of the KwaZulu-Natal High Court, which Jappie granted.

Vela left the court under heavy police guard, with his supporters shouting “Amen”.

After Vimbeni died in March 2011, Inkosi Mqoqi Ngcobo, traditional leader of the Maqadini clan, named Mduduzi as the successor at his funeral.

But attorney Zwelabantu Buthelezi, Vimbeni's attorney, said that according to a deed of nomination, which Vimbeni had signed in 2000, he had nominated Vela as leader of the church.

The dispute led to Vela's launching a court application seeking an order that he be declared the rightful leader.

Further applications were filed by the other side and in 2011 all five court applications were referred for oral evidence before Judge Jappie.

The judge detailed the evidence of all 22 witnesses on Monday, including that of Vimbeni's doctor, Charles Roberts, who testified that Vimbeni had been diagnosed with liver cancer in January 2011.

Roberts said he had questioned Vimbeni about the leadership of the church in the event of his death and Vimbeni had told him his lawyer would handle the arrangements.

Vimbeni's wife had testified that her stepson Mduduzi should take over the church.

The Mercury, African News Agency