After five long years in which Shembe followers battled it out, Durban High Court judge Achmat Jappie ruled that Vela Shembe (pictured in the middle in a blue suit) had been nominated by the church's late leader to lead the eBuhleni-based Nazareth Baptist Church. Picture: Patrick Mtolo

Durban - Followers of Mduduzi Shembe said on Tuesday that a Durban High Court ruling did not affect their spiritual belief that he was the leader of the Nazareth Baptist Church.

After five long years in which Shembe followers battled it out, inside and outside court, Durban High Court judge Achmat Jappie on Tuesday ruled that Vela Shembe had been nominated by the church’s late leader to lead the eBuhleni-based Nazareth Baptist Church.

Judge Jappie ruled that a deed of nomination, which was the key piece of evidence relied on by Vela Shembe, and which stated that late leader Vimbeni Shembe had nominated him as leader, was valid.

The judge said Mduduzi Shembe, Vimbeni’s son who was announced as the leader at his father’s funeral, had failed to show that his father had verbally nominated him.

The court’s ruling places Vela in charge of all assets of the church and makes him the sole trustee of the Church of Nazareth Ecclesiastical Endowment Trust, which has control of properties owned by the church. It also makes Vela the legally recognised leader of more than 2 million followers of the church.

While the wealth of the eBuhleni church has never been revealed, in court documents the church has previously said that it makes an income of several million rands a year.

However, the legal battle is not over as the court’s judgment will remain suspended because Mduduzi’s advocate, Rajesh Choudree, was granted leave to appeal against the judgment.

The church was faced with a leadership crisis after Vimbeni Shembe died in 2011.

Vela, who is Vimbeni’s cousin, and Vimbeni’s attorney Zwelabantu Buthelezi said the late leader had nominated Vela as the leader and they went to court to have him declared the leader.

However, Mduduzi said he had been verbally nominated by his father and announced as the leader by inkosi Mqoqi Ngcobo at Vimbeni’s funeral.

Speaking after the ruling, Choudree told a crowd, who watched the judgment on a large screen erected in Albert Park on Tuesday, that they should not “lose faith” as there were various issues the legal team would use to challenge the court’s judgment on appeal.

“The fight goes on. As long as Unyazi (Mduduzi) is with us, who can defeat us?”

Mduduzi’s followers agreed saying they did not feel defeated at all and would not recognise anyone other than Mduduzi as their “Lord”.

But Vela said he felt that late leader Vimbeni Shembe had been vindicated by the court’s ruling as he had been insulted and labelled as someone not to be trusted.

“But today the judge has told everyone who was nominated by Uthingo (Vimbeni Shembe).”

In his judgment, Judge Jappie said if the deed of nomination was a fraudulent document then it would have had to have been as a result of a “conspiracy” orchestrated by the church’s general secretary, Chauncey Sibisi, and Vimbeni’s attorney, Buthelezi.

The judge said while Sibisi had been challenged about how he ran the affairs of the church, there was no evidence to show what Buthelezi stood to gain by being involved in a conspiracy.

He also relied on the evidence of two handwriting experts, who found that Vimbeni’s signature on the deed of nomination was genuine.

The verbal nomination Mduduzi relied on was flawed because the two amakhosi who testified that Vimbeni told them Mduduzi was the church’s next leader did not tell the court exactly what Vimbeni had said.

The appeal is expected to be heard in Pietermaritzburg early next year.

The Mercury