Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG) church leader Shepherd Bushiri, seated next to his wife Mary. Picture: Dimpho Maja/African News Agency (ANA)

Johannesburg - Chairperson of the CRL Rights Commission Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva and Tshwane Mayor Solly Msimanga on Tuesday had a robust exchange of words after the latter hinted to the possibility of suspending the services of Prophet Shepherd Bushiri's Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG) church.

ECG hosts regular services at the Tshwane Events Centre - previously known as the Pretoria showgrounds - in Pretoria, where three congregants lost their lives in a stampede in December.

"There is a company that was responsible for events and production. They needed to come up with an evacuation plan. I agree with you that it's not good enough to get a company that says this is how we are going to do it," Msimanga said at the CRL Rights Commission in Johannesburg.

"Perhaps there needs to be a physical follow-up where we need to walk, to go and see if this thing [venue] is actually compliant.

"Where this might lead us to, it might be that I might need to now say - on a permanent basis - until all these things shut, no event can take place there. This might lead to that ..."

Mkhwanazi- Xaluva interject: "But Mayor, do not terrorise the church. You can't say [because] you have made so many mistakes as the city, the police did not do what they were supposed to be doing. 

"People [Tshwane officials] went on leave at a particular time and there is a discrepancy between what Tshwabac (Tshwane Business and Agricultural Corporation) should do and what the church should do then you say because you have the power to do that you can say no church service until I'm happy about it. That's totally out of order ..."

Msimanga also interjected: "No ma'am. Ma'am, you are talking about usage of a building. You said 'forget that the church is using the facility, remember who is the owner of that facility and is it compliant. 

"That's where I'm taking it. If the church doesn't have a full-time lease, somebody can come next week and want to use it. So it's not about the church, it's about compliance that goes into the building".

"The team [City of Tshwane officials] is going to interrogate what was submitted here [for the ECG events to get compliance certificates]. I'm accepting that there are some loopholes in the system that I need to go and fix."

Msimanga said he bears no vendetta against Bushiri's popular church, which attracts thousands on several days at the Tshwane Events Centre, west of Pretoria CBD.

"I don't want to ever leave here with a sense that Msimanga is attacking the church. I am not. But as a responsible first citizen ... the owner of the building needs to take care of this facility," said the Tshwane mayor. 

"You are saying they [ECG] are not tenants but they are renting the facility [per] event, therefore I say this facility that is being rented is non-compliant, irrespective of who is using it."

Msimanga said Mkhwanazi-Xaluva was twisting his words "to say I'm now victimising" the church.

"You say I'm now using dictator tendencies, which is not the truth," said Msimanga.

Mkhwanazi-Xaluva responded: "The thing is, mayor, you have raised the issues. You gave the church 30 days to comply because this was about the church. 

"This was about the church, not Tshwabac to comply. You mention Bushiri, not Tshwabac. Before you check whether they [ECG] have complied or not, you say I'm now going to say the church mustn't operate. 

"Hence I'm reacting the way I'm reacting. You said you can say everything must stop. It can't stop when you have listed specific things and those are complied with".

Msimanga told the commission said if the 30-day notice issued around 11 January doesn't ensure full compliance with bylaws regarding emergency and safety, then Tshwane will have to suspend all activities at the Tshwane Events Centre.

Last year, Tshwabac took the City of Tshwane to court to force the municipality to grant it permission to sell the centre.

In terms of the property title deed held by Tshwabac, the landowner was prohibited from selling the facility without first seeking approval from the municipality.

The property was donated to Tshwabac by the then Pretoria City Council with a clause on its title deed restricting it from letting go of the showgrounds without council approval.

Tshwabac argued that the selling of the showgrounds was necessary to assist it to settle its high municipal services bills. At the time, the company reportedly owed the city in excess of R8 million for water and electricity.

The major income-generating project the spacious venue has is Tshwabac’s contract with the ECG Church, which attracts thousands of people from different countries. The Malawian prophet says the visitors to his church contribute significantly to Tshwane's economy.

On Monday, ECG told the CRL Commission that is pays between R800 000 and R1 million every month in order to use the venue.

Matters came to a head after a deadly stampede at the ECG in December in which the three women perished. At least 17 other congregants were injured as they ran for shelter during a heavy rainstorm. 

In the aftermath, Sanco led street protests at ECG, calling for the church to be expelled from the Tshwane Events Centre forthwith.

The CRL Rights Commission is now mediation between ECG and Sanco which represents community members through hearings in Johannesburg. 

Leaders of civil rights movement #NotInMyNameSA have so been attending the CRL Rights Commission's hearing to "observe" the proceedings.

African News Agency/ANA