Shembe Church court battle spills into Durban streets (gallery)

The long running court battle between two Shembe Church factions yesterday spilled into Durban’s city streets, where members dressed in religious garb exchanged blows leaving two people with bleeding head wounds.

Chaos erupted outside the KwaZulu-Natal High Court after sporadic fights broke out between factions of the giant Nazareth Baptist Church – popularly known as Shembe Church. The injured church members where from the Ebuhleni and the Thembezinhle factions.

Witnesses said members of the Ebuhleni faction came to court carrying sticks from an earlier march to voice out their anger about the delays in concluding the case. The succession court battle started a year after the death of Shembe Bapist Church leader Vimbeni Shembe in 2011.

Yesterday, police were screening people at the entrance, when a fight over who should be allowed inside court started. There has been chaos with past court proceedings, and some fist fights inside court room about sitting arrangements and about who should be allowed inside the tiny court room that has a capacity of 60 people in the pubic gallery.

To address this, an agreement to have an equal number of people from both factions was made among both the factions, giving preference to the senior members of the church. A system of tickets was established to prevent chaos.

Yesterday’s chaos started when some senior members and key witnesses in the case who had already given evidence and one of the pastors from Ebuhleni faction who was due to take the witness stand yesterday were not allowed access by the police at the entrance because they did not have the tickets. Court proceedings could not even begin as the lawyers representing the Ebuheni faction pleaded with the police to get their witness to enter the court building.

One of the police officers who did want to be named as he is not allowed to speak to the media, said they were given instructions to use the ticket system to allow only those with tickets inside. “We did not look at the person’s status, as long as they had a ticket in hand,” he said.

Even the chief of the Amaqadi clan, Chief Mqoqi Ngcobo was not allowed access, although he is the key witness in the case. The chaos continued outside as the members of the Ebuhleni sang songs praising their leader, Mduduzi Shembe, calling for the dispute to end, saying there is only one leader.

The leadership dispute that began soon after the death of the Ebuhleni leader, Vimbeni Shembe in 2008 led to a split in the giant church, and the Thembezinhle faction was born.

The case has been in and out of court since. The battle of who is the legitimate leader of the church is between the late leader’s son Mduduzi Shembe and his cousin brother Vela Shembe who claims to be in possession of a letter signed by the late leader naming him as the successor.

The matter was postponed to today. Some of the offices and buildings near the court vicinity were forced to close for safety reasons. The Department of Labor offices were closed and people were turned away and were told to come back tomorrow.

The whole High Court could not operate as the entrance to the building was completely blocked by members of the church protesting.

Police had to use pepper spray on the uncontrollable crowd- even that could not stop them. The members of the Ebuhleni were accusing the police of being biased to the Thembezinhle faction by refusing some of their members’ entry.

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