A few moments after Prophet Shepherd Bushiri takes the grand stage, Tiyani Mabunda opens his Bible to reveal a highlighted scripture from Hebrews 13:7 that ordains: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider their outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
To Mabunda, this means a whole lot more than just shouting “Amen!” at the end of every Bushiri punch line. He is dressed in a beige tweed jacket, a colour that almost identically matches the prophet’s suit.
He laments that his wife convinced him to wear a blue tie, with a matching pocket square, to church this Sunday. He wanted red, the colour that Bushiri has chosen to pair with his suit.
His spirit is not dampened, though. He drips with pride that he got to match some part of Bushiri’s outfit.
The moment gives a glimpse into Mabunda’s devotion to the leader of the Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG). Bushiri is the “father” and Mabunda is the “son”. It is spiritual, not biological, Mabunda explains, but it runs deeper than the River Nile.
In February, Bushiri and his wife Mary faced their biggest storm, when the Hawks came swooping with fraud and money laundering charges. The pair sought the services of legal eagle Barry Roux as their private jet was seized. The couple was released on R100 000 bail.
In the corner of his ‘father’
Through it all, Mabunda shouted his support for the prophet and prophetess from the rooftops. He nailed himself on the same crucifix and doubled down on his support for the Major One, posting pictures with the prophet on his Instagram account laden with Bible verses. In radio and television interviews after Mamelodi Sundowns matches, he reinforced his message.
The social media lynch mob was brutal, with some commenting, “Why can’t he perform miracles in his own country?” and others saying, “Let’s see when you career finish [sic] in front of you because you busy trying to uplift a person instead of God” and “Fake prophets are not men of God”. It went on and on under the comments section of Mabunda’s post supporting Bushiri.
In an era in which snake oil salesmen purporting to be men of the cloth have mesmerised South Africans into dubious practices, Mabunda’s closeness to Bushiri has raised more than one eyebrow. Some prophets have claimed to raise people from the dead, poured fuel down throats and fed live snakes to their followers. Football fans the country over feel that it’s not Mabunda’s place to defend Bushiri.
“Major One prophesised this two years ago, that people are gonna come and accuse him of doing this and that and they are going to take him to prison,” Mabunda says.
“I think it was in 2017 when he said it was not going to happen [that] year or in 2018, but the time was coming. It happened in 2019.
“You see the accuracy of the things the man says, things that happen two years later. It’s funny that people can write easily about a man of God but they are afraid of witch doctors. They are not afraid of the wrath that God can bring if you attack His servant.
“In the Bible, everyone who attacks a man of God suffers severe punishment. When they attacked Major, as a ‘son’, I am also under attack. It is the same as it would be if your biological father were under attack. There is no way the son will be okay.
“Regardless of whether it is good or bad, I stand with my ‘father’. When they attack him, they attack me as well. Because when he grows, I grow with him.
“We, in South Africa, are blessed to have him.”
The image of “Shuga” Mabunda knelt down in the middle of the pitch after a Sundowns’ match has become as much a part of South Africa’s football landscape as his coach Pitso Mosimane’s post-match barbs.
From Sundowns black sheep to mainstay
However, not too long ago, Mabunda was part of the lost sheep at Sundowns, the lengthy list of castaways that the Chloorkop club purchases as bright stars only to be relegated to the stands at the Brazilians.
He was signed from Black Leopards in 2013 as a no-nonsense, hard-tackling midfielder with a predilection to surge forward. Like all hopefuls – Mogakolodi Ngele, Cuthbert Malajila, Aubrey Ngoma and the like – he went with high expectations of first team football, which didn’t come until three years later.
In the intervening years, he was loaned out to Free State Stars, a period pivotal to his revival. It is during this low ebb that Mabunda found Bushiri. It’s at this juncture that the Polokwane-born 31-year-old witnessed Major One’s prescient proclamations.
“In 2014, I was on loan at Free State Stars but I had a difficult season and didn’t play much because I had a hernia injury,” says Mabunda.
“My wife said to me, let’s try this church. I was brought up as a Christian. Faith is very important in my family. My father is a minister.
“I went to church a few times. I would travel from the Free State to attend the service and I could tell that I was finding myself again [spiritually]. My confidence was coming back because of the teachings.
“In the meantime, four doctors had told me to go for an operation for the hernia injury. I wasn’t playing. I wasn’t training.
“But I never went for surgery, even to this day. Prophetic declarations of healing were made and I had so much faith that I was gonna be healed. The prophet prayed for me. Suddenly, the pain left.”
From that moment, Shuga became a “son”. And when the dominoes of fortune fell further in his favour, Mabunda’s devotion to Bushiri and his ministry became servile and staunch. In a trice, Mabunda went from Sundowns black sheep to Sundowns mainstay.
Sundowns’ return and Bushiri’s prophecy
“In January 2016, Sundowns gave me a call, asking me to come back, saying that they wanted to register me for the second half of that season,” he says.
“Prior to that call, we had a prophetic conference at the Wanderers [cricket ground] in Johannesburg where I was told to raise up my phone and it was declared that good news was coming to my phone.
“I didn’t give it much attention at the time. I didn’t take it to heart. I came in for training and they told me to bring pictures and everything, in order to process the registration.
“I went back to church on Sunday and testified the story, that indeed I got a call that had good news. But on Monday the transfer window was closing.
“I went to training that Monday morning but nothing was said to me and, after training, I left. I went home but they called me back to bring my pictures and I told them I would try.
“But I didn’t try very hard, I didn’t even care and the transfer window was closing at 5pm. By 4pm they called me again, in a panic, asking where I was and I told them I was at the salon getting a haircut. They said I had to come right away because the time was running out.
“I got to Chloorkop at 4.30pm and the window was closing at 5pm. I signed the papers but they weren’t sure if the guy they sent to submit the documents would make it to the PSL offices in time.
“At 4:55pm, the envelope was submitted with my things inside it. To this day, that guy doesn’t know how he got there so quickly in peak-hour traffic.”
Mabunda’s testimonial continues: “Major invited me to a dinner and I told him the story of what happened since the previous Friday. I told him how happy I was that his prayer to God to bring me good news brought me back at Sundowns.
Working his way up, again
“As soon as I was happy to be back at Sundowns, I quickly got sent to the MDC [Multichoice Diski Challenge]. It was another problem, because I didn’t leave PSL football at Stars only to play in the MDC. And I couldn’t complain because I had already signed.
“I went back to the Major and he said, ‘If you believe I’m a prophet and that God sent me, listen to me: stay there, don’t go.’ He said I should not ask for a transfer, I must just stay at Sundowns.
“There was a small Easter weekend tournament in Tsakane that Sundowns were participating in and they asked me to come along. I went and played and they were happy with my performance.
“I went to church that weekend and on the Monday, the prophet called my name while he was on stage and asked if people knew who I was. Not many people said they did, but some said yes.
“He said, ‘This man plays for Sundowns.’ I caught the part where he said I played. He didn’t say I was on the bench or in the squad, he said I played. Immediately after that, I was in the starting line-up to play against [Orlando] Pirates in the Nedbank Cup.
“From there, things just moved and I played waya-waya (nonstop).”
Was it coincidence or divine intervention? In Mabunda’s mind there is no doubt; God spoke to him through the prophet.
From wanderer to king of Africa
What happened in 2016, not even the hardest, die-hard Sundowns fans could have imagined. Congolese club AS Vita knocked Downs out in the second round of the CAF Champions League. But an administrative bungle from Vita, fielding suspended Idrissa Traoré against Mafunzo of Zanzibar in the preliminary round, saw Sundowns reinstated into the group stage of the competition and Vita booted out.
Mabunda, who wasn’t part of the initial continental squad, was allowed to be registered for the rest of the tournament. He starred in every stage until they were crowned African club champions, the second South African club to do so after Orlando Pirates in 1995.
Mabunda says he prayed for these things to happen, that he could play against the best players on the continent and in the world. By year’s end, he’d made it into the Bafana Bafana setup, won the league and Champions League, and played in the Fifa Club World Cup.
“I moved from one level of grace to another,” says Mabunda. “I learnt that people will never support you when you are down but when you are up there, they begin giving you advice and they want to direct you on how to live. But when you were in difficulties they were not there.
“Now that you have found a solution, they will criticise you and tell you don’t do this, don’t do that. As a result, the people who were there during the hard times are overlooked.
“That’s the error most people make, forgetting the right people, the ones that helped you to get to the level where you are.
“Major One once gave me an example: those TLBs that build the freeway clear the way, put concrete and roll the tar to make it flat, but those machines are not allowed on the freeway once it’s built. Once the road is smooth, they are no longer allowed. It’s what happens with many people.
“Me, on any day, I cannot forget that God sent a prophet into my life.”
Inside Bushiri’s church
The Malawian-born Bushiri is one of the most controversial religious figures to hit South African shores. His brand of worship took several beats from the African-American celebrity church phenomenon and blends with it an African spice. The result is a charismatic church on steroids.
On the pulpit, Bushiri flaunts a knowing smile. He is adored, nigh worshipped, here. He is slight in stature but has a commanding presence. His image is brandished garishly across television monitors and projectors in the venue. Given enough time in his presence, his conjuring words might place you under a spell. He is a gifted orator.
There’s some irony or coincidence that the ECG holds its services at the Tshwane Events Centre, or Pretoria Show Grounds. The church service is an event, no different to a PSL match or a carnival.
There’s a peripheral police presence, medics and a permit is required to allow the thousands of congregants to pay homage to Bushiri every weekend. They have to keep the numbers below 40 000, says spokesperson Ephraim Nyondo, which he claims can go up to 70 000.
In December 2018, there was a stampede that claimed the lives of three women, casting yet more shadows on what much of the country sees as a cultish movement.
When Bushiri’s motorcade rolls into the Tshwane Events Centre, there is a hive of activity and excitement. The “Major Marshalls” are tasked with rolling out the security tape designed to keep some congregants from encroaching into the main areas, which looks to have accommodated at least 10 000 devotees.
Outside the main tent, other members brave the moody weather and sit in the uncovered area to watch the spectacle on large screens mounted on the grass fields. All people are enlightened, but some are more enlightened than others.
God and footballers
William Okpara, the former Pirates goalkeeping great who won the 1995 Africa Cup of Champions Clubs (what is now called the CAF Champions League), is one of the enlightened ones. Clad in an obtrusive purple traditional Nigerian suit, he embraces Mabunda and congratulates him on Sundowns’ 5-0 win over Egyptian giants Al Ahly in the first leg of the Champions League’s quarterfinals.
Okpara is not the only one who salutes Mabunda on the back of such a historic performance. Every second person comes to greet him, paying homage. He is like the biblical Moses who delivered the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, as the win was Sundowns’ first over CAF’s Club of the Century, which had tormented the Brazilians.
Mabunda pays it no mind. It is not about him, he says, it’s God that must take all the credit.
“God has a big influence on football,” he declares.
“Everything that I do on the field of play, God has an effect. If I am tired, I pray to God and say I am tired, take over. People always question how it is that I can run so much and I don’t get tired.
“The Bible says, ‘The same spirit that raised Jesus from the dead will revitalise your mortal body.’ So I pray to God to revitalise me when I am tired and I need energy.”
“People misquote me in the way I express my love for the prophet. They think that I worship Major One and I’m saying Major One is God. No, let me use myself as an example. I am a footballer but I have a coach, Pitso Mosimane, who directs me and coaches me on the field. It is the same on a spiritual level. Major One is my coach, my spiritual coach in my way of life.
“Many footballers go through a lot of things and they are into drugs, clubbing, alcohol and women. My spiritual coach makes me aware of the things I need to do to be able to move to another level. He gives me direction, even if people criticise me.”
When it is time for giving, there are lines of people the size of social grant payday queues waiting to submit their offerings and tithes. Mabunda raises a crisp R100 bill in the air for one of the Major Marshalls, who are carrying buckets as collection plates. Some have bank card machines.
Money and the prophet
Sundowns players are known to be among the highest paid footballers in the country – Mabunda’s shiny gold Rolex timepiece attests to this. That could or could not have any significance for the father-son relationship Mabunda enjoys with the prophet.
But with refreshing candour and unmistakable obduracy, Mabunda does not shy away from the topic of money. It’s money that landed the Major One in trouble with authorities. And the perception is that it’s money that Bushiri seeks from his followers.
“My offerings, tithes and deeds are not necessarily for the growth of other people, but it is a principle that God has placed that we should do,” Mabunda says.
“It doesn’t matter whether people are receiving it or not, but the mere fact that I am honouring the word God spoke – that I must be faithful with my tithe and offering – that must be done.
“The problem is that people think when we give an offering and tithe that we are giving it to one man. We are not giving it to a man of God, we are doing what the Bible tells us to do.
“We are giving to God. My tithe is to God and that is why God continues to reveal himself in my life.
“If it was about money, he [Bushiri] could leave and go to the USA and get dollars or in the UK, where he can get pounds.
“Why would he be here and get rands, a weak currency? He is not just a man of God, he is a businessman and has a lot of his own [private] businesses. People don’t know that and they think the church is the one that is enriching him.
“We have got ECG churches in Dubai, other African countries, the US, China, Korea and India. There is more to this than what people see. But if they are not receptive to hear the message that he carries, they will miss out.”
Mabunda says his level of faith far exceeds that of those who criticise him or the prophet – that it is them who need enlightening, not he. Amid the scandals and the looming court case Bushiri has to face, it is bemusing to see one of South Africa’s top footballers tackling opponents of the church as he would those on a soccer field.
But it’s what makes Shuga who he is: loyal to a fault, willing to go places others fear and not about to shirk from a fight.