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Opening South Africa's Churches Amid COVID-19 Will Result in More Deaths.

Op-Ed: Opening South Africa's Churches Amid COVID-19 Will Result in More Deaths

Churches get away with a lot in this country and now is as good a time as any to put an end to that.

It was a day like any other at the Global Reconciliation Church in the Free State province. Congregants were gathering for a prayer event which no doubt included praying about what was then an impending 21-day national lockdown due to COVID-19. What no-one had anticipated however, was that five tourists who had already tested positive for the coronavirus, would come into contact with an estimated 1600 other congregants––three of whom have since died as a result.

One gathering, three deaths. This is what South Africans pushing the government to open places of worship, seem to forget. And while the government has remained steadfast in the face of very public backlash following a number of tough decisions during this national lockdown, it seems that churches may just prove to be their kryptonite.


The ugly truth is that a lot of these South African churches need to open because the so-called men of God want their tithes and no pandemic will stand in the way of that.

While the push is for all places of worship to be opened, churches are significant in the South African context because they represent a large group of people who are of significant political interest––Black people. Any sensible political party knows that in order to win the vote of Black people, there is no better endorsement than that of church leaders.

"Black people may not always turn up to political rallies but they will show up to church."

As a result, the power that religious leaders wield over their 'flock', is easily politicised and subsequently weaponised during election campaigns.

Initially, church leaders called for the churches to be allowed to operate as an essential service. First, the church is not an essential service and second, its practices are not limited to a building. This latter is not just a secular "hot take" but a teaching that can be found in the very doctrines esteemed by church goers themselves.

This teaching speaks to the "true church" being one that is made up of the people and not any building with four walls. And so it becomes crucial to acknowledge the important roles churches play in providing a space for believers and shelter to refugees, undocumented foreign nationals, women and children while also pointing out how reopening during this lockdown is, in many ways, about exploiting the poor.

South Africa's national lockdown has been far from perfect but it has prevented the country from following in the trajectories of many European and American countries battling to contain their numbers. While the country initially came together in its famed "rainbow nation" style to prevent numbers from soaring, over time, people have become restless and started to push back against the lockdown restrictions.

Whether it's been White people bemoaning the inconvenience of not being able to walk their dogs and go surfing or the very real threat of starvation and loss of livelihood for poor Black people, the lockdown restrictions have caused raging debates among South Africans. With President Cyril Ramaphosa having recently announced that most parts of the country would enter slightly more relaxed level-3 restrictions, the debates have only raged on.

However, the call to open churches is not where it ends. The state has consistently turned a blind eye to transgressions made by church leaders over the years. The rise in the number of Charismatic churches in South Africa, has also seen the rise in extreme religious practices which have threatened human health in very real ways.

These so-called men of God are free to brazenly declare that they have found the cures to various diseases, COVID-19 included, with no fear of reprimand from the state whose duty it is to safe-guard its citizens against misinformation and harmful concoctions with no scientific backing. People have died because of this. The likes of TB Joshua, Walter Magaya and Shepherd Bushiri––all alleged 'prophets of God' who have been involved in scandals around having found cures for HIV/AIDS and yet continue to profit from their mega churches. And now that COVID-19 has become the 'the next big thing,' it's hardly rational to assume that all churches have the best interests of their congregants at heart.

Although shared as memes on social media, the gravity of pastors spraying congregants with insecticide, running them over with vehicles, feeding them petrol, and even sexually assaulting them all in the name of 'miraculous healing', is not lost––it cannot be. And yet very few of these religious leaders have been brought to book and when they have, charges have eventually been dropped. And so the deceiving of those who are desperate for tangible change in their unfortunate circumstances, continues.

"While it may sound blasphemous to some, the reality is that churches are increasingly becoming places of business."

And because South African law does not require churches to pay taxes on the monies they receive, it becomes a lucrative space that can easily be hijacked by charlatans who are not interested in the faith itself but the potential Rands brought in every week.

"Closing the church is not the solution, we need to be praying in these difficult times," says Bheki Ngcobo, the Bishop at Inkanyezi Church of Christ during an interview with Radio 702 recently. In another interview conducted by radio Cape Talk shortly before Easter, Ngcobo said, "This is not the first disease to come to South Africa...This is spiritual warfare." And while it is a constitutional right of his and others, to believe that this pandemic requires spiritual intervention and not physical measures based on expert advice, that right cannot supersede the sovereignty of a secular country nor steer the government's decision to lift or enforce restrictions as they see fit.

Although the government itself has emphasised that strict measures would have to be followed in the event that churches are opened, because there is no way to police that consistently, the rules will inevitably be broken. Churches founded on not turning away souls (or wallets) will not keep to the maximum of fifty people at a time. And just as we saw with the Global Reconciliation Church, the deaths of congregants are almost guaranteed.

It is up to the democratically elected body put into office to safeguard the interests of its citizens and map the way forward without showing favour towards churches. How President Ramaphosa's cabinet responds right now, will set the precedent going forward because if churches can open, then restaurants, hair salons and other places of business should also be allowed to operate under the same restrictions. Many would agree that this flies in the face of a phased-out lockdown in the first place.

Finally, the decision to keep churches closed should not be viewed as a war against any particular faith or religion but rather a war against the loss of life, religious or not.

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Photo Credit: Adedamola Odetera

An Inside Look Into the Underground Queer Party Scene in Nigeria

As a result of the laws and law enforcement bodies in the country, queer nightlife in Nigeria is shrouded in secrecy and has been forced to go underground.

A few minutes before midnight on a June evening, there was a line of people attempting to gain access to an unmarked apartment block in Lekki Phase 1 — a suburban neighborhood in Lagos State. To the uninitiated, it was a regular house party in the heart of Lagos Island, which is populated with young people in their 20s. For the attendees who had a flier on their phones and a passcode on their lips, this was an event they had looked forward to for weeks. When they arrived at the doors, they were all asked for a passcode which transported them into a vibrant pulsing party which had drag queens walking across the room and men in shorts that barely went past their crutches gyrating on other men while afrobeats blared. Welcome to queer nightlife in Nigeria where, on weekends, apartments turn into gay clubs, barred with passcode-guarding doors to protect against homophobes.

Party people hugging each other

Secret house parties, discrete raves, and clubs are now becoming increasingly popular amongst young queer Nigerians.

Photo Credit: Adedamola Odetera

Across the country, especially in the big cities like Lagos, Abuja, and Port Harcourt, lounges, clubs, and bars dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community have started sprouting despite legislation that makes it illegal for them to exist. In 2014, the Nigerian government passed the highly controversial and homophobic Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act. Despite the name, the law would go on to criminalize many other aspects of queer existence and not just marriage between people of the same sex. The far-reaching law criminalized queer social spaces, groups that advocate for queer rights, and even individuals advocating and supporting queer rights. The law also went on to prescribe a prison term that could go up to 14 years for those who were found guilty of these crimes in southern Nigeria. However, in Northern and mostly Muslim Nigeria, where Shariah law takes pre-eminence, these crimes could lead to death by stoning. While there isn’t an extensive record of people being found guilty for these crimes in Nigeria, these laws emboldened many homophobic mobs who took the laws into their hands and would beat individuals who they identified as queer and destroy spaces and parties that they suspected were hosted by or for queer people. One of the most infamous instances was a 2018 case where 57 men were arrested at a party in Lagos under the suspicion of being initiated into a gay club. While this particular case garnered significant press coverage as the men were made to go to trial, it is far from being the only case of its kind. It is fairly common for the police to raid suspected queer parties to arrest everyone in sight — often with little to no proof of the suspects being gay.

As a result of the laws and law enforcement bodies in the country, queer nightlife in Nigeria has been forced to go underground. Bars and clubs are left behind for parties in apartments. Recent years have seen a resurgence in the public profile of queer nightlife in Nigeria — partly thanks to a rise of resistance against oppressive systems within Nigeria that have been supported and have originated on social media, more queer people are becoming brave and open about queer nightlife in Nigeria. Secret house parties, discrete raves and clubs are now becoming increasingly popular, especially amongst young queer Nigerians. Creative collectives like hFactor and Pride in Lagos have pushed the narrative even further by organizing pride-specific events and raves in Lagos over the last few years.

Man making out with man

"‘‘I had been to clubs before but this was different. There was a freedom I didn’t feel in other parties."

Photo Credit: Adedamola Odetera

‘‘My first time at a queer party in Nigeria was in 2021. A friend invited me to a hFactor event and It was such an experience,’ Peju, a 23-year-old bisexual man tells OkayAfrica. ‘‘I had been to clubs before but this was different. There was a freedom I didn’t feel in other parties. Guys were grinding on guys, girls were flirting with girls. There wasn’t a need to pretend to be something I’m not.’’

However, attending these events comes with specific risks. Guests often took precautions — attending the parties with friends, letting their friends who weren’t there know where they were at and confirming there were accessible exits at all times. For many of these attendees, they may have never had to use those themselves but they know of people or at least have heard of people who have had to. Tamuno, a 31-year-old gay man, tells me of a near-capture experience when he had gone to a party in Port Harcourt in 2020.

‘‘There was this party that happened weekly. It became kind of popular and more queer people started coming. What we didn’t account for was that neighbors had realized it was full of queer people,’ Tamuno said. ‘‘One day, we were all at the party and they surrounded the house. Some of us managed to escape, others weren’t as lucky. I wasn't lucky.’’ Tamuno recounts that after being taunted and shamed and then stripped to their boxers for a relatively long time, the police then came. ‘‘The police coming to carry us was what saved us because then my brother, who I called, was able to bribe them to let us go. Whenever I think about what would happen if the police hadn’t come, I experience a full body shudder.’’

a group of people taking photos

Organizers have to find ways to limit people who can gain access to these parties.

Photo Credit: Adedamola Odetera

To help combat this, organizers of these events prioritize security and the safety of their guests. It is important that attendees feel safe from homophobic attacks from civilians and the armed forces. To achieve this, organizers have learned to deploy multiple guards.

‘‘Everyone’s safety is a priority to me and this means that multiple channels of security are constantly put in place to help safeguard our guests.’’ Kayode Timileyin, one of the organizers of Pride In Lagos tells OkayAfrica. ‘‘The first of which is the fact that all our events are only by a registration and verification process. Also, external security guards are made available. Lastly, we go all out to look for a real safe space.’’

It doesn’t end at just verifying the identities of the guests. Organizers have to find ways to limit people who can gain access to the location. This might mean generating a password only verified guests are given or keeping the exact location — and sometimes even date — a secret and only given to the verified guests. For these organizers, these security measures are put in place, not against potential miscreants or robbers but instead to keep off the police force and homophobes.

woman wearing black smiling

Despite dangers, the queer nightlife scene is bustling and thriving.

Photo Credit: Adedamola Odetera

The underground nightlife scene in Lagos is bustling and thriving — despite the laws that criminalize it and the constant danger. This illustrates the spirit of resilience amongst queer Nigerians who choose to reach for any semblance of freedom they can find even if it is on the dance floor for just a night.

‘‘My experience getting arrested traumatized me. It scared me. I was getting beaten, and paraded and I was so scared that they would kill me. But they didn’t so of course, I’ll party again," Tamuno said. ‘‘I still go to these parties and I’ll still keep going. It’s not that I’m scared. It’s just that when I’m on the dance floor surrounded by other queer men, I feel like my true self. I feel happy. I feel content. And that’s what I want out of life. If I die because I am seeking that, that’s fine.’’

a group of friends taking a photo

More queer people are becoming brave and open about queer nightlife in Nigeria.

Photo Credit: Adedamola Odetera

Interview

Fireboy DML On Embracing His Inner 'Playboy,' Stepping Outside & Learning to Let Go

On Playboy, Fireboy moves further away from his previous records and embraces the mainstream afrobeats sound hinted in recent hits like "Peru" and "Bandana." We sit down with the Nigerian star to talk about his new album.

“I would like to discuss my forthcoming album only, nothing else. That is where my headspace right now.”

Nigerian superstar Fireboy DML draws up the rules of engagement as soon as we get on a Zoom call. The notoriously reticent singer, fresh from enjoying the biggest year of his musical career, powered by the international breakthrough of his single "Peru," is checking in from London. The city has become somewhat of a second home for him of late and it is here that Fireboy is ensconced while getting ready to kick off promotional activities for his third studio album, Playboy, which arrived last Friday.

The 14-track album comes almost two years after Fireboy’s last pop effort, Apollo ,which in turn was released about nine months after his stellar debut, Laughter, Tears & Goosebumps. On Playboy, Fireboy moves further away from his previous records and embraces the mainstream afrobeats sound hinted in recent hits like "Peru" and "Bandana," with newbie Asake.

He tells OkayAfrica about putting the album together below.

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Interview
Photo courtesy of the artist.

Kelvyn Boy On Becoming One of Afrobeats’ Leading Stars

The Ghanaian singer narrates how his latest single "Down Flat" has accelerated the trajectory of his career.

Kelvyn Boy is one of the leading afrobeats hitmakers from Ghana. Since his official debut in 2017 under singer Stonebwoy’s record label imprint Burniton Music Group, the talented singer, songwriter, and performer has consistently dished out hit after hit. From the sentimental midtempo ballad “Na You” to the gritty afropop cut “Mea” to his Mugeez and Darkovibes-assisted smash hit “Momo”, with every new release Kelvyn Boy has established his profile as one of the West African nation’s top afrobeats acts.

Fast forward to January 2022, Kelvyn Boy drops his most recent single “Down Flat," an infectious afrobeats single produced by Nigerian producer KullBoiBeatz, and the song has been immensely successful. “Down Flat” has held the number one spot on Apple Music’s “Top 100: Ghana” playlist, hit number 10 on Billboard’s “Worldwide Digital Song Sales” chart, just a couple of out several other accolades the song has landed in the few short months since its release.

The effect of the song’s success has already kicked in, with the singer in London, United Kingdom as I speak to him, which is one of the early stops of his current world tour. “Down Flat” is currently the biggest song of his career so far, and even Kelvyn Boy himself didn’t see it coming. “Some of the great things that happen are unpredictable and unplanned. I didn’t really see it coming” he explained. “Everyone believes in himself or herself. I have that belief and that feeling already when I’m making every song. If it’s not right, I won't sing it. But I didn’t see it coming as quick as it did, and I didn’t know it would get to this level. I knew it was gonna be big, but honestly it got out of hand.”

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Interview

Interview: Director K Is Making Historic Music Videos For Afrobeats & Beyond

The 28-year-old director behind the "Essence" music video (and many more) tells us about his come-up, inspirations and working with the biggest stars in the game like Wizkid, Burna Boy, Davido, and more.

African music is sprouting into dominance with the upswing of genres such as Amapiano and Afrobeats across dance floors, day parties, festivals, and gatherings across the globe. Among the ranks of directors curating the visual interpretation of African music; Director K, born Qudus Olaiwola, is an oft-tranquil figure that has charted a lane separate from his contemporaries.

Starting off in the perpetually bristling clusters of Surelere, Lagos, Nigeria as a phone repairer at his uncle’s workshop, Director K’s curiosity shoveled him into believing he could shoot videos on his iPhone. “I used to go super crazy on iPhones, I used to make iPhones do stuff that you couldn’t normally do,” he tells OkayAfrica nostalgically.

Raised in the hovels of Shitta, Surulere, and Lagos — home to Afrobeats trailblazer Wizkid—Director K found a neighborhood artist called C.O. Decoast, and tested his hands at music video directing off the lens of his iPhone. “It wasn’t anything big. It was just something in the hood that I shot with a few people."

Now, in the parking lot of a lush apartment in Lekki, Lagos, Director K regales me with stories of his journey while walking me towards a modest swimming pool. The Creative Arts dropout has had his work nominated for Video Of The Year at the Soul Train Awards, and he has won an NACCP Image Award and Best Music Video at Nigeria’s most-prestigious awards show, The Headies.

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