Lekganyane, founder of the Zion Christian Church

Nelson Mandela, the inspiration of a Nation
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
1918 – 2013

Madiba, the tall man, the great leader and noble spirit passed away at 20:50 on 5 December 2013. He will always be an international legend – remembered for his leadership, his kindness, friendliness and forgiveness. His lifestyle speaks louder than many words.

Lekganyane is synonymous with South Africa’s biggest Christian denomination, the Zion Christian Church (ZCC).  The ZCC is estimated to number between 2 million and 6 million followers in more than 4000 parishes.  Since its establishment this church succeeded in wiping out all ethnic differences.  ZCC adherents can be seen all over South Africa proudly displaying their badges; the five-pointed silver star with a green and black ribbon on hats, lapels, shirt pockets or caps.

The founder of the ZCC was Engenas Barnabas Lekganyane who was born at Thabakgone in the Mamabolo rural area in the district of Pietersburg (now Polokwane) in the Limpopo Province. He was born c. 1885 as one of the six children of Matseleng Barnabas Lekganyane and Sefora Raphela, the daughter of Marobathota Raphela. Lekganyane underwent 5 years of primary education at the Matlhantlhe School (run by Scottish Presbyterian missionaries) in the tribal area of Chief Mamabolo, and after leaving school he stayed at home.

He suffered from a seemingly incurable eye disease and in 1912 he told his parents about a vision that he has had that made it clear that he had to go to Johannesburg where he should join a church, which baptized by a threefold immersion. The immersion would heal his eyes. Later that year he was baptized in the Zion Apostolic Church in South Africa (ZAC), and returned home to the tribal area of Mamabolo where he acted as a missionary for the ZAC. Here he was ordained in 1918. During the same year he married Salphina Rabodiba, The couple had five sons and a daughter – they were considered the rightful heirs. He had two more wives, but the children with these wives were not recognized by the ZCC.  They were made members of the brass band, which, until today, still leads the way during functions, and is permanently based at Moria.

Following a division between Lekganyane and his colleagues he broke away, and joined the Zion Apostolic Faith Mission. He soon became its leader in the old Transvaal (now the provinces of Limpopo, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and parts of the Northern Province. The mother church of the ZAFM was based hundreds of kilometres away in Lesotho. Once more Lekganyane differed from his colleagues when he took a second wife – nothing out of the ordinary during those years. Once again he decided to break away and in 1924 went to the mountain Thabakgone to pray. According to tradition he received instructions from God to establish a new church.

Lekganyane stuck to the Old Testament term “Zion” by naming the church the Zion Christian Church. A substantial number of the people who were part of his previous flocks joined him in the ZCC. He drew up a constitution and had it registered formally with the government. The basic principles were outlined and included practices similar to that of other Christian denominations – inter alia spreading the Word of God throughout the world. Even so black cultural traditions and practices had an influence on the church. By 1939 Lekganyane purchased property for his church, and moved his headquarters again in 1940 near Boyne, about 32 kilometres east of Polokwane. He handled the ZCC in a similar way as though it was his personal tribe.

Lekganyane, as head of the church was also the chief prophet and all other activities of the ZCC revolved around him. He appointed the members of the different councils of the church and each council had its specific duties and responsibilities. All the ministers were appointed and ordained by him, and were responsible to him. Although Lekganyane preached basic Christianity, faith and divine healing played a very important role in the church. The precondition for the use of any manner of healing was by confession of sins and faith in God. Baptism (threefold immersion in the river) and Holy Communion, which was served at Moria, were both observed as sacraments in the ZCC.

Zion Christian Church Medal introduced by Lekganyane

By 1926, Lekganyane’s ZCC had 926 members countrywide, and two years later he introduced the wearing of a badge for the purpose of identification. Today most of his followers wear their badges proudly every day. His sons later introduced the different motifs on the badge later. Apart from the badge, members of the ZCC partook in polygamy -  seen as a God-created mode of life and a more acceptable principle compared to divorce. Lekganyane is seen by his followers as the Black Messiah who has the gifts of healing, prophesy, contact with the ancestors, and to purify body and soul by the use of water.

His health began to deteriorate in the mid-forties, and at the time of his death Lekganyane was a well-to-do chief of a financially stable ZCC. As nobody really cared about the ZCC’s constitution, it made it possible for Lekganyane to appoint his successor in an almost traditional customary fashion. In the presence of his brothers, the elders and his advocate, he presented them with his fifth and favourite son, Joseph, as successor and the future bishop. He died in May 1948, and was buried at his home in Moria on 1 June 1948. The date has since been sanctified by the ZCC.

According to tradition one year of mourning had to pass before the new leader could be presented to the 80 000 followers. This custom caused severe confusion, which was compounded by the death of Lekganyane’s eldest son (Barnabas) during the mourning period. It led to a split in the church – his son Edward Engenas Lekganyane won support in South Africa’s urban areas while Joseph Engenas Matlhakanje Lekganyane had his support in rural areas under the name Saint Engenas Zion Christian Church. He adopted a dove as its symbol

Lekganyane’s sons grew up on a farm at Moria where they attended a private school. As was customary, the followers expected the eldest son to succeed the father, and Edward eventually became the leader of the majority of ZCC-followers. Two of the first changes that the new Lekganyane made, was the development of the Zion City Moria as headquarters of the church, and had the five-pointed Star of David with the letters ZCC added on the original badge created by his father. He then expanded the church by establishing congregations from the far south (Cape Town) to the north (Zimbabwe).

Lekganyane married his wife in 1950 and the couple were blessed with a son (Barnabas), and two daughters.  As the ZCC recognized polygamy as stated earlier, he apparently had at least 23 other wives – some of them living in Soweto and Durban. In 1954 Lekganyane amended the constitution to make the bishopric the inheritance of the Lekganyane family. He expanded his horizons by visiting Botswana, Tanzania, and in 1960 Europe and North and South America. In 1963 he enrolled for a 3-year training course for evangelists at the Dutch Reformed Church’s Stofberg Theological School at Turfloop in the Limpopo Province, and completed the course in 1966. He then endeavoured to renew the church by means of a stronger Biblical approach. It never happened due to his untimely death due to a sudden heart attack at his home. His son, Barnabas Lekganyane, succeeded him in 1967.  Engenas Lekganyane who now leads the Dove section – the Saint Engenas Zion Christian Church, succeeded the uncle, his father’s brother Joseph.

Almost everybody in South Africa know that highlight on the calendar is the ZCC’s annual Easter religious gathering at Moria. Members of the ZCC are also recognised in the work field as honest and dependable employees. According to their religion they abstain from alcohol, smoking, eating pork, sexual promiscuity and violence. Millions of people flock together at Moria, and the worshipping lasts for several days. Some worshippers come from the neighbouring countries such as Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.


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