Round One was when the Minister of Nationality, Immigration and Gender Affairs, Edwin Batshu, threw a sucker-punch that completely stunned Prophet Shepherd Bushiri. Miraculously, the “man of God” remained standing. Deceptively slumped against the ropes, he then rope-a-doped the minister until the bell. Round Two was a blur: a split second after the glove-touching ritual, Batshu was sprawled on his back and the referee counted him out of the fight. And still SADC’s heavyweight champion of commercial religion … the Major 1. Fire!
The sucker punch was in the form of a ministerial decree that Bushiri could not come to Botswana unless he was given a visa. The whole thing is a charade and by now Bushiri would know better than to apply for that visa because he will never get it. Essentially, he has been declared a prohibited immigrant and as everybody else on that list, his application will be rejected. In the not-too-distant past, the government has expressed grave concern about prosperity gospel pastors like Bushiri preying on the gullible by promising them heaven and earth while actively impoverishing them. These churches have a very strict tithe policy and not once do their pastors tell congregants that if they stop tithing, their income will go up by 10 percent. There are other odious aspects of this strain of Christianity. One too many prosperity gospel pastors persistently display an intense hornier-than-thou attitude towards the beauty-queen section of the pews. In the same way that no farmer would allow a lion to prey on cattle right in the kraal, the Botswana government will not allow Bushiri to prey on its citizens from inside its borders.
As Batshu did all the talking in media interviews about his decree, Bushiri (nicknamed “Major 1”) stayed mum ÔÇô the rope-a-dope as it were. Round Two took the form of a long-running “international visitors programme” that, beginning last week, is being advertised in the media. Through this programme, Bushiri’s followers are transported to the church headquarters in Pretoria. A return trip costs P285 but those who go to these church services end up spending much more than that. Ultimately, Batshu’s effort amounts to nought because he has been unable to keep Bushiri away from Botswana citizens, underscoring once more that the campaign against prosperity gospel cannot be waged by individual countries. While it is as concerned about the economic effect of prosperity gospel on especially poor people, the South African government is not on the same page with Botswana regarding how to protect its citizens. Free travel between Botswana and South Africa means that if Bushiri is barred from Botswana, his followers will travel to South Africa. That is exactly what is happening and is being intensified.
What makes Batshu’s campaign particularly difficult is that the same people that he is trying to protect from Bushiri are firmly in the latter’s corner. Some of the online commentary following Bushiri’s ban was to the effect that if other Batswana can waste their money on earthly delights, then adherents of prosperity gospel should, in the interest of equality, be allowed to waste theirs any way they see fit.
A conflict-of-interest case can also be made against political leaders like Batshu who belong to mainline churches. As even some religious leaders and scholars admit, churches are more focused on quantitative membership growth than qualitative spiritual growth. Going back at least a decade now, mainline churches have been complaining that new-age evangelical churches are taking away their members and making them look less and less like churches. That Batshu belongs to Spiritual Healing Church is legitimate basis to question his decree.
Bushiri is not the only winner ÔÇô the country from where he plies his trade also stands to make a lot of money as Batswana travelling to Pretoria to attend Bushiri’s church services. Religious-oriented travel is big tourism business but Botswana ÔÇô as indeed other countries around the world, has been slow to take advantage of it. The Botswana Tourism Organisation has not even began using the term “religious tourism” when this segmented market actually exists. Studies done on this subject indicate that faith-based travel is one of the fastest growing segments in travel today and might well double by the year 2020. This travel is estimated at a value of US$18 billion and to have 300 million travellers. Other studies indicate that religious tourism is less prone to economic ups and downs because faith-based travelers are so committed to getting a particular spiritual experience that will travel no matter how adverse their financial situation might be.
While countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are promoting religious tourism, most countries have been slow to profit from it. Malawi is a good example. Bushiri is Malawian and given how popular he is now, he would still make a hell (yes, hell) lot of money even if he were based in his home country. That makes him an FDI asset that the Malawian government should have long cultivated.
Had he headlined a prayer service at the Molapo Cross shopping mall piazza in Gaborone, Bushiri would not have been the only person making money. He is very popular in Southern Africa and people would have travelled from as far as Zimbabwe and Zambia to attend his service. This would have meant business for airlines, bus companies, hospitality establishments and retail outlets. All that money will now be spent in Pretoria.
The cluelessness about the potential of religious tourism extends to businesspeople themselves. That businesses have yet to develop an overall faith-based tourist product points to the fact that entrepreneurs are not alert to the business potential of this sub-category. Siyabulela Nyikana of the Department of Tourism and Hospitality Management at the University of Venda in South Africa has studied the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) Easter Festival in Moria. He describes the latter as “a major religious tourism event that takes place during the Easter period in Limpopo, South Africa.” Nyikana’s findings, which were published in the African Journal of Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure, show that “Of the total respondents, 39.7 percent indicated that attending the event had raised their awareness of tourism facilities in the area. This is particularly significant in that it plants a seed of interest in re-visitation on the part of the attendees. The onus therefore rests on the relevant officials to capitalise on this in attracting the attendees for tourism specific intentions beyond the festival itself.”
In the final analysis, Bushiri’s ban will cost Botswana a pretty tourism penny.