South Africa’s boozy church struggles with COVID lockdown rules

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When South Africa began easing its coronavirus lockdown in May, it allowed religious worshippers to gather in groups of up to 50, but maintained a ban on people assembling to drink alcohol.

That’s a problem for the “Gabola” church — the name means ‘drinking’ in the local Tswana language — for whom a tipple is an integral part of their religious worship.

Founded just two years ago, the church tried to hold its usual meetings in local bars, called shebeens, to praise God while downing whisky, but they soon got arrested, its leader and self-styled ‘pope’ Tsietsi Makiti, 55, told Reuters.

“They can arrest us until Jesus comes back,” said Makiti, wearing a bishop’s mitre with a miniature bottle of spirits hanging off it.

But he added they had been moving services from place to place to avoid a run-in with the authorities.

On Sunday worshippers met in a rubbish-strewn field in Evaton, south of Johannesburg. As the service started, the ‘clergy’ blessed some beer bottles in prayer.

“At Gabola church you (bring)… the liquor of your choice… and the pastor will bless the liquor so that it will not be poisonous to your body,” Makiti said.

Wearing flowing black robes and coloured scarves, Makiti and five ‘clergymen’ – none of them are ordained – sat before a table strewn with empty bottles of alcohol.

Makiti’s sermon included such proclamations as: “We are a church that will remake the world.”

“People call me a drunkard,” said one worshipper, Nthabiseng Kotope, 38, who said she joined the church in March.

“I agree with them. I do God’s work while drinking.”

Apart from the ban on alcohol, the congregants observe all other coronavirus rules, including the limit of 50 people, the spacing out of chairs and use of hand sanitisers.

While some Protestant sects teach that alcohol is sinful and to be avoided, most mainstream Christian churches are not opposed to moderate drinking, citing such Biblical stories as Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding feast.