EZEKIEL Guti, who has died at the age of 100, was one of the founders of Zimbabwe Assemblies of God Africa (Zaoga). He also established a media empire, a university, a hospital and numerous schools, and wrote 127 publications (books, pamphlets and tracts).
Baba Guti, as he is affectionately known, leaves behind more than 70 years of evangelising and a vibrant local church. It has the third-largest membership in Zimbabwe after the Roman Catholic Church and the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church. The church also has a transnational arm, Forward in Faith Ministries. It is found in more than 168 countries and has over three million members.
Guti was one of the first Zimbabweans to establish and run a Pentecostal church in colonial Zimbabwe, modelled around Western Pentecostal movements. This was at a time when most Africans formed “Zionist” independent churches that worshipped outdoors in nature and wore white garments.
He was part of a nine-member “prayer band” (a small group of intercessors) that left the Apostolic Faith Mission in 1959. The activities of the band were perceived as threats to the control and position of white missionaries and church leaders in Salisbury (later Harare). It continued with its proselytising and evangelising mission until Zoaga was established in 1960.
As a social anthropologist of Christianity who researches Pentecostal movements in Zimbabwe and their relation to the state, I have followed Guti’s career. He leaves a considerable legacy, not just as a church leader who preached self-reliance and hard work instead of miracles and prophecies, but also as a nation builder.
Guti began his career as a carpenter and entrepreneur with a business providing roofing services. He was also a lay preacher without any qualifications in theology or religious studies.
The prayer band conducted its activities at marketplaces, hostels, under trees – Zoaga was reportedly begun under a gum tree in Bindura – in schools and at his house in Highfield in today’s Harare.
The band appealed particularly to migrant labourers and urbanites who performed menial labour. From the beginning, Guti targeted the subaltern who had aspirations of upward mobility and permanence in colonial urban spaces.
His message gave hope to his followers through performative rituals. Congregants who came in old or torn clothes, for example, were given new clothes during the service. He ministered to both the material and spiritual needs of his followers.
Guti always appropriated technology to spread the gospel. In his early years, he used bicycles and motorbikes to take him from one preaching opportunity to another. Later he would use communications technologies like television and the internet to build his transnational church. He spearheaded what is called the “reverse mission” – taking the African gospel to a “backsliding” western world.
Guti made an indelible mark on the lives of his followers by speaking to their needs. His message focused on self-reliance through what has become known in academic discourse as “penny-capitalism” – or “matarenda” (talents) in Zaoga parlance.
Members of Zaoga are encouraged to have a “side hustle” dedicated to funding a particular cause within a specific year. This can be in the form of moonlighting by, for example, vending, knitting jerseys or selling candy and food. The talent system promotes multiple sources of income and becomes the basis of self-reliance.
In one of my conversations as part of my ongoing research with a female head of household and Zaoga member, she noted that she’d managed to send her daughter to a boarding school and purchase a residential stand, furniture and appliances through matarenda.
By listening to Guti’s sermons and reading his books, I have concluded that this talent system was not a way of responding to the global neoliberal economic system. Rather, hard work and thriftiness were religious duties for every Christian and a way of promoting spiritual growth.
When the Zimbabwean government introduced a programme to remove state subsidies and increase the informal economy, members of Zaoga were already well prepared as they were running side hustles to earn extra money.
To buttress the gospel of self-reliance, Guti discouraged his followers from taking loans from banks because they enslaved the borrower. To help his followers save money, he preached against drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. He also took a lifelong stand against sexual immorality.
From the beginning, Guti was a pragmatist.
His school of Pentecostalism never over-emphasised miraculous healing or amassing great wealth.
Under Guti’s leadership, Zaoga constructed a biomedical hospital which assists Zaoga members and the wider community. The church also built a university in Bindura, bible schools and secondary schools. It established a media empire with TV and radio channels. These projects were partly funded through materenda.
His establishing of Zaoga contains elements of cultural resistance to the colonial project. Guti lived in the same residential area where the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu – later the ruling Zanu-PF) was formed in 1963 to fight for independence.
This may help explain the affinity between black self-reliance and the nationalist ideology of black empowerment. After independence, Guti’s church worked with the post-colonial government on several projects and missions.
Guti was an astute leader and administrator, but his legacy depends on what happens to Zaoga now that he has passed.
Will the new leadership maintain the pragmatic gospel that encourages faith and hard work? Or will it shift to charismatic Pentecostalism that emphasises miraculous wealth through tithes and donations? Already the church has been threatened by the splits and schisms that are common in Pentecostal movements. But Guti’s leadership sustained and grew the movement despite these challenges.
His contribution to the Zimbabwean Pentecostal landscape over 75 years is immense. His gospel appealed to the downtrodden, giving them hope. His pragmatism in dealing with poverty helped many of his followers during the economic crisis that Zimbabwe has experienced.
Guti was an excellent mobiliser of resources for church activities, tapping into local and global networks to conduct philanthropic activities. Above all, history will note his immense role in assisting the marginalised and less privileged through the movement he founded.
About the writer: Josiah Taru is a lecturer at Great Zimbabwe University.–The Conversation.