A cholera outbreak in South Africa is more bad news for river baptisms.
Baptist News Global previously documented how South Africa’s risky, informal baptisms conducted by unlicensed pastors have grown problematic due to mass causalities by drowning. Now, a cholera outbreak due to a massive collapse of urban sewage disposal and treatment across South Africa is creating a new menace.
Worshippers are getting infected with deadly cholera, typhoid and bilharzia diseases during baptisms in infected urban waterways.
“We are cracking our heads on how to stop this. Worshipers are turning up sick from being baptized in infected waters,” said Shumile Malaba, a public health supervisor in Gauteng, the country’s wealthiest province and epicenter of informal, open-river baptisms by unlicensed ministers.
Health officials in South Africa have raised an alarm that dozens of Christians are turning up in hospital ICUs, sick with deadly cholera infections, which they catch from baptisms in the Klip River — already the most notorious river for deadly river baptisms in the country. Two famous rivers — the Jukskei and the Klip — in Gauteng, the wealthiest province, are the source of most of the infections, authorities say.
All the infected patients had no international travel history, indicating the source of the cholera infections is local, health officials said.
“It was after a painful stomach, vomiting and week’s stay in hospital to get rehydrated that I realized my baptism in Klip River had got me infected with cholera. I’m furious for being foolish,” said Sithokozile Fezani, 42, a mother of four.
Municipalities in South Africa, dodged by relentless corruption, cannot offer basics like treating wastewater. As a result, untreated sewage is being dumped into some city rivers and beaches visited by millions of tourists.
It is in these city waterways where informal baptisms get conducted. It’s the less educated, poor, mostly Black Christian South Africans who pay money for gimmicky baptisms in dirty rivers conducted by fly-by-night pastors. Unlicensed pastors running informal churches in South Africa get paid lucrative amounts to conduct open-river baptisms, taking advantage of poor worshippers who think baptism consultations could change their fortunes.
Some of these unlicensed pastors are said to be charging up to $50 per person to conduct baptism rituals in ferocious open rivers in violation of municipal safety bylaws.
The latest cholera menace in South Africa was on April 5, when worshippers turned up in hospitals sick from cholera after attending river baptisms. One patient died, health officials confirmed.
“This is a preventable calamity that will keep growing because there is a growing nexus of corruption, collapsed public water treatment and dodgy pastors conducting unsafe baptism in dirty waters,” said O’Brien Nhachi, a social scientist and climate campaigner. “It’s mind-boggling.”
What worries Duma Mahlobo, a coordinator with the Gauteng Community Health Alliance, is that informal ministers and churches compete to secure river spots for themselves.
“The priests say, ‘This river or pool is mine to conduct paid-for-baptisms.’ It’s nearly impossible to sway them away from cholera-infected and dirty rivers that they consider their territory,” Duma said.