A few days ago I witnessed (via the interwebs) what was possibly the largest gathering of people ever in South Africa. Although exact numbers haven’t been released yet, the claim is that close to one-million people got together on a farm outside of Bloemfontein. To pray. And to listen to Uncle Angus, as he is fondly called by his followers.
Uncle Angus has interested me for some time already. My childhood, growing up in a religious cult, has made me very sensitive, to the point of being allergic, to con-artists of the religious type. These con-artists (short for confidence artists) are, in my opinion, more dangerous than other types. Why? Because with other types the penny drops for most of their victims at some point. But not so with this religious type. Their specific brand of conniving targets a much deeper sense of yearning that many people seem to have. It is a sense of fear and uncertainty, and, sometimes, hopelessness. And because these feelings don’t go away so easily, it creates a perfect target for conniving confidence artists.
They sell hope. They present their product, their solution, their hope, in an easy-to-understand package. The benefit of their product is purely psychological, eliminating the need for a money-back guarantee. The promises in their marketing campaign only kick in once you are dead. They entice you to keep using their product until the day you die because, lo-and-behold, great riches are waiting beyond the grave. I can’t think of a more perfect business model. Clients for life, literally.
So, to get back to our dear uncle Angus. He has managed to create a following that simply believes that he is in direct contact with God. In this country of ours, with all its sorrow and pain, he found a specific group of citizens who have a particular sense of hopelessness: white male citizens, the tribe that I belong to too. White males are now feeling the onslaught on everything that they hold sacred. They are not in charge of the country anymore. They have lost their jobs to affirmative action. They fear for their safety, and for that of their families. They feel that their power as head of the household has crumbled. Their churches have lost the plot. And, god forbid, gays now have rights too. The world is a mess, the country is a mess, and it is all just going downhill.
But wait, there is hope. There is uncle Angus.
Uncle Angus, it appears, has the answers. He preaches a simple religion, literally based on the Bible. Or shall I say, literally based on the parts of the Bible that fit his theology. In his hugely successful Mighty Men conferences (successful for his brand, that is), he tells men to be men. Like men used to be. In charge of their wives, because it is their God-given right. In his numerous books, on his blog, through his daily TV-programme and on his shows all over the country, he preaches his simplistic but powerful message. Of course, he extends his message to women too. And to citizens who are not white. But his main target market has been, for the most part, white men.
His band of followers grew to the point where he could summon close to a million of them for a prayer meeting outside Bloem. Were there really that many people? I don’t know, but there certainly were hundreds of thousands of people. I kid you not. Because, as uncle Angus says, God listens better when many people pray together. All in one place. It doesn’t help if millions of people just pray in their own houses or at their own churches. No, he serves a just God who is more just when He hears a million people pray together. Does uncle Angus really believe that, or does he just like to have the bragging rights?
A few months ago, before a big event held at the FNB stadium in Johannesburg, Angus wrote on his blog: “We are going up to the third biggest stadium in the world on Saturday 19th November to meet with God as a Nation.” In another blog post, he wrote about a service in a church in Johannesburg: “…I was astonished to see in excess of 650 folk come forward to be born again”. In another post: “Yesterday morning, at Moreleta Park NG Church in Pretoria, we preached to a crowd of approximately eight thousand and saw an unprecedented harvest of souls.” It is easy to find many quotes like this from him, because he clearly likes numbers. The more the better. Those bragging rights…
My question about these type of con artists is always this: are they truly delusional themselves, or are they fully aware of their folly and use their position to delude others?
Over the years, I’ve met some preachers who I’m certain really believe what they preach. I’ve also met some who are clearly just playing the game for their own benefit. With Angus, I’m not sure. On the one hand, he talks with the fervour of a real believer. On the other hand, the way he presents his message seems too calculated. He has built his brand using very clear messages in mostly simple terms, but with enough higher-level words that he can’t be thrown in the same camp as Trump, for instance. He maintains a perfect balance between reminding his followers of the problem (the issues in the country that we all face) and offering them a solution (his brand of religion). His brand image is consistent, with his cowboy hat and bible in his hand. He has a very clear call-to-action. He is a marketer’s dream.
Looking at the pictures from his ‘It’s Time’ event in Bloem, it is heart-warming to see so many South Africans coming together, in peace. Black and white, men and women. Almost a million of them, apparently. Holding hands, sharing the bond that like-minded crowds provide. Can it be that this positive image justifies Angus’ conniving confidence artistry?
Let us see what the country would look like if what Angus prayed for, actually becomes reality.
“I look forward to the day Parliament begins every morning with the reading of scripture and prayer, because that is what South Africa needs,” he told the crowd. “This is not a political change. This is a Jesus change, because we need a Christian government.”
Really? A government based on a specific religion? Apart from being unconstitutional, it is simply a bad idea. History and current world events are full of examples of why that should never happen. Buchan is also known for his anti-gay rhetoric, and for calling women to be submissive to their husbands.
It is a scary thought that there are a million people in this country who identify with this message so strongly that they would make the effort to go all the way to a farm outside Bloem for the opportunity to experience this prayer, this spoken wish, first-hand. Apparently there are millions more who couldn’t make the trek to Bloem that share the same wish. Do they really agree with all that he proclaims, or are they so blinded by their adulation that they’re not thinking clearly about the potential consequences of his proclamations?
Based on uncle Angus’ own numbers, which he so dearly likes to repeat, he is certainly the biggest con artist in our country. What worries me more is that he could also be one of the more dangerous ones, with his large following and divisive message.