MK West

Melville Koppies Nature Reserve

Johannesburg, South Africa

Friends of Melville Koppies:              Phone: +27 11 482 4797                      Email:

Melville Koppies: African Independent Churches

The churches which use the Koppies are Pentecostal, Charismatic, and consist of small groups of worshippers bound to a single inspirational leader. About 30 groups use the Koppies, and there are probably more than 400 worshippers, clad in traditional white, and green or blue robes, on MK West every Sunday afternoon. They use circles, sometimes concreted, surrounded by stones for their prayer meetings.

Thabile Primary

AIC Elders
Photo: Norman Baines

They practice a combination of African traditions with a deep devotion to the Bible. Dancing, trance states, and healing are common. Abstinence from alcohol and tobacco is required. Churches like these represent a deeply significant example of the reaction of African culture to the dour Christianity of the early missionaries.

In 1974 the churches ventured onto the Western Koppies, and despite police harassment in the apartheid years, have managed to survive, and to flourish.

The MKMC has always maintained a good relationship with the churches, a member of the Churches sits on the MKMC, and an MKMC member attends bi-monthly Church meetings. The history of negotiation and compromise is an example of the meeting of two heritages - two cultures - in making MK West a special example of a different model of conservation.

There is a new trend of people, unconnected to these churches, who worship on the ridges of the Western Koppies every day.

Barbara Shaw who did her MA on the churches who pray on Melville Koppies was the guest speaker at our Annual General Meeting on 16th August, 2014. Read her talk here

A Description of Beliefs and Practices


  1. Historical background to the movement
  2. Relationship of the MK West churches with authorities
  3. Reasons for the churches' presence on the MK West section
  4. Benefit of the relationship for Melville Koppies
  5. Details of the MK churches
  6. Possible reasons why churches worship on MK West
  7. Tourism and the churches
  8. References
  9. Glossary

1. Historical background to the movement

According to Dr Allan Anderson, who has done academic research on Pentecostalism for ten years and has been involved with the movement in South Africa for 25 years, "South Africa was one of the first countries on the continent to receive Pentecostalism, in 1908. In less than a century, between 10 - 40% of the population have become Pentecostals, depending how 'Pentecostal' is defined. The 10% includes 'Classical Pentecostals' of several denominations, the largest being the Assemblies of God, the Apostolic Faith Mission and the Full Gospel Church of God. It also includes various new Pentecostals and 'Charismatics'. But the other 30% of the population consist of the almost entirely Black 'Zionist' and Apostolic churches, including the largest denomination in Africa, the Zion Christian Church (ZCC).

There are between 4 000 and 7 000 smaller church organisations of a similar type, many being house churches which form meaningful groups both in rural villages and especially in urban sprawls. Almost all of these churches, like all the Pentecostal churches, emphasize the power of the Spirit in the church, especially manifested through healing, prophecy, exorcism and speaking in tongues.

The Pentecostal movement, including the many African churches that have emanated from it, is not a North American imposition but collectively one of the most significant African expressions of Christianity in South Africa today, where at least ten million people can be identified with a form of Pentecostalism.

The major Pentecostal denominations were mostly created by White South Africans with a small number of foreign missionaries; but national African leadership was not given space to emerge, eventually resulting in secessions of independent Zionist and Apostolic churches and increasing distance between the Black and White Pentecostals in the same denomination. The secessions marked the beginning of the independent African Pentecostal churches, which mushroomed from some 30 churches in 1913 to 3,000 by 1970, and to over 6,000 by 1990.

African Pentecostal churches of all kinds are concerned to provide for holistic needs in many different ways. As Martin West pointed out, Pentecostal churches "meet many of the needs of townspeople which were formerly met by kin groups on a smaller scale in rural areas."

Many forms of African Pentecostalism have liberated Christianity from the foreignness of European cultural forms. A sympathetic approach to African life and culture, fears and uncertainties, and an engagement with the African world of invisible forces, have been major attractions of the churches to people orientated to a world of both evil and good spirits. This is accentuated in the Black townships today, where rapid urbanization and industrialisation have thrown people into a strange, impersonal, and insecure world where they are left groping for a sense of belonging.

(A. Anderson, pp1 - 15)

2. Relationship of the MK West churches with authorities

Before 1991, church groups on the Koppies faced difficulties with the authorities. In 1991, the Voluntary association of African Independent Churches was set up. It cooperated with the Johannesburg Council for Natural History (JCNH) which was set up in 1959 to advise the Council on the management of Melville Koppies, established as a Nature Reserve in that year. In 1993 the council set up the Melville Koppies Management Committee (MKMC) of volunteers as a joint venture arrangement with the Council for the management of Melville Koppies. The MKMC and AIC associations have representatives on each other's committees. The MKMC is not concerned with the faith or beliefs of the churches, but with the preservation and conservation of the Koppies.

After discussion with the JCNH, the churches drew up a Code of Conduct for church members on the acceptable use of the Koppies. The MKMC concurs with the code which was modified in April 2007 to exclude the making of fires.

The code states that everyone will:

  • Look after the animals, birds, plants, soil and rocks in this special place.
  • Keep their circles clean and also the area in a 50m radius. Put rubbish in bags and put it in the litter bins by the road.
  • Keep their circle and the area in a 50m radius weed free.
  • Respect other people and the decisions of the Voluntary Association Committee. If a leader believes the committee is not acting correctly, he or she can appeal to the MKMC
  • Send at least one representative to the AIC meeting at 11 o'clock on the second Sunday of every second month (February, April, June, August and October)

The current chairman is Cyril Maphosa with office bearers Levison Ncube 082 747 6737 and Kenneth Sannie 082 530 4651, among others

3. Reasons for the churches' presence on the MK West section

Melville Koppies is divided into three sections;

Melville Koppies Central (50ha) is a National Nature Reserve and Heritage Site and as such has controlled access. Churches are not permitted to worship here.

Melville Koppies East (10ha) and Melville Koppies West (100ha) are classified generally as public open space and are open daily from dawn to dusk.

Melville Koppies East is a long narrow strip closely surrounded by houses. Singing and drumming would cause a disturbance to the neighbours so churches do not meet here. However, individuals use this section for silent prayer.

The churches meet on Melville Koppies West on the northern slopes overlooking West Park Cemetery. This has been encouraged to prevent the drumming from disturbing neighbours in the suburbs of Westdene and Melville. The northern slopes also have trees and these provide welcome shade.

4. Benefit of the relationship for Melville Koppies

  • The presence of the churches adds a measure of security for people who walk the Koppies on a Sunday afternoon.
  • The churches have been made aware of conservation and assist with the upkeep of the Koppies.
  • The aim of nature reserve is not to exclude indigenous people from their traditional use of the Koppies but to encourage the responsible use.
  • Three church members, otherwise unemployed, are now part of the MKMC conservation team that looks after the 160ha reserve. The members are paid from donations raised by the MKMC for managing the Koppies. This arrangement has benefited the Koppies enormously because the whole reserve is now looked after.

5. Details of MK West churches

There are 23 church groups, registered with the AIC committee, on Melville Koppies West. The names of the groups tend to have 'apostle', 'Zion' or 'Africa' in the names, e.g. 'Apostolic Church in Africa, 'New Gospel Church of Zion in Africa', The Holy Apostolic Church in Zion', Jerusalem Church of God in Zion'. Membership of the churches range from 7 to 50 per group with a total of over 500 members. The leaders or Bishops and the members come from the surrounding suburbs and from other areas such as Randburg, Vosloorus, Maraisburg and Edenvale.

They are not part of the large Zion Christian Church (ZCC).

6. Possible reasons why people worship on MK West

It has been a traditional place of worship long before 1991 when a census was taken of the churches

They worship on Melville Koppies because it "is close to God", according to Nhlanhla Mdluli, a church member. Perhaps the Koppies are a reminder of the rural areas where many members originate from. It is a place of peace and beauty away from the squalor of some urban areas. It is a place of spiritual upliftment and appears to contribute to emotional and mental health. Sunday afternoons are a time of joyous celebration accompanied by singing and dancing to the steady rhythm of drums. The services are participatory. All members have a turn in reading the scriptures and everyone dances and sings.

The church meetings are a very important part of the social calendar and seem to take precedence over other activities. The groups are very caring. They take donations, all recorded in a book, and give these to people in their circle in need of help. Their values are uncompromising. Cigarettes and alcohol pollute the body that God gave, therefore refrain from these activities. "If you don't like this, go elsewhere", says Kenneth Sannie, a church member.

7. Tourism and the churches

The churches have agreed to tourists visiting their circles with Deanna Kirby (083 266 9949), a Parktown and Westcliff Heritage guide. Tourists may listen to part of the service in the vernacular and join in the dancing for a while. They are then taken to another circle and the customs are explained and questions are answered by a church member. Tourists are expected to make a donation to the circle visited.

The aim of the visits is to promote an understanding of different cultures and their beliefs.

9. References

Anderson, Dr Allan, 'Pentecostals and Apartheid in South Africa during Ninety Years 1908-1998', University of Birmingham, Cyberjournal for Pentecostal-Charismatic Research,
Davie, Lucille,, 16th April 2003 article
The Code of Conduct of the Voluntary association of African Independent Churches of Melville Koppies. August 18th, 1991 updated 2007
Various MKMC minutes
Informal discussions with MKMC and church members

10. Glossary

AIC, African Independent Churches
JCNH, Johannesburg Council for Natural History (now defunct)
MKMC, Melville Koppies Management Committee
MK, Melville Koppies