We had witnessed such beatings before. We were gathered in what they called “The Upper Room”. She lay whimpering on the carpet, her body and legs pinned down by two elders as their colleague explained to his audience that their 16-year-old friend had sinned and would now receive God’s just punishment. Her whimpers became louder as he led us in the customary prayer before punishment. Soon she was screaming her repentance as the piece of hosepipe hit her body again and again and again. I didn’t count the blows that landed on her back, buttocks and thighs. They beat her until she was silent – her spirit broken. A prayer followed that God might forgive her the sin of writing a 1etter to a boy in her class. We obediently ‘Amen-ed’ at the close of the prayer and waited for the sermon.
This incident took place at a Christian orthodox mission station in Natal where I spent much of my childhood and schooling, one of a handful of white children. Our God was not one of love or compassion. He was a masculine monarch who exacted retribution for the slightest misdemeanour. At night we were shown movies called The Burning Hell and The Grim Reaper to further instil fear and compliance. Everyone watched these movies, from toddlers to grown-ups. I lived in constant dread of dying or being struck by lightning if my life wasn’t right with God. Irritability, a thought that a boy was handsome, admiring myself in the mirror – all were abominable sins deserving eternal damnation.
My descent into the mire of mind control began when I was nine and my parents joined the mission. For the next 13 years fear was my constant companion, because the elders found such humiliating ways to show everyone if you had done wrong. You could be suspend m school for a few days, stand on the stage during assembly, be forbidden to sing in the youth choir or even be beaten in public. It became far simpler to merge identity with the group and sink into apathy for fear of doing something wrong. There was a pay-off for me, though. Inside the group I found acceptance and approval as long as I was seen to ascribe to their ideals.
Male supremacy was an unquestioned fact of mission life. A woman’s life revolved around pleasing and placating the males in the community. A woman is a temptress. Full stop. Jewellery, make-up and beautiful clothes were prohibited so as not to lure the men into lustful thoughts. We wore loose fitting, below-the- knee dresses with sleeves and high necklines. No pants were allowed because somewhere in Deuteronomy it states that women shouldn’t wear men’s clothing. Any attempt to look pretty was met with censure.
I never saw a boy being beaten publicly; that seemed reserved for girls. Female inferiority was affirmed in countless ways. Virginity checks were customary when the boarding school girls returned from holiday. Female characters from the bible were decried as evil – everything designed to teach the woman her place. No contact between the sexes was allowed unless the couple was married. Televisions, radios and any music with a beat in it were prohibited.
Inside me there were so many questions about this life. Surely everybody other than the few thousand mission adherents weren’t all going to hell? I didn’t have the peace they preached. Something was wrong with me: maybe I was irredeemably bad. I tried, I really tried. I went to confessions. I didn’t look at myself in the mirror. I starved myself and gave my time selflessly to mission work. And still the restlessness prevailed. I wasn’t like them. I would never be like them. I was doomed to go to hell, for after more than a decade of trying I didn’t feel any closer to God at all. My despair made me ill; I suffered from migraines, backaches, stomachaches. My mother took me from one specialist to the next. Doctors could find nothing wrong with me. No one perceived my desperation and I thought I would go mad. In January 1993, a couple of months after my 21st birthday (and inspired by words of wisdom from relatives in Sweden), I fled the mission to an aunt in Pietermaritzburg and found a job as a receptionist. When the head of the mission heard of my defection he called me in during a visit to my mother and asked whether this move was God’s will for my life. I responded bravely that I hadn’t consulted God on this one. He told me I would never be happy and my future husband would sleep around with other women. Finally, he formally placed God’s curse on my life.
When it became clear I was determined to pursue a different life, my mother told me that until I re- turned to the mission I was not her daughter. Friends passed me in the street and looked away. My brother- in-law forbade any contact between my beloved nieces and me. There were innumerable people who supported and helped me on my journey. There was regular encouragement and compassion from family in Sweden; friends who allowed me to cry and rant and rave; a boss who encouraged me to go out and buy my first pair of jeans and taught me to dance; housemates who didn’t com- plain when I listened endlessly to Nana Missouri. Each one of them loved me and didn’t condemn me for not knowing how to act in their world. I spoke endlessly to them about the mental and emotional abuse, the physical and sexual abuse. I grieved for the loss of family and friends. I cried about the ways I had been wronged and my name blackened. I badly wanted everyone to understand what I had gone through. After all, someone who had been so mistreated could hardly be expected to live a normal and successful 1ife could she? I wanted people to make allowances and feel sorry for me. I also wanted their admiration. I craved love and acceptance.
There is no way I can describe the all-pervasive fear that sat in my solar plexus and wouldn’t go away. One evening while visiting a friend I realised how this fear was keeping me from joining the society I so longed to be part of. Everyone was helping to prepare supper and I was asked to pre- pare the dessert – a fruit salad. Fear of cutting the fruit in the wrong way reduced me to a quivering, sobbing and very embarrassed wreck!
Then, in October 1995, on the insistence of a friend, I attended a five-day self-development course. For the first time I questioned the validity of mission doctrine. I realised I was not in control of my life, but more importantly that I could be. It was here that I met my partner, Kevern – a wonderful, gentle and caring man who has encouraged and supported me while having to put up with a lot of emotional baggage.
And so the healing began. With Kevern’s help I confronted many fears. I started making progress once I shifted my focus from the past. I realised that although I couldn’t change what had happened, I controlled the present and therefore my future. One of my most important realisations was that it mattered little what had happened to me. Talking about how my wardrobe was raided by strangers to eradicate
‘fashionable’ clothing, the kisses my married counselor bestowed on me, the beatings I witnessed and the constant humiliations only depressed me. But the moment I explored the feelings these aroused in me, I started cutting
ties to the mission. Sometimes all I could do was weep – the pain was too much to express verbally. And through it all Kevern was there – never laughing at my childish fears, never condemning me for my own errors. With his quiet strength he helped me to recover.
I finally began to remember when I first decided I was a worthless person and so regained my self-esteem. I recognized where I had given up my willpower, and so regained my ability to make decisions. I saw how warped my idea of God was, and opened up to the love and compassion in the universe. I observed how I had allowed others to manipulate me, and started asserting myself. I examined the intolerant belief system I had adopted, and made a conscious effort to accept others and their differences. In recounting the underlying emotion the importance of the incidents began to fade and became memories that could no longer harm me.
And my regeneration continued. Forgiveness. What an obscure concept that was! ‘How do I do it?’ I would ask others and myself. I battled with this for months until I took yet another quantum leap in emotional growth. I came to see that while I was subjected to many disturbing incidents, I was also accountable as a participant. By forgiving myself for the errors I made, I was able to forgive others and so my bitterness towards the leader of the mission began to dissolve. I know that I still have some way to go with the forgiveness issue, especially when it comes to my mother, sister and brother-in-law, but the pathway has been established and I’m sure I will find acceptance and forgiveness inside myself for the roles we all have played in the breakdown of our family unit.
Six years ago I felt I would never be able to live a successful, normal life. Now I am standing on the threshold of a new life. The harsh experiences have been deep learning opportunities for me to apply to the rest of my life. And it’s a life in which I can implement the ideas that I have established and the character traits I have developed to create freedom and the quickening of my dreams.
ME AND MY MOTHER NOW It’s been a year since my mother and I last spoke. Her bottom line is that I’m a disobedient child living in sin. It’s my refusal to obey her and follow ‘God’s will’ for my life that makes it impossible for her to accept me as her daughter. Having lived at the mission myself, I know that it’s not really her talking. I would make life very difficult for her if I kept going to visit her and I don’t expect her to leave the security of the mission, her life since my father’s death 13 years ago. I wouldn’t want her to risk being ostracised – I can’t offer her the financial support she would need to make a life for herself outside the mission. Although I still hold her responsible for her actions, I know there is immense pressure on her to disown me in order for her to remain a valued group member. She is well loved there and, although I don’t be1ieve she is truly happy, she wants to live there.
THE OTHER SIDE
The mission school featured here is known to FEMINA. When contacted for a response, a senior pastor and teacher said it had 500 children of all denominations. He denied that there had ever been public beatings there, ‘even at the time when corporate punishment was still allowed and widely practised, and it’s been illegal for sometime. He also denied that the school did virginity tests, although he noted that the practice was being revived – and that some Zulu parents requested it. The mission viewed virginity testing as a traditional matter, he said, not a Christian one and would not get involved.
CONTACT BEING FORBIDDEN BETWEEN SEXES? As to allegations of all contact being forbidden between the sexes, the pastor said this would be impossible as school classes were mixed. He – said that he had taught Erika Joubert matric English when she was there some 12 years ago, and added that she had ‘a particular history of grievances, which he believed were linked to her ‘total rejection of Christianity’, after being ‘very enthusiastic about the whole mission at one time’. Visitors were welcome, and could speak to teachers and pupils and judge for themselves, he said.
TOO FRIGHTENED Erika Joubert responded that this man had never taught her, and that staff and pupils at the mission were ‘too frightened to reveal what really goes on there’. She substantiated her allegations with a copy of an e-mail sent to a member of the mission in February last year by a Scottish evangelist and theologian who she said had had close ties to the mission since its inception. In the e-mail he expresses concern at ‘developments (there)~in recer7t years,’ adding, ‘this is not hurtful criticism. I love the people and the work of God at that place and pray for it constantly.’ His worries are that ancient Zulu customs could have influenced the present (mission) policy on courtship and marriage . . . My plea ‘This is not hurtful criticism. I love the people and the work of God at that place and pray for it constantly is that extra-biblical demands may be recognised as such, that they do not supersede and eclipse biblical principles.’ He worries too that ‘so many of the folk at the mission have the same look about them – of resignation and submission, of crushed obedience . . . they seem to have lost the ability to think independently. . they seem governed by the fear of getting into trouble with those above them.’ And he adds that he has had letters from people who have been terribly hurt by their association with the mission. They left years ago but they are still struggling with the dreadful aftermath.’ In an addendum the evangelist lists ‘with deep concern’ ~ the four elements of mind control – control of behaviour’ thought, emotion and information. ‘I merely inform you of these~,’ he concludes, ‘and leave you to apply them to anything in the situation at (the mission) and assess how far, if at all, it has progressed along this pathway . . . If there are issues to consider then definite steps need to be taker to halt any further movement towards cultic mind control.’ At the time of going to press, FEMINA had e-mailed he evangelist for further comment and was awaiting his response.
[Note: the names in this testimony have been changed]