THE kwaSizabantu Mission in Kranskop has strongly defended itself against allegations that members have been abused but makes no apology for its methods or beliefs.
KwaSizabantu, the largest Christian mission station in the southern hemisphere, stands on a 340 hectare farm, boasts a conference centre that seats 10 000 and offers accommodation to more than 4 000 people at a time. The mission school has attained 100% passes in the past 12 years.
The Witness visited the mission this week to speak to its leader, Erlo Stegen, but he was unavailable.
Spokesman Kjell Olsen said he views the criticism of the mission by Erika Joubert (in a story run in Femina and the Witness) as the result of “some new age movement that was making her turn against the mission and Christianity in general”.
Olsen disputed the claim that 50 people have contacted Femina to corroborate Joubert’s allegations, and believes this is a list of 50 names that Joubert has passed on to the publication. “We have had people, in the past, call us to ask us what is happening as they have been contacted by Erika to speak against the mission,” he said.
The Witness has independently spoken to more than a dozen people who recount having been beaten and ritually humiliated.
Olsen added that in any situation there “will always be the ‘Erikas’ out there who believed they had bad experiences, but then again there would be an equal number, perhaps more, who had good experiences”.
Asked about the ethos of authority and fear described by Joubert, Olsen said they do not use fear as a tool. “We do not preach retribution and have a very relaxed atmosphere here. Look around and you are welcome to talk to anyone.”
He said they make no apologies for their chosen lifestyle. “We preach plain old Bible methods and God’s forgiveness of sinners. We preach against drugs, alcohol, sex before marriage and adultery. Our code of conduct is the Bible.
“I can understand people assuming that we must be some strange group we seem to present a typical Jim Jones scenario. But we are not exclusive or monastic, our mission is open to all denominations and all our services are public.”
He said their training institutions include a teachers’ college and an adult education centre. There is a drug and alcohol rehabilitation service as well as a frail care hospital for the terminally ill. The mission is financed by a mixed farming operation and cottage industries that include a honey and noodle factory, a pottery, bakery, jam factory and dairy. Electrical, woodwork, plumbing and mechanical workshops offer training and take care of all the maintenance work on the property.
Olsen and two other representatives explained some of their work and beliefs, saying they respect cultural differences and uphold those aspects of different cultures that are in keeping with the Bible. This is why they do not condemn virginity testing. However, they do condemn witchcraft, venerating ancestors, magic and divinations.
Responding to the HIV/Aids crisis they have adopted a programme from America that teaches abstinence and is known as “True Love Waits”. They have over 275 000 pledges and no one is forced to sign the pledge cards. They say they do not condemn people who already have HIV and in fact have many Aids patients staying at their hospital for terminally ill patients.
Similarly in their work with prostitutes, drug addicts and alcoholics they do not condemn – even if a person goes back to their old ways they will always try to help. Their one condition is that people must enter their programme voluntarily. “We do not see this as a rehabilitation centre, but as a place where people will be cured if they accept Jesus as their personal saviour.”
The mission also believes in discipline and respect within the family. On allegations of beatings at the mission, all agreed that in the eighties, the period Joubert describes in her article, there was corporal punishment at the school as at that time such punishment was allowed by the Education Department. They say however this was a practice sanctioned by and often carried out by parents. Corporal punishment was stopped in 1994, a year before the government ban.
On an allegation by Joubert that they discriminate against women, they claim that many of their full-time missionaries are women and that in Newlands a woman holds the position of principal of the school.
There is no strict hierarchy in the mission and by virtue of their age and their years spent at the mission the older founder members like Stegen are naturally held in high esteem.
The 27 different projects operate as independent units and financially run their own affairs. All people are treated equally be they an illiterate gardener or a university professor.
On allegations of nepotism and favouritism, it was explained that there are more members of certain families living on the mission. This was why there is a preponderance of certain surnames on the mission, for example the Stegens or the Engelbrechts.