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Scaring the Hell out of You

Flag of Great Britain means Englisch language A 4-part examination of the role of fear in the theology and practices of KwaSizabantu and the psychological implications for children – Part 1

Writer: Daniel Schricker, PhD

“People who leave KSB live in fear, people at KSB as well – they fear hell, they fear the leaders and the fear each other. You won’t even speak to your friend if something is troubling you because your friend might go and confess and if he confesses first, you’re in big trouble.”- Pieter Becker (former member of KwaSizabantu) [1]

“At KSB, I lived in fear of putting a foot wrong because the punishment would be awful.” – Erika Bornman (author of ‘Mission of Malice’ and former member of KwaSizabantu) [2]

“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” – (1 Timothy 1:7)

A recurring theme in the testimonies of former members of KwaSizabantu is the debilitating and pervasive role that fear has played in their lives. Understanding this role within the context of KwaSizabantu’s theology and practices is crucial in evaluating the long-term psychological devastation which has impacted virtually everyone who spent any considerable time under their teaching. The sentiments expressed by Pieter Becker and Erika Bornman above are, I believe, shared by almost every former member who grew up at KwaSizabantu and its affiliated branches.

Among the many headlines which emerged in the numerous news story in 2020 relating to KSB was the following: “KwaSizabantu Mission accused of ruling by fear”. [3] The following four-part essay series aims to examine just some of the implications of this culture of fear, focusing specifically on the psychological impact on children growing up in that context. I will attempt to show how fear colours the view of every aspect of the world in a KwaSizabantu child, starting with God and moving all the way down to fear of self. This analysis will not be exhaustive as the scope of this topic is considerable, but it will highlight some key aspects of the subject at hand. The discussion will comprise the following: 1. Fear of God, 2. Fear of authority, 3. Fear of self, 4. Fear of the outside world.

Part 1: Fear of God

KwaSizabantu considers itself first and foremost a Christian mission station and church. On their website we find the following:

KwaSizabantu is a non-denominational Christian mission station that reaches out to people of all racial and cultural groups bringing a message of repentance and hope and providing spiritual guidance, educational support and counselling. The KwaSizabantu ministry originated in South Africa but has expanded to include centres in several countries. [4]

Because this is the label they attach to themselves, any meaningful discussion of their world view and belief system must begin with their view of God. Although KwaSizabantu regards its teachings as part of orthodox Protestant evangelicalism, this could not be further from the truth. A particularly clear example of this is their representation of God Himself. The God of KwaSizabantu is not ‘love’ (1 John 4:8). Former member Pieter Becker has said that members of KwaSizabantu have only “experienced a God who is hard without mercy, a cruel God”.1 Otto de Vries spent his formative years at the mission and had this to say in an interview with Galaxy Universal Network:

This is a theme that runs across most of what you hear…the fear that is instilled in children and young people. Growing up…as a five year old, six year old child, they used to show this movie called ‘The Burning Hell’ which is basically a depiction of hell…I can’t recall one sermon ever in my life where you hear about God’s love. You grow up being in constant fear. [5]

As evidenced by these testimonies, this fear of God arises primarily due to a heretical overemphasis on his wrath and a complete lack of teaching on his love, mercy, and grace. Even a superficial examination of the sermon archive available on their website highlights a disturbing absence of teaching relating to God’s love and mercy, and an unbalanced and unbiblical depiction of God as a hard taskmaster who metes out retribution for even minor infractions.

It seems reasonable to enquire at this point what would drive this view of God from their perspective. My personal opinion is that this is a direct reflection of their biggest fear of all: losing the sacred cow of ‘the revival’. Let us assume for the sake of argument that a genuine revival occurred at Maphumulo. The leaders of KwaSizabantu are convinced that any easing of the rules will result in the loss of revival. As such, it is imperative that the membership’s behaviour is strictly regulated and the easiest way to achieve this is a theology based almost entirely on fear. The ends, they would say, justify the means. Erlo Stegen (leader of KwaSizabantu) has stated:

I believe with all my heart that revival should never come to an end. If the victorious Lord who triumphed over death and every power of the devil, if He to whom all power has been given in heaven and on earth, if the living God is in our midst in all His glory and majesty, something must happen. If the almighty, holy God walks and lives amongst us and we are His temple, there should be revival without ceasing because revival is God among us with His fire burning. [6]

In the sermon from which this quotation comes, Stegen uses the story of Achan to draw a parallel between sin hindering the people of God in the Old Testament and sin bringing his alleged revival to an end in the present day. Specifically, the covering up of sin, or failure to bring sins into the open. He goes on to say:

In this text, we have a carnal, so-called Christian among the people of God. A soldier in the army of God. This soldier does things in secret. There are things which he hides, things which are not right. He sins in secret and then hides it but God in heaven sees it. Hiding sin kills revival.[6]

It is difficult to overstate how central this idea is in KwaSizabantu’s theology: hiding sin kills revival. If losing the revival is unthinkable, and hidden sin brings revival to an end, the inevitable conclusion is that all sin must be uncovered and stopped by any means necessary. An end to the revival would force them to (in the words of Oscar Wilde) join the common rank and file down ‘in the gutter’. KSB’s elitism simply will not permit this. To view themselves as ordinary Christians, devoid of genuine revival, no better than any other sinner saved by grace would be unconscionable to them. Indeed, I suspect for many it would remove the entire foundation of their Christian faith.

This may seem like un unnecessary tangential digression, but it is only once this context is understood that the rest of their view of God makes any sense. They are deeply suspicious of any teaching which emphasises or even expounds the love, grace, compassion, or mercy of God. Due to a defective view of regeneration, they are of the opinion that ultimately fear must be used to regulate the behaviour of its membership (including children) and guarantee the continuation of revival. In light of this, it should come as no surprise that frequent threats of God’s judgement are to be found entwined in virtually all of their teaching. Additionally, Erlo Stegen sometimes publicly placed curses on the lives of former members who had decided to leave KwaSizabantu. This was obviously done to instill further fear in the remaining members, who may also be questioning or planning to leave. Erika Bornman also relates a private anecdote in which Erlo placed a curse on her life as a young adult after she was deemed to be straying from the path of the mission2.

In place of God’s benevolence, the preaching was infused with a constant emphasis on divine judgment to create apocalyptic distress and a paralysing fear of God in the hearers. Graphic stories were peppered throughout the sermons about people who turned away from KwaSizabantu or God (the two were usually conflated), who met with a gruesome demise. One that I recall vividly was the story of the teenage schoolgirl who enjoyed the worldliness of attending a school prom and subsequently died in a car accident on her way home. Her dying words, we were told, were to her mother: “you never taught me how to die”. The message to the children and young people was clear: worldliness like dancing, dressing up, and attempting to impress the opposite sex were met with immediate and fatal divine retribution.   

How does this theology play out in practice and what was its impact on children? Outside of the context of preaching was the practical reinforcement of this view of God. An author writing under the name of Jay Roderick highlights an example of this in reference to Domino Servite (the school at the mission):

There was a school teacher who was known to use many scare tactics, one of them being the sounding of a trumpet by a schoolboy hiding at the back of the hall during her assembly sermons in which she was preaching about the rapture and the last trump…[7]

I hope I do not have to convey to the reader the kind of lasting psychological damage that these types of ‘mock judgement day’ scenarios would foster in the mind of a child. Consider for a moment how a young child is supposed to settle into any normal pattern of sleeping with the constant uncertainty of facing these kinds of torturous roleplays which only foreshadowed something much more terrifying.

Perhaps the most sickening example of apocalyptic distress forced upon the minds of impressionable children was the frequent showing of Ron Ormond’s ‘The Burning Hell’ (1974). I was spared being shown this movie at the age of 5 only because the man at KSB who had arranged the viewing for me was killed in a car accident the day before the proposed screening. However, I watched the film recently and was appalled that this was shown to children of any age. When I attended KSB’s mid-year youth conference in 2005, I can recall Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ being shown to the children. The movie was followed by threats of damnation and a reminder that Jesus’ next visit to earth was in judgment, not mercy. Many of the children were well under the age of 15 and, as far as I am aware, there was no age restriction to viewing the film. Most of the children attending the conference were there without their parents present. The child sitting next to me at the time (who was also under the age of 15) assured me that the nervous giggles heard at the start of the film would soon be replaced by the sound of crying children. Evidently, he had experienced these types of movies being shown before. The great film critic Roger Ebert called The Passion of the Christ ‘the most violent film [he] ha[d] ever seen’ [8]. The fact that violent images of this type were potentially traumatising and nightmare-inducing for young children was evidently of no concern to the leadership of KwaSizabantu.

I recently came across a comment on Twitter by a supporter of KwaSizabantu, pointing out that the reality of hell and God’s wrath is terrifying, and by implication that the mission may be justified in instilling this fear in children. While some would probably agree with that position, it is crucial to point out where KwaSizabantu departs from a typical evangelical position regarding the character of God. As I have already pointed out, they focus almost exclusively on the wrath of God. God’s attributes of love, mercy, compassion, kindness, longsuffering, benevolence, grace, and sympathy are notably absent. The concept of justification by faith is also absent from KSB’s theology, thus removing any hope of lasting psychological certainty of divine favour. In its place they have erected a confessional system by which forgiveness of sins is only obtained when each and every sin is confessed in front of a mission co-worker (referred to as a counsellor in their vocabulary). Justification in scripture is a forensic, legal term whereby God permanently and immediately declares the believing sinner righteous before God on the basis of the atonement of Christ. KwaSizabantu ignores this entirely, and heretically teaches that salvation is lost every time sin is committed, until that sin has been confessed in the presence of one of the co-workers at the mission. I would ask the reader to put themselves in the shoes of a child who is introduced to this capricious god. He comes to realise quite quickly that the only sliver of hope he has in avoiding the terrifying judgement of this malevolent deity is through the act of confession to his counsellor. Izak du Preez, a former member of KwaSizabantu, described the belief system in the following way:

I grew up at Kwasizabantu in terror, without realizing at the time how abnormal it was. The beatings (terrifying as they were) paled in comparison to the psychological abuse. I remember at age five, hurrying to the window early every morning and looking at the sky, dreading that Judgement Day might have arrived and caught me with some unconfessed “sin in my heart” (which “sin” was defined by Kwasizabantu’s leadership in a way that would essentially ensure that everyone always had some). [9]

Imagine yourself as a child, truly internalising the doctrine described in this quote. Every time you sin you are in danger of eternal hellfire until you have the chance to confess your sins to a “counsellor”. Imagine the psychological anguish of knowing your eternal destiny rests on this act of confession. How do I know I have confessed all my sins? Have I confessed them in enough detail? What if I forget some of my sins? What if I die with unconfessed sins because the counsellor was busy and I couldn’t confess them right away? These are some of the questions which drive the thinking of the children who realises the implications of the theological framework they are being raised in. Jay Roderick summarises this belief succinctly:

The doctrine was simple: if you die with an unconfessed sin, you will burn for an eternity in hell. Of course, this would make most children constantly fear for their after-lives, whether they bought into it or not.7

It should also be noted that confessions of this type were compulsory for school children at Domino Servite on the mission. Below is an excerpt from the independent panel report which investigated KwaSizabantu in 2020:

41.1. Celimpilo Malinga that when she was at the school in the 1990’s there were random checks to ascertain whether one had been to confession, and that if one had not been recently a beating would ensue. Ms Malinga also said that this was a way of monitoring what was happening in the lives of the learners.

41.2. Mr du Preez stated that: “In junior school we would be obligated to visit our “counsellors” (Kwasizabantu leadership) to “confess our sins”, and were expected to return weekly to school with a small document signed by the “counsellor” that we had confessed our sin to his/her satisfaction that week.9

The God that is introduced to KwaSizabantu children is easily angered, merciless, tyrannical, and irrational. He demands humiliating penance as the only form of atonement although KwaSizabantu cloaks these rituals in innocuous terminology. ‘Walking in the light’, ‘unburdening yourself to a counsellor’ must have a better ring to them than: ‘reveal your darkest, deepest, innermost secrets to the person in authority to avoid eternal torment and ostracism within the group’.

This is thus the foundation of the KwaSizabantu worldview. A malevolent deity who seems to have a particular fondness for keeping a record of the minor misdemeanours of children and bringing swift and terrifying judgment. Is it any wonder that a generation of what Erika Bornman labels ‘shadow children’ have grown up struggling to make sense of the world and the God of KwaSizabantu?

(Still to follow: Part 2: Fear of Authority, Part 3: Fear of Self, Part 4: Fear of the Outside World)

[1] Karrim, Azarrah. “ ‘They have mind control over people’: Inquiry hears why ex-member calls KwaSizabantu a cult”. News24, 2020.  Accessed 18 September, 2021.
[2] Bornman, Erika. Mission of Malice. Penguin Random House South Africa. Kindle Edition, 2021.  
[3] Nair, Nivashni and Bhengu, Lwandile. “KwaSizabantu mission accused of ruling by fear”. TimesLive, 2020, Accessed 18 September, 2021.
[4] KwaSizabantu Website: About Us
[5] De Vries, Otto. Interview with Galaxy Universal Network posted on their Facebook page on 12 October, 2020.
[6] Stegen, Erlo. “Revival- God at Work. Part 3: Why Does Revival Come to an End?” KwaSizabantu Website. Accessed 18 September, 2021.
[7] Roderick, Jay. “The Orphans of KwaSizabantu Mission”. Jay Roderick blog. Accessed 18 September, 2021.
[8] Ebert, Roger. Review of “The Passion of the Christ”. Roger Ebert Reviews, 2004. Accessed 18 September, 2021.
[9] Le Mottee, Peter. Shazi, Kumbu. “Report of the investigation into the allegations against KwaSizabantu Mission by the Independent Panel”. 2020.

Daniel Schricker, PhD (b. 1990)
Daniel Schricker is a composer and writer based in Adelaide, Australia. He completed undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of Adelaide, being awarded a PhD in 2020. His doctoral research examined Arnold Schoenberg’s concept of developing variation from a compositional perspective. Recently some of his writings have focused on the theology and practices of KwaSizabantu Mission in South Africa. Daniel spent his early childhood attending the KSB conferences in Europe and briefly lived at the mission station in South Africa in 1996. Between 1999 and 2008 he was part of KSB Australia and also visited the mission station in South Africa again in 2005.