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Fear of Self

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 3

Writer: Daniel Schricker, PhD

‘How do I become myself and yet not bring shame on my family? Who am I? What do I want? Are my thoughts my own or are they what the mission has instilled in me? How do I have a good time? What is a good time?’ [1] Nontobeko Hlela (former member of KwaSizabantu)

‘You are not taught to think for yourself, you are told what to think and what not to think.’ [2] Otto de Vries (former member of KwaSizabantu)

There were many external factors to be feared for a child raised under KwaSizabantu’s watch: God, people in authority, peers, and the harsh punishments which were meted out for trivial offences. Unfortunately, the fear implanted in these impressionable minds was not confined to external factors. The children were also taught to fear themselves. I will focus on four aspects of the humanity of the children and adolescents that was targeted by the teaching and practices of KwaSizabantu: the mind and its capacity for critical thinking, personality, emotions, and sexuality. Internalising the teaching of KwaSizabantu during one’s formative years soon meant fearing these four aspects of personhood, severely stunting the development towards healthy, normal adulthood.

The childen raised in the KwaSizabantu paradigm were never encouraged to think for themselves as the institution embodied the “my way or the highway” approach to the instruction of the next generation. They understood that a failure to follow even the extra-Biblical rules enforced by the mission would result in expulsion, ostracism, or punishment. Despite KwaSizabantu’s claims that they regard themselves as part of the wider evangelical community, their entire worldview is characterised by an extreme elitism and sectarianism. While they might concede that God can save people outside of KwaSizabantu, they regard anyone who leaves the mission or turns against their brand of Christianity as apostate and consequently shun them. ‘They should know better’, they would say, ‘because they have seen the light and deliberately turned from it’. This sectarian thinking was instilled in the children too, and they grew up believing that being raised at KwaSizabantu is an enormous privilege because they were being raised “in revival”. Nontobeko Hlela writes:

We were told relentlessly that there is only one way to God and that is the KwaSizabantu way. All other churches and other ways of worshipping are not right. There is only one way, and that is the KSB way.1

The effect of this was a stifling of childhood curiosity and questioning. To test the boundaries or even question why they were there was regarded as rebellion deserving of punishment. The child was forced into a worldview in which they were made to feel guilty for normal inquisitiveness. Their critical thinking was suppressed ruthlessly because their thoughts had to conform to the group. The following excerpt from a News24 article highlights this:

Bongani Sibisi, 40, was 12 years old when he asked one of his friends who had created God.This question earned him 35 lashes with a red pipe which left him bloodied and labelled an “antichrist”. He cries bitterly as he speaks of this beating allegedly at the hands of Michael Ngubane, now the chairperson of KwaSizabantu Mission’s Domino Servite School Board and a director at aQuelle. Although 28 years have passed, he still has marks that he said he had sustained that day. Sibisi, at the time in his first year at the school, said Ngubane had summoned him after his friend had reported his question. He was taken to a room where he was instructed to remove his clothing and lie down on a table. “He started to hit me with the red pipe. I was crying! There was even blood, but he kept hitting me, even when I faked fainting.” He recalled that he was unable to sit after the beating. [3]

When a common philosophical question is brutally stamped out in the mind of the child, there is no capacity for individual critical thinking to develop. The child begins to fear its own mind, stifling intellectual curiosity and worries that thoughts that oppose KwaSizabantu ideology may be planted there by Satan. Even their conscience is made to conform to the worldview presented to them by the preaching. They are made to feel guilty over things that most Christians would condone and enjoy while being taught that morally reprehensible actions (like beating children viciously) are perfectly acceptable when done in the name of God.

To further stunt the critical thinking of the children, their access to information about the outside world was severely restricted. Sex education, for example, was withheld. Erika Bornman writes:

When I was a pupil at the KwaSizabantu mission school, Ms Newlands and the other leaders of the mission not only opposed sex education, but went as far as tearing out of our biology textbooks any chapters dealing with animal reproduction or human anatomy. [4]

The lack of access to information also applied in other areas. The report by the panel investigating the mission states the following:

We were told by Dr Botha, who left the Mission in 2019, that members are not allowed to have television sets as a form of thought control, and that Internet usage is monitored.[5]

Nontobeko Hlela also verifies this:

… they had Radio Khwezi, a community radio station based at the mission, and this was the only radio station that could be listened to.1

The philosophy was simple: withhold information from the outside world to ensure that the children at KwaSizabantu grow up to adopt the ideology of the mission. Given the fact that children understood the severity of the consequences for straying, they grew up fearing any part of their thinking that pulled them in a different direction. Some cracked under the strain and left. Others supressed their critical faculties and become subservient and dutiful followers of Erlo Stegen and the ideology he and his followers still espouse.

In conjunction with the stunting of critical thinking was the suppression of individuality expressed in the personality of the child. The child’s personal tastes in clothing, food, music, and religious expression were ignored and regarded as secondary to the rules of the mission. In some cases, this was obvious even at superficial glance. Zulu girls, for example, were made to wear their hair a certain way. But the need to conform extended far beyond just the hairstyles. Nontobeko Hlela writes again:  

Dancing, wearing make-up, pants or nail polish, talking to a boy, long hair if you were a black woman – because white women and girls could grow their hair long and do all types of hairstyles – and having “bad thoughts”. Clapping your hands in time to music, swaying to music, watching television and listening to the radio were all sins. All this made you evil and you would burn in hell for it.1

Under this framework, the children were never given permission to explore their own tastes and personal preferences, whether it was in music, clothing, or other aspects of their appearance and personality. This restrictiveness often had long term consequences as they grew up lacking a clear sense of personal preference. Something as innocuous as buying a pair of jeans could be emotionally difficult. 

It is difficult to overstate how much anxiety this system created in the minds of the children. Instead of being taught to celebrate their uniqueness, they began to question their motivations for almost everything if they were conscientious. And for the less conscientious, there was always some spare plumbing pipe on hand to remind them to conform. The long-term effect of this was that the children grew into adults who fear healthy experimentation, new challenges, and, most of all, failure. Some also struggled to develop an individual moral compass as they had been taught only the rules of a system that allowed no grey areas and no disagreement.

Emotions also become the target of the KwaSizabantu system. The lines were blurred between sinful and universal, human emotion in the minds of the children. The result was an intense fear of the normal feelings which characterise the human experience. One obvious emotion which was regarded as perhaps the chief sin by KwaSizabantu was that of romantic attraction (i.e. having a ‘crush’ on someone). These normal, adolescent attractions were treated as sinful, and as such must be revealed to the counsellor. Otto de Vries describes it the following way:

“…with regards to having feelings for someone when you start becoming a teenager, you feel bad, and you feel that it’s the worst thing, the worst sin you’ve done when you have feelings for someone. And you have a crush on someone…you’ve got to go see a counsellor and you tell the counsellor ‘I like this girl’. And the counsellor will say: “Do you have a relationship with her?” and you say: “no, I like the girl”. And then he’ll pray because it’s the biggest sin you can have. And that’s all you know growing up”.2

The fear of one’s own romantic impulses is perhaps the clearest example of the stifling of emotion as one progressed through adolescence and young adulthood. For girls, the effect was oftentimes that they felt that they were ‘walking temptations’ to boys simply for existing. Sometimes they would be vilified in the preaching for misleading young men, and typically any serious misconduct was blamed on the female. For boys, as they had no means of interacting with girls, there was a very real danger of objectification of females and reducing them to their physical attributes. Ironically, KwaSizabantu often condemned the objectification of women in their preaching, not realising the toxic culture they had created fostered it far more than the outside world.

Children were also taught to attribute normal, human feelings to the influence of Satan or their sinful nature. In some cases, this psychological control placed children and young adults under such severe duress that they resorted to bizarre coping mechanisms. One young lady at KwaSizabantu gave a public testimony in which she reported that she ‘gave [her]self to Satan and asked him to help [her] with [her] anger’ [6]. The fact that her parents and the leaders did not find a young girl appealing to Satan to overcome normal, childhood emotions is troubling. On one occasion I witnessed a teenager who I knew personally get up in front of the entire church to confess that her facial expressions were sinful and asked people to forgive her. Evidently so much guilt over a normal part of her humanity had been instilled that she became convinced that this was the only way to avoid God’s anger. This type of public self-flagellation as a form of penance over potentially ‘sinful’ emotions is deeply entrenched in the theology of KwaSizabantu. The entire confessional system and the public shaming (either by one’s self or by others) are two examples of this.    

In conjunction with the disapproval of romantic attraction was an extreme paranoia surrounding the topic of sexuality, causing adolescents to become fearful of this part of themselves. In place of sex education was a constant (and I do mean constant) emphasis in the preaching on the evils of sex and physical attraction. I will allow KwaSizabantu to speak for themselves. The stigma surrounding sex started with a decidedly negative view of the body and the normal adolescent desire to feel attractive: 

I spoke about lust at the beginning of the service. You are troubled by lust because you wear worldly clothing. You think you are so attractive, and you love looking at yourself in the mirror because there is worldliness in your heart. [7]

The image of a sexy woman is a golden image that is evil in the church worldwide. Throughout the world, this image is prevalent. We should never be like it. Another image which is portrayed is the clothes you wear. Many Christians fall into that trap. I need to wear this brand and that brand. What is your motive behind it? Why do you want to do it? Why do you want people to bow before you and acknowledge that you are handsome, you are beautiful? Young men like to display their muscles even if they are flimsy. [8]

Based on the people I have spoken to on this subject, the effect of this type of teaching was particularly harmful to the mind of the adolescent female. Many were prevented from developing any healthy sense of self-image which could express itself in destructive ways. In the Australian branch of KSB, even boys were reprimanded for wanting to show off their muscles in tank tops. This was never a problem for me as I have always found myself firmly within the ‘flimsy muscles’ category when it comes to having any discernible upper body strength. I quite happily kept my arms covered. But I digress.

In addition to being prohibited from viewing themselves in a healthy manner, the young people were also made keenly aware that their body language should not cause members of the opposite sex to stumble. At times, this was taken to absurd extremes:

Young people, allow me to correct and instruct you about not dressing with this motive in mind. It should not be like that. The way in which some young people walk, they want to be noticed. At a function, the way the girl eats is done to catch the eye of the opposite sex. This is a worldly lifestyle. Satan will rule such a person through the lusts of the flesh.7

Feelings of sexual arousal were also constantly the target of the preaching. This went beyond merely following the Biblical guidelines which govern sexuality in most Christian contexts. Below is another sermon excerpt:

Some people today say that masturbation is not wrong. A person can do it to relieve himself rather than go to someone else. That is a trap and it is not how God wants us to live. … Do not think that if you defile yourself and use your hands it is not bad. It is utterly disgraceful. God never created man to live like an animal.8

I am concerned that the type of pejorative language surrounding such a sensitive issue only serves to compound guilt and unnecessary fear in the adolescent listeners. It should be remembered that these types of sermons were usually not mitigated by meaningful parental instruction in the home regarding sexual development. The adolescent going through puberty was thus cast adrift in a world in which they knew very little about their sexual impulses while constantly being told that they were evil for having them. The practical effect of this can be seen in some of the testimonies which KwaSizabantu have recently uploaded to their website. Here is one example:

Throughout my younger life, I yearned for an intimate and personal relationship with God. Despite my best efforts, and especially during high school, I was deeply troubled by my lack of personal purity and unclean thoughts…I also decided there and then not to even look(emphasis original) at a girl until the Lord shows me who my wife is.  I was around nineteen or twenty; at 35 the Lord showed me in a special and specific way who I should marry. [9]

Romantic relationships were, of course, the ultimate evil:

A young girl may be asked whether she has a relationship with a particular boy and she responds with, “No, not at all!” After the parents deal with the matter, the boy speaks the truth and admits that the girl is lying and they do have a relationship. Ananias and Saphira told a ‘white’ lie, and they died because of it. Do not say that I am lying yet I am not dead. You are spiritually dead.7

Although this was not intentional on my part, as I compiled the quotations above, I was struck by the overwhelming emphasis by the preachers on women as the primary cause of sexual sin. This is a recurring theme at KwaSizabantu: women are evil and mislead Godly men. Or they are responsible for their husband going to hell if he struggles with pornography. The destructiveness of this teaching is hard to calculate. In practice, this meant a complete separation between boys and girls. This was enforced even in the lives of pre-pubescent children. One of the more amusing (but tragic) memories my sister has of being at the mission was being reprimanded for walking with a boy. Two problems with that: firstly, the rather dapper-looking boy she was walking with was her brother. Secondly, she was eight; I was five. At the risk of stating the obvious: children this age need to be able to play, run, laugh, be silly, and enjoy friendships with both genders without fear of retribution.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this paranoia about sex was the obsession with virginity imposed on the girls. Zulu girls, including pre-pubescent ones, were regularly subjected to virginity tests until the mid-90s. I do not feel qualified to comment on the cultural aspects of this practice, but I feel very strongly that KwaSizabantu had absolutely no right to incorporate this into their school policy. I am more than happy to be shown a compelling counterargument, but I do not see how a mission station claiming the Bible as its authority can allow its practices to be governed to such an extent by culture (Zulu, or any other). Furthermore, it does not appear that KwaSizabantu had the best interest of the subjects at hand. The purpose was seemingly to humiliate and instill more fear. I have also not seen any evidence to suggest that KwaSizabantu took the possibility of sexual abuse into account when testing for virginity.

Four of the most common characteristics given to cults are behaviour control, information control, thought control, and emotional control. The examples I have given in this essay demonstrate that KwaSizabantu dangerously exhibits all of them. The fear of self that ensues, particularly for the impressionable child, is an extreme form of cognitive dissonance (a psychological conflict that arises when an individual tries to sustain two incongruent beliefs simultaneously). Naturally, this leads to a paralysing feeling of insecurity and anxiety, particularly when so many instances of cognitive dissonance are present at once: the conflict of childhood inquisitiveness working against the oppressive system of thought control; the conflict of wanting to find one’s own identity as an adolescent while being forced to conform to the KwaSizabantu system in the most brutal way imaginable; the conflict of having a teenage crush while believing that this disqualifies you from the grace of God; the conflict of normal sexual impulses while believing they make you sinful and worthy of God’s judgment.

The cumulative effect of this ‘machine gun attack’ (to steal one of KwaSizabantu’s favourite phrases) on the children’s personalities was devastating and dehumanising. I am aware that KwaSizabantu have ceased the systemised beatings and virginity testing. However, given that the quotes from their preaching which I have included all fall within the last two years, I am fearful that children are still being victimised by a theological and sociological system which demands absolute conformity at the expense of their spiritual and psychological well-being. I am also aware that KwaSizabantu allegedly held one meeting in which some former members of Domino Servite School were issued an apology of sorts. This, frankly, is not good enough. A true recognition of the immense harm that their system has caused would result in true transparency, and a public, sincere apology. The fact that they have withheld the report by the independent panel from the public and responded to allegations by flooding their website with positive testimonies instead is an outrage. Their response demonstrates a frightening level of callousness, happily wounding their victims all over again.

(Still to follow: Part 4. Fear of the Outside World)

[1] Hlela, Nontobeko. “Growing up in KwaSizabantu: Part 2”. New Frame, 2020. Accessed 23 September, 2021.
[2] De Vries, Otto. Interview with Galaxy Universal Network posted on their Facebook page on 12 October, 2020.
[3] Petersen, Tammy. “To get abused is one thing. To get abused in the name of God is another’ – former pupils accuse KwaSizabantu of vicious corporal punishment.” News24. Accessed 23 September, 2021.
[4] Bornman, Erika. Mission of Malice. Penguin Random House South Africa. Kindle Edition, 2021.
[5] Le Mottee, Peter. Shazi, Kumbu. “Report of the investigation into the allegations against KwaSizabantu Mission by the Independent Panel”. 2020.
[6] News24. “Documentary: Exodus”. News 24, 2020. Accessed 23 September, 2021.
[7] KwaSizabantu Website: “Sunday Service 12 September 2021: Stand in the true faith”., 2021. Accessed 23 September, 2021.
[8] KwaSizabantu Website: “Sunday Service 18 July 2021: Do now bow to the golden image”., 2021. Accessed 23 September, 2021.
[9] Greyling, Cobus. “Walking in the light”., 2020. Accessed 23 September, 2021.