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Fear of the Outside World

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 4

Writer: Daniel Schricker, PhD

“…completely separate from the rest of the world” [1] Sipho Hlongwane (former member) describing KwaSizabantu

“The outside world does not intrude here.” [2] Erika Bornman (former member) describing KwaSizabantu

The final essay in this series will focus on the fear of the world outside of KwaSizabantu which was instilled in children. This was primarily achieved in two ways: by presenting the mission station as a utopia to the children, and by characterising the outside world as dangerous and morally inferior.

Even today, if you visit KwaSizabantu’s website you will find hyperbolic language in the testimonies of members who describe it as a utopian paradise. (‘Heaven on Earth’ and ‘A Glimpse of Heaven’ are the titles of two testimonies). A lot could be said about the love-bombing which KwaSizabantu engaged in to draw in visitors who come to the mission. But for the sake of remaining on topic I will stay with the theme of children growing up on the mission. In conjunction with the idealisation of the mission, children were indoctrinated to believe that outside of the seclusion of KwaSizabantu lay only heartbreak and despair.    

The elitism which pervaded the entire KwaSizabantu culture was something instilled in children at an early age. They were constantly reminded of the privilege of being raised ‘in revival’. As the adults had this view of KwaSizabantu themselves, it was actively and passively reinforced in the thinking of the next generation. Consider one testimony from a current member of KwaSizabantu, titled ‘Indescribable Place’:

I want to thank God for such a place like Kwasizabantu,
where else can you find a place full of harmony and peace?
or God working inexpressibly?

I enjoy that peace and harmony when I arrive at that place, no need to worry or to be afraid of anything, for I know it’s God’s place.

For I know it’s God’s place:

Where else is there such a place?
       Nowhere in the world is there such a place!
         A place of harmony;
          A place full of peace;
                   A place full of forgiveness;
    A place of Grace:
       Where else is there such a place?
               Nowhere, for I know it’s a God-Given place:
                  A place called Kwasizabantu!

The sentiment expressed, particularly at the end, is one espoused by the leaders and followers alike: KwaSizabantu is the only haven in an evil world. This ideology became a cornerstone of the worldview presented to the children.

To reinforce the idea that the mission is the only God-ordained utopia in a dangerous world, many aspects of society were unnecessarily demonised in the minds of children. This was almost always done explicitly with the intention to foster a fear of the outside. As has been previously discussed, this was achieved by continually labelling innocuous activities as evil. Dating, for example, was almost always characterised as something accompanied by heartbreak, sexual immorality, and God’s judgement. In the Australian branch of KwaSizabantu, this also extended to education. ‘Knowledge puffeth up’, we were told, and this was seen as justification for preventing children from finishing high school or enrolling at university. My mother, thankfully, ignored this, and both of my sisters and I went on to complete university degrees after leaving KwaSizabantu. However, even the fact that we completed high school came under scrutiny from members of the church while we were members. This type of thinking only changed later when the pastor’s youngest sister was permitted to complete high school and attend university. Her ten siblings all failed to matriculate.

One aspect of KwaSizabantu’s teaching which was prominent was a constant paranoia regarding the supernatural and paranormal. Specifically, an intense fear of the occult, demons, the devil, and dark forces. Although this was not confined specifically to the outside world, it did represent another reason why children were taught to regard KwaSizabantu as the only safehouse in a spiritually hostile world. KwaSizabantu’s emphasis on the occult meant that young children were confronted with frightening malevolent forces on a regular basis. I know of at least one girl who suffered severe anxiety as a young child due to a fear of the demons she had heard described in KwaSizabantu’s teaching. Although this is not particularly unusual in certain Christian contexts, KwaSizabantu took this to an extreme with unnecessarily graphic descriptions of alleged exorcisms. I suspect that, like me, every KSB child can remember the stories of animals and needles allegedly emerging from the bodies of people being set free from witchcraft. Once again, a lack of common sense prevailed in terms of what was age-appropriate for the children, and I suspect that many suffered anxiety and nightmares as a result.

Although I did not experience this myself, it has been alleged that people (including children) were accused of being Satanists at KwaSizabantu. Albert Pilon records the following:

Even in the night some girls were roused from their sleep and accused of “Satanism”. None of the children were allowed to breathe a word of this to the parents. Some children were traumatised by the tremendous psychological pressure, fear and confusion. It is not surprising that children leave Kwasizabantu at the first available opportunity and many left the Christian faith. When I told my counsellor (Olsen) about this he said that Westerners find it very difficult to understand the African way of doing things. [4]

KwaSizabantu was masterful at enforcing the rules, not only through the fear of natural punishment (by human beings), but also through the threat of supernatural retribution. In some cases, God was the source of this threat, but often the emphasis was on the devil and demonic forces. Regarding the former, I can recall an example of this while staying at the home of a co-worker at KwaSizabantu in 2005. One of KwaSizabantu’s unwritten rules was that one had to pray for God’s protection before driving anywhere. While that may sound innocuous, I was told by the co-worker that someone at the mission had scoffed at this rule one day and had subsequently attempted to drive somewhere in his car. Almost immediately, he was involved in an accident. This was taken to mean that God judged him for failing to adhere to a rule which was still in its infancy at the time. More alarmingly, this same co-worker told a story of a man who had turned his back on the mission and evidently returned at some point and been accepted back into the fold. I was told that the reason this man had found grace was because he had stopped short of committing the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit by not speaking against the mission. The message was clear: to oppose KwaSizabantu was to be at risk of committing the only unforgivable sin.

Equally common was the threat from the devil and dark forces. Certain types of movies and music were not just undesirable and forbidden but were presented as carrying malevolent and demonic forces which had the ability to spiritually corrupt the hearer/viewer. Once again, KwaSizabantu took this to an extreme with children. Nontobeko Hlela relates an anecdote from her adolescence:

One of the funniest memories from the youth services was when they preached about hell, and showed us the video of the song ‘Thriller’ by Michael Jackson to show us demons and why we shouldn’t watch and listen to this “heathen music”. Instead, the entire tent erupted in song, singing ‘Thriller’, and they ended the film. [5]

This was quite a typical narrative presented to children. Even Christian sources like Tolkien were considered evil. It left the youth adrift in a dark and frightening world and reinforced the notion that their only place of safety was in the arms of those who beat and threatened them in the name of God.  

KwaSizabantu also adopted some of the cultural paranoia that unfortunately swept certain Christian denominations in the aftermath of the Cold War. Specifically, the fear of communists and religious persecution. Erika Bornman has related a pertinent memory from her childhood:

I am a defenceless child and, to this day, I cannot watch horror movies. I find nothing entertaining about fear. They show us other movies, too. If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? teaches us about the awful and murderous communists. After premarital sex, communists are probably the worst evil in the world. They really hate Christians, whom they persecute and torture. Of course, the movie depicts the torture. I don’t think I will ever get the image out of my mind of a soldier forcing a bamboo stake through a boy’s head from ear to ear, perforating his eardrums so he can’t listen to the Gospel. ‘You find this horrible?’ the narrator asks, before warning that communists can do much worse things. They like to strip a Christian woman naked, he says, tie her head to one Jeep and her legs to another and tear her apart, limb from limb.2

Nontobeko Hlela also confirmed this:

Before the 1994 elections, we used to have drills at the school and would be told that the communists were coming. At one time, we were told that the communists were in Kranskop and would be at the mission within the hour.

We had drills for when there would be an attack. Once, we were told to walk down to the bottom of the sports field where there was a person that had come with real bombs. We were shown posters of different types of bombs and then the real things. Some bombs were detonated at the sports field so we could see the damage they do and understand why, if there was a bomb drill, we had to open the windows in the classrooms. A number of times we were called to prayer meetings, to pray so that the communists would not take over the country. [6]

Children should not be forced to participate in these kinds of paranoid roleplays. I have always found it somewhat inconsistent that those who claim to believe in a God who is in control of all things also seem most susceptible to these types of persecution complexes. For children, it enforced the notion that KwaSizabantu was God’s special place of protection and that leaving the fold left one open to attacks by a whole range of threats.

Not even Christian environments outside of KwaSizabantu were presented as safe. They were held out as decidedly inferior, worldly, and immoral. The leader, Erlo Stegen, attributed anyone’s desire to leave the mission to devilish motives:

That is why it is madness when suddenly somebody departs. For a person to leave revived Christians is senseless. If he says that God leads him out, the devil is his god. Christians who are of one heart and one soul and then one does not work together- don’t have anything to do with such a person; until he acknowledges his senseless deed and repents. [7]

It is interesting to note that this applied to Christians who felt that God was leading them in a new direction. Simply put, there was never a valid reason to leave KwaSizabantu and the desire to depart was always attributed to satanic deception. Additionally, members were taught to be deeply suspicious of those outside of the mission, even family. Nontobeko Hlela writes:

We never had any real contact with my extended family as none of them went to KwaSizabantu Mission. They were deemed to be heathens and we had to keep away from them.

Erika Bornman relates facing similar ostracism from her brother-in-law after departing KwaSizabantu, meaning she was no longer allowed contact with her nieces.2 This is, of course, a strong indicator of a cult-like structure within KwaSizabantu. And it sent a clear message to the children: once you leave the mission you are immediately relegated to the ranks of the outside world that they fear so much and are consequently shunned.

A KwaSizabantu child who navigated this labyrinth of fear and was brave enough to leave the mission once grown, soon found themselves in a world which was alien to them. They had no concept of how the outside world functioned. Specifically, they had no normal understanding of friendships, romantic relationships, and usually lacked the confidence to make informed decisions. They still carried within their psyche the mindset that life on the outside presented numerous threats: a God who is angry at them for leaving revived Christians, Satanic forces which pervade the movies, music, and culture at large, socio-political threats like communists who were intent on persecuting believers, and churches which had not been enlightened by the higher spiritual plane of the revival. The cumulative effect of all these factors very often caused a severe case of impostor syndrome. The following article excerpt highlights the key aspects of this syndrome:  

The phrase ‘imposter phenomenon’ [is used] to describe an internal state of mind where a person believes they are unintelligent, unsuccessful, and incompetent, although this is incongruent with the view others have of them. The person often feels like they are a fraud or a fake, and they worry that at any moment, others are going to discover the ‘real’ truth about them (Clance & Imes, 1978). [8]

For a young adult raised at KwaSizabantu, impostor syndrome could frequently colour every aspect of their life once they reached early adulthood. They felt like frauds in their work, friendships, religious experiences, and romantic relationships. They lacked confidence to perform even menial tasks for fear of making a mistake. In a heart-wrenching anecdote from ‘Mission of Malice’, Erika Bornman relates the emotions that were precipitated by being asked to make a fruit salad in a social setting:

I knew that it was only a matter of time before I was shown to be a fraud. I will never fit in. I’ll never be happy. Isn’t that what Erlo told me when he put God’s curse on my life? He said that I’d never be happy. I’m never going to know how to act. I’m never going to know what to do.2

Bornman’s emotions are a perfect representation of the type of impostor syndrome that the ex-KwaSizabantu children had to struggle with as they navigated the outside world. Even today, many tend to internalise the slightest constructive criticism and berate themselves for failing while ignoring or dismissing any positive feedback they receive. They often feel that those who do befriend them are merely tolerating them rather than genuinely enjoying their company. They find themselves utterly unprepared to engage in normal romantic relationships due to the fact that KwaSizabantu prohibited contact with the opposite sex, even for engaged couples. A simple gesture like holding hands or a kiss can be potentially traumatic. Not only can they evoke intense self-loathing but also an extreme fear of God’s judgement. Most alarmingly, many find themselves inadvertently seeking out romantic partners who are controlling and even abusive. Subconsciously, they replicate the familiarity of a relationship paradigm that is based on fear, control, and abuse as this is what characterised the environment of their formative years at the mission. Even once they recognise red flags in a potentially abusive partner, they lack the assertiveness and self-esteem to be able to confront the behaviour due to the intense fear of conflict and the overriding feeling that they must always be in the wrong. Should they manage to navigate the complexities of romantic relationships after leaving KwaSizabantu, they can count on the fact that any family members still loyal to the mission will not attend their wedding if they choose to marry. In general, any failure, trauma, or difficulty in work and relationships will be held against them by members of KwaSizabantu as proof that leaving God’s revived fold incurs only heartbreak and judgment. The tragic aspect of this is that KwaSizabantu still refuses to recognise that the reason that so many do experience heartbreak once they leave is precisely because of the years of trauma inflicted during their years at the mission.    

Even reconstructing a spiritual and religious framework could be incredibly difficult. So much of KwaSizabantu’s teaching had to be painfully unravelled first. Specifically, their malevolent caricature of God, their insidious legalism, and their suspicion of any teaching that emphasised the grace and love of God. Walking into a mainstream, evangelical church could be a daunting experience. Innocuous activities like the playing of drums and electric guitars in the service could evoke fear. And often any attempt on the part of the church to be hospitable and inclusive could result in an irrational feeling of being trapped by them.

The KwaSizabantu child trying to make their way in the real world thus perpetually felt like a fish out of water. Attempting to explain the source of this to others could be difficult as they faced being stigmatised if they revealed their cultic upbringing. And how exactly does one explain the complexities of the KwaSizabantu worldview to an outsider? Psychologist Jill Mytton speaks to the issue of leaving groups like KwaSizabantu:

“Second-generation adult survivors of high-demand groups face particular difficulties, not only during their childhood, but also upon leaving the group, because they face assimilation into a culture that is not just alien to them but also one that they have been taught is wicked and to be hated.” [9]

This succinctly captures the challenges of a KwaSizabantu child trying to make their way in the world upon leaving the mission. Nontobeko Hlela summarises her experience very well, and represents countless KwaSizabantu children:

‘Some of the greatest damage that I live and continue to struggle with is the sense that the mission stole my childhood. They stole my joy and happiness, my sense of wonder and belief in human nature. They stole my ability to trust, my ability to truly open up to another person and believe in them. They taught me that the only person I can count on, believe and trust is myself. And that becomes a self-fulfilling belief because when I’ve tried to trust or open up to someone, I’m always looking for that reason not to trust and, of course, I find it.’6

In conclusion allow me to make a personal statement in the unlikely event that members of the mission happen to stumble upon my essays:

To the leaders of KwaSizabantu: you have done immeasurable harm in the lives of the most vulnerable people in your care-your children. Due to your departure from the word of God, and your continued refusal to accept any accountability, you have created a theological and sociological environment where spiritual, physical, emotional, and psychological abuse have flourished. Your religious narcissism has reached such a frightening level of detachment from reality that even in the face of the clearest evidence, you refuse to acknowledge any wrongdoing. Please stop pretending that you care about the countless victims that you have harmed. None of us will believe you are sincere until you take concrete steps to affect healing. Your revival, if there ever was one, is dead. You have left a legacy of destruction, broken families, and a generation of children who battle psychological trauma every day of their lives due to your teaching and practices. You claim to emulate Christ and preach His Gospel. I sincerely believe that if Christ visited your mission today, you would denounce Him and He would denounce you. God shares His glory with no man, not even the man you worship, Erlo Stegen. Your ‘Gospel’ of confession to a counsellor is no Gospel at all. Your ‘standard of purity’ is a façade. Jesus said:

“Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)

And whoever shall cause to stumble one of these of the little ones believing in Me, it is better for him that a heavy millstone should be hung around his neck, and he be sunk in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)

May all the children who grew up in your destructive system find peace and healing.

[1] Petersen, Tammy. “’Some of that happened to me too’- journalist Sipho Hlongwane on growing up at KwaSizabantu”. News24. 27 September, 2021.
[2] Bornman, Erika. Mission of Malice. Penguin Random House South Africa. Kindle Edition, 2021.
[3] Joosten, Peter. “Indescribable Place”., 2020. Accessed 28 September, 2021.
[4] Pilon, Albert. Is this a genuine revival? KsbAlert, Online edition,2016. Accessed 29 September, 2021.
[5] Hlela, Nontobeko. “Growing up in KwaSizabantu: Part 1”. New Frame, 2020. Accessed September 28, 2021.
[6] Hlela, Nontobeko. “Growing up in KwaSizabantu: Part 2”. New Frame, 2020. Accessed September 28, 2021.
[7] KsbAlert. “Evidence for the Doctrine of Exclusion at KSB”. KsbAlert, 2021. Accessed 28 September, 2021.
[8] Attard, Angelica. “Imposter Syndrome Defined: 5 Fascinating Research Findings”. PositivePsychology, 2021. Accessed 29 September, 2021.
[9] British Psychological Society. “The toll of growing up in a religious cult”. ScienceDaily, 2013. Accessed 29 September, 2021.