There is no question of transparency and professionalism / Allegedly, the Kwasizabantu case is finally to continue in March – but who can still believe in it?
When the News 24 news platform in South Africa launched a major series on violence, abuse and rape at Mission Kwasizabantu in September 2020, there was great horror. The cases described at the mission’s compound in the hills of KwaZulu-Natal provoked strong reactions across the country. Television stations, radio stations and newspapers across the country jumped on the issue, interviews and major reports appeared. Then the CRL Commission, a commission for the promotion and protection of the rights of cultural, religious, and linguistic communities (CRL Rights Commission) arrived on the scene.
Amid the furor over the scandalous mission, the commission now took the opportunity to bask extensively in the public spotlight. Sometimes the commission members questioned witnesses in front of running TV cameras about abuses on the KSB mission, sometimes summaries of their hearings were broadcast on the main news of the TV channels, then again correspondents reported in daily and weekly newspapers – Kwasizabantu, the terrible experiences of its former members and, of course, the CRL Commission were the top topic. However: the hype was also soon over. While media coverage of KSB as a whole lost momentum, suddenly from November 2020, just a few weeks after the start of the investigations, nothing more was seen or heard of the CRL Commission, which had been so busy.
And certainly nothing to read. Time and again, written inquiries were sent to the commission asking when the investigations would continue, whether anything at all was still happening, or why the commission’s silence had lasted so long – but the commission was unable to provide a concrete answer.
Whoever tried to get any information about the sudden disappearance of the commission was met with silence. “I sent a series of e-mails to them and never received an acknowledgement,” says a witness heard by the commission, adding with a shake of his head, “but I later received feedback that they had read my e-mails.” One witness at the hearings experienced, she says, “pretty much the same thing.” Another person involved in the investigation also kept asking what was going on. A first letter three months after the last CRL hearing went unanswered; to a second in February, Mpiyakhe Mkholo, the commission’s senior manager of communications, replied that investigations were expected to continue in March or April. This was misinformation, as there were no further investigations. The next inquiry in July was again in vain, and another in late November was again not answered by Mr. Mkholo. Then, to our surprise, the CRL communications manager replied to a new e-mail at the end of January, saying that the questioner would receive a detailed answer the following week. But he is still waiting for it today. An email to Mr. Mkholo, who is skilled in making excuses, gave him a clear indication that the CRL Commission had squandered every ounce of trust through its inaction. “I understand,” a former KSB official wrote, “that there is now a strong suspicion among abuse victims that Kwasizabantu is using its power as a financially powerful entity behind the curtain to influence the CRL Commission and prevent by any means possible a final assessment of the abuse allegations that might be negative for Kwasizabantu.” This email also left Mr. Mkholo cold – it too went unanswered. A former KSB employee waved it off in frustration: “In my opinion, there will be no report. The commission’s entire investigation seems to have been abandoned. There has been no information since November 2020, and no work has been done on the investigation. For me it is clear – the commission is history, bad history! “
But media interest in the progress of the KSB story also declined rapidly: the press, radio and television left the CRL Commission alone instead of asking how things were going. Wasn’t the crippling inaction of the commission, which always seemed so busy in front of the nation’s TV cameras at the height of the KSB scandal, an issue? Written inquiry to News 24 Editor-in-Chief Aadrian Basson in mid-November:
“Writing stories about victims of abuse is not the great art of journalism. The art is investigative journalism, and that’s what a democracy needs. And so, in the matter of Kwasizabantu, I think the real journalistic work is just beginning here: journalists’ scrutiny of the institutions and thus of the CRL Commission. The topic is no longer only Kwasizabantu and its victims – the topic is now also the obvious failure of an institution. My request to you: Make sure that these tortured creatures are spared the disappointment that after the hopeful beginning of the clarification of the criminal machinations of the “mission of horror” everything does not now come to nothing.” Also this letter was not answered, silence in the forest also with the press.
Nevertheless, a single person kept the issue going during 2021 in South Africa: Erika Bornman. She wrote a book, “Mission of Malice”. In it, Erika describes her ordeal in Kwasizabantu (see also: https://ksb-alert.com/2001/07/) and her evolution from a fearful young girl to a militant activist determined to do whatever it takes to save future generations from such experiences and to find personal redemption and self-acceptance. The book became a bestseller within a few weeks, and Erika could hardly keep herself from press inquiries and TV interviews. She still receives invitations to media interviews, where she talks and answers in detail about her past with the “Mission of Malice”.
At least now, in mid-February 2022, there may be some movement in South Africa. News 24 reports on the withdrawal of the Swiss KSB branch from the mission and then, in the course of the report, finally also comes to the silent CRL Commission.
“The Swiss branch of KwaSizabantu has turned its back on the disgraced mission station. This as its South African victims wait to bare their souls over the horrors they experienced there. They are still in the dark about when the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission) will hear their testimony.
More than a year since hearings commenced into harrowing allegations levelled against one of the continent’s oldest mission stations, proceedings stalled. And those who built up the courage to testify and share their experiences of gross violations of their constitutionally protected rights say their confidence is diminishing in the process aimed at bringing the KwaZulu-Natal mission to book.
Erika Bornman has written and published a book detailing her ordeal at KwaSizabantu but has yet to give her version to the panel. “I’ve given up. I no longer believe SA authorities give a damn about anything or anyone except themselves,” she said. Bornman last heard from the commission in September 2021, a year after News24’s investigation into the mission. She wrote to the CRL Rights Commission after her correspondence – one sent in November 2019 and another in March 2020 requesting that those who have shared their ordeals be updated on any movement in the matter – were not responded to. “I find the lack of aftercare for people reliving their trauma in their testimonies to your commission very disturbing,” she wrote. Mpiyakhe Mkholo, spokesperson for the commission, responded that the delay had been caused by “some other matters that impacted on the process”, promising an update within the coming weeks. To date, none had been received.
Bornman has compiled 71 submissions from other former members, which she wants to 4 of 5 share at the hearings. But the lack of movement by the commission would discourage others from speaking out, she said. “They can see nothing has changed or been done. So why would anyone go through the trauma of telling their story in public?
Celimpilo Malinga shared her disturbing testimony during the first leg of the hearings. The rape survivor told News24 the stall in proceedings felt like “someone raped me [and] left me [on] the sidewalk, unconscious, with my private parts opened for viewing”. She was angry and hurt, she said. “I feel a sense of betrayal. At some point, we kind of made peace with no one believing us and continued with our lives. Then the CRL reached out to us.” Malinga likened the ensuing silence and absence of communication to being “ghosted”. “You bare your soul so openly, thinking for the first time in my life I have an ally. I have someone who believes me. You throw yourself at them for their embrace and hopefully for vindication. And after that they just keep quiet.”
On Wednesday, Mkholo blamed Covid-19 for the delay in the resumption of the hearings. He said the pandemic’s impact “disrupted various face-to-face meetings and engagements which required the commission to undertake with stakeholders (sic)”.
When asked whether those who wanted to testify as well as those who had already shared their testimony had been kept abreast regarding the extended hold-up, he said the commission “did inform all participants that once the report has been finalised, it would be announced publicly”. “At the moment that process is still ongoing.” He said the hearings would resume in March.
So much for News 24 and Mr. Mkholo – now ksb-alert again:
On its website, the CRL Commission has described the values to which it subscribes in carrying out its mandate, and these values should be enumerated at this point: Integrity, Transparency, Accountability, Professionalism, Impartiality, Responsiveness, Respect. Which of these values it has actually observed so far in dealing with the Kwasizabantu matter, however, remains the secret of the CRL Commission.
One thing is certain: if you write an e-mail to CRL and ask about it – you will not get an answer.