Documents @EN

KwaSizabantu witnesses have ‘given up hope’

Two years after the hearings into the harrowing allegations of human rights abuses against KwaSizabantu commenced, no findings have yet been made. The CRL Rights Commission now says it will release its report in the first quarter of 2023. Those who testified are incensed after being re-traumatised by the process and they still do not have any closure.

Another year has passed since former members of KwaSizabantu went through the trauma of baring their souls in a series of hearings aimed at unearthing the alleged rot festering on the fertile grounds of one of Africa’s oldest mission stations.

What was meant to be a three-day probe by the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL) – following a seven-month investigation by News24 which laid bare harrowing claims of severe physical assault of children, sexual impropriety, spiritual abuse and denialism, among other human rights infringements – has instead entered its third year without any findings being released.

CRL Rights Commission spokesperson Mpiyakhe Mkholo said its report would be released in the first quarter of 2023.

Erika Bornman, one of the witnesses who shared her traumatic story, is enraged by the long wait.

“This is shattering news. I am heartbroken and also incensed at what seems to be a clear bias benefiting our abusers.

“I wish the commissioners could see the devastation their delay causes, maybe they would reconsider. Then again, maybe not. I’ve given up hope that they will help us redress the wrongs committed against us,” she said.

“The only people who stand to gain from this impossibly long delay is KwaSizabantu itself.

“It allows them to continue selling their produce and their products unabated throughout the festive season and into the new year because all the retailers are awaiting this report, something the commissioners must know.”

She said her greatest concern was for the psychological well-being of those who escaped KwaSizabantu.

“Our testimonies before the commission were consistent and clear, and giving them in public the way most of us did retraumatised all of us.

“As my friend, Celimpilo Malinga, so eloquently said more than a year ago already: the testimony ripped open our wounds and the commission’s inaction means those wounds are still open, nobody has dressed or bandaged them. The commission is leaving our wounds open to fester. And that is not something that sits well with me.”

Justice delayed is justice denied

Bornman, who has written and published a book detailing her ordeal at KwaSizabantu, argued justice delayed was justice denied.

“If the commissioners are delaying the report because they’re worried about litigation from KSB, I’d like to set their minds at ease. They can rest easy. I have literally thrown the book – called Mission of Malice – at [the] KSB and I have yet to receive a summons. They know we speak the truth, and they cannot litigate against the truth of hundreds of survivors.”

The Chapter 9 institution launched proceedings in October 2020, just more than a week after a News24 published Exodus: Uncovering a cult in KwaZulu-Natal, which revealed the earth-shattering allegations against the mission station, founded by Erlo Stegen in 1970, which today produces aQuelle water and supplies vegetables to some of the country’s biggest supermarkets. A number of former members have testified, including Dr Daniel Schricker, who had studied KwaSizabantu’s belief system, which he found troubling and abusive.

He spoke out against the mission in March and said it had been frustrating to be given little information regarding “how and when these testimonies will be used to effect meaningful change”.

“One has to wonder how many allegations of abuse need to come to light before the survivors are taken seriously enough to see justice done,” he said.

“As recently as 11 December, KwaSizabantu was hailed as an organisation that has served to uplift the community as they celebrated Stegen’s 70 years in ministry.

“Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP and the former premier of KwaZulu-Natal, Sihle Zikalala, publicly endorsed and praised KwaSizabantu with the latter calling the organisation a ‘mirror for South Africa of what we want to get to’.

“I can assure you that the many people who shared heart-wrenching testimonies of alleged physical, sexual, psychological, and spiritual abuse at KwaSizabantu do not share this sentiment.

“If justice is not served it will set a dangerous precedent within South Africa where abuse can go seemingly unchecked when committed under the guise of religion.”

The commission appears to be treading carefully after the mission at the start of its proceedings lawyered up.

In a letter from its attorneys, KSB leadership questioned the probe’s objectivity and transparency, claiming it had not been invited to or informed of the hearings, barring an invitation to a meeting with the panel on what was meant to be the third and final day of proceedings.

It took exception to the commission, referring to the former members as “victims”, accusing the institution of already finding the mission guilty without giving them a hearing.

Among the dramatic scenes during proceedings was a walkout by the mission’s leaders after demanding that chairperson Professor David Mosoma should recuse himself after comments he made in the media which made them question his impartiality.

‘A smear campaign’

KwaSizabantu initially responded to the litany of allegations as a “smear campaign” against the mission and its leadership.

But in a volte-face, it appointed an “independent review panel” to investigate the claims as public outrage, including a boycott of their business enterprises, ensued.

Consisting of advocate Khumbu Shazi and lawyer Peter LeMottée, the pair found KwaSizabantu could not be described as a cult, although mission members and leaders have “blind faith” in founder Erlo Stegen.

The conclusion incensed some of those who were interviewed, who disputed the findings and asked for transcripts of their interviews after the attorneys cleared the mission of wrongdoing regarding allegations of rape, sexual assault, ongoing physical abuse, cultism, and money laundering.

News24 obtained the report from sources after the mission would not provide one, despite committing to releasing it to the public.

‘A sham report’

It is understood it is using this report, which Bornman calls a “paid-for whitewash of a sham report”, to claim it has been exonerated when questioned by suppliers about the allegations against it.

Mission leaders were the last to testify, giving their version behind closed doors as it requested the media not be present.

Lidia Dube, considered next in line to take over the leadership of the mission, two months ago gave her response to the panel after being implicated in the allegations of human rights abuses.

This after half a year had passed as she was said to be too ill to testify before the panel.

She had, however, during this period instituted a civil claim against Koos Greeff, who had told News24 he had acted as an informant for the apartheid government’s Military Intelligence and Security Branch with the blessing of the KwaSizabantu leadership.

‘A septic cult’

He had spent almost two decades at the mission before leaving in 1994 and testified during the hearings the mission was a “septic cult”.

Dube and high-ranking missionary Eunice Ngcamu instituted legal proceedings against Greeff for defamation, seeking a cumulative R4 million relating to comments and statements he had made regarding their alleged role in the wrongdoing at the mission.

His testimony before the commission also forms part of the action, which Greeff argues was qualified by privilege as it was held in a “quasi-judicial forum” and was substantially true and in the public interest.

Greeff said the commissioners were aware he was being litigated against and was relying on the release of the report as part of his case.

“I am being sued because I testified in a government-instituted inquiry. They have done nothing about it. This commission should hang their heads in shame because for two years, people have been suffering and nothing has happened.”

Tammy Petersen
News 24