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🇿🇦 News 24: KwaSizabantu embarks on ‘charm offensive’, but witnesses demand truth before reconciliation

Saturday, 02 March 2024
Tammy Petersen

  • The CRL Commission has started a reconciliation process between former KwaSizabantu members and the mission, contacting witnesses to gauge their interest.
  • According to the Chapter 9 institution, all those who testified at its hearings into human rights abuses would be contacted.
  • Retired judge Eberhardt Bertelsmann, representing a group of former members, warned it would appear the mission was embarking on a “charm offensive or PR exercise”.

After rubbishing her truth of the trauma she endured while growing up at KwaSizabantu (KSB), Celimpilo Malinga was taken aback when she received a call last week, inviting her to reconciliation talks with the institution she believes destroyed her life.

“They called us liars, dismissing every claim all of us made against them.

“So, if the things we said were false, why is there any need to reconcile?” asked Malinga, who was one of the former members who bared their souls during hearings into allegations of human rights abuses at one of the continent’s biggest mission stations.

The call – from a representative of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic (CRL) Communities – came out of the blue, Malinga said.

According to the caller, the mission wanted to meet and discuss reconciliation.

“I pointed out that this was the same commission that found me, convinced me that KSB had something to answer to, then went dead quiet after I poured my heart out to them.

“The same CRL that didn’t find anything wrong with what they’re doing, that essentially rubbished what we said.”

Following a seven-month investigation in 2020, News24 revealed the rot at KwaSizabantu, exposing claims of sexual assault, physical and psychological abuse as well as financial crimes.

Shortly after the publication of the Exodus series the CRL launched public hearings.

Malinga was one of the former members who spoke about how the mission tore apart their families.

She told of how, at only 15 years old, she was thrown out of KwaSizabantu for accepting chocolate from a male employee of the mission’s supermarket she was accused of “seeing”.

Threatened with expulsion for becoming involved with a member of the opposite sex, Malinga refused to have the act of kindness land the man in trouble.

Her parents were expected to act prudently, she said, and she was beaten with a pipe filled with sand before being banished from the Kranskop mission with only clothes on her back.

Her parents rejected her, as was expected from members whose loved ones left the KwaSizabantu Malinga “way”.

Malinga’s extended family was also made to shun her, and she ended up living in Durban as a nanny and live-in domestic worker.

During her tearful testimony before the commission, she told the panel she did not believe the mission would ever apologise for the hardship that followed her excommunication.

Malinga was one of those left outraged after the hearings, when the CRL recommended that KwaSizabantu apologise to its former members for the “hurt caused” by its practices, although it found the teachings, principles, and rules of the mission to be within the scope of freedom of religion.

But witnesses refused to accept the findings of the “toothless watchdog”, approaching the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg to have the Chapter 9 institution’s findings reviewed and set aside.

Bishop Martin Frische, Erika Bornman, Koos Greeff, Peet Botha and Gert van der Walt are leading the challenge, which also saw them launch a mandamus application when, three years after launching their probe, the commission had failed to release its findings. 

The action became moot after the report was released before the case was ventilated before a judge.

The applicants want the CRL to be ordered to cover the costs of the action.

The review application is yet to be heard.

CRL spokesperson Mpiyakhe Mkholo said reconciliation was one of the recommendations made in its report and was initiated by the commission.

According to Mkholo, all witnesses would be contacted by its legal department to make them aware of the process – which would be determined through consultation with the affected parties – and to gauge who would be interested in taking part.

However, according to the witnesses, only two of them have been contacted.

In a letter, retired judge Eberhardt Bertelsmann of the Echo Pro Bono Legal Aid Clinic, who has been representing the former members, said it looked like the mission was embarking on a “charm offensive or PR exercise”.

“Although no particulars are known at this stage of what such a ‘reconciliation’ might entail, it is imperative that individual victims be put on guard in order not to be taken in by a soft-soap manoeuvre that might cause them to abandon essential rights that have accrued to them,” he cautioned.

“If true reconciliation is sought, it must be sought in a process involving each and every victim of KSB’s misdeeds.”

The process must be conducted on record, in writing and through the offices of an attorney if those approached have legal representation, Bertelsmann wrote.

“The process must commence with an unreserved and comprehensive admission by KSB of every misdeed committed upon or against every victim.

“This must be followed by an unreserved admission of guilt and wrongdoing.

“The next step must be an unreserved and comprehensive apology and request for forgiveness and, finally, appropriate financial compensation must be paid to each victim according to the demands of justice.”

Despite her apprehension, Malinga said she was open to hearing what the mission had to say.

“But on condition that everything is public. I want an open process. I shared my story live on camera. So, whatever they have to say, I want anyone who is interested to be able to hear it.”

However, she refuses to be part of a publicity stunt.

Malinga said: I have nothing to say to a spokesperson. I want to speak to the people who are part of my story, those who can take responsibility for what happened to me.

She did not believe the mission was indeed sorry for her and other former members’ trauma, Malinga maintained, considering they never took responsibility for the trauma the witnesses shared during the hearings.

“They have refuted everything we said; that nothing of the sort happened.

“They were handed a get-out-of-jail-free card; now, out of the blue, they want to reconcile. There has to be something biting at them,” she said.

“I don’t know why they contacted me. Maybe I am seen as an easy target because I am a Christian and reconciliation is considered the right thing to do. But all that aside, I always said they need to take accountability. And I stand by that.”