Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi said in Cape Town on Thursday that virginity testing and the beating of children are accepted practices of Zulu tradition.
Buthelezi was responding to recent allegations that virginity testing and child-beating are taking place at a Christian mission station in KwaZulu-Natal. The IFP leader is known to be a regular visitor to the mission and a friend of its leaders. He recently attended the wedding of a leader’s daughter, where he made a speech.
Doorstopped by The Natal Witness after a meeting with British Minister for Africa Peter Hain, Buthelezi said he is not aware of virginity testing or beatings going on at the mission.
However, he said both are part of Zulu tradition. “I was beaten myself as a child,” he said. “I have a few marks to show for it.”
Buthelezi confirmed that he has had a “very good relationship” with the leader of the mission “for a very long time”. “But I have never been informed of those kind of things going on,” he said.
A number of former members of the KZN mission have expressed concern at its practice of some “ancient Zulu customs”, particularly with regard to authority and courtship.
“There is an absolutising of Zulu culture with an emphasis on a patriarchal, hierarchical structure,” said one former senior member of the mission, who has now left. “People are isolated if they approach the leaders with questions. They are kicked out of the circle, so they become too afraid to speak any more. Eventually it becomes mind control. But if you do what the leadership wants you to do, you are treated very well.”
The former member said that any form of inquisitiveness, or “longing for justice or knowledge” is interpreted as “rebellion against the revealed will of God”. “I am so thankful I realised what was going on and what was being forced on our children and that I packed my bags and drove away.”
Meanwhile, the Witness has in its possession a copy of an e-mail sent to a member of the mission last year by a Scottish evangelist and theologian who formerly had close ties with the mission.
In the e-mail, he voiced concern at developments at the mission in recent years, but stressed he was doing it in a spirit of love and concern.
“Ancient Zulu customs could have influenced the present policy on courtship and marriage,” he wrote. “In the days of Shaka the laws on chastity were extremely strict.
“My plea is that extra-biblical demands may be recognised as such, that they do not supersede and eclipse biblical principles, that spirituality is not ascribed to human standards and recently-acquired traditions so that group culture attains the status of high spirituality.”
He continued: “The origins of the [mission’s] system of love, courtship and marriage, which in the last few years has become increasingly restrictive, with dire consequences for those who step out of line, seem to be shrouded in mystery.
“It appears that when a man and a woman are known to have an interest in one another, they must, from that moment on, have nothing to do with one another. They do not speak to one another and even in company they are expected not to communicate with one another.”
Turning to his other concerns, the theologian said: “It has been noticed that so many of the folk [at the mission] have the same look about them, a look of resignation and submission, a look of crushed obedience. Theirs seems to be a servile attitude, almost as if they were too scared to say the wrong thing and fall foul of the leaders. Their opinions are subject to leadership opinion, which they accept seemingly without question. They seem to have lost the ability to think independently.”
The theologian said he has had letters from people who have been “terribly hurt” by their association with the mission. “They left years ago but are still struggling with the dreadful aftermath, the searing hurt from which they do not seem to easily be freed.”
The theologian also referred to the splits which have occured in families as a result of some family members leaving the mission and others staying.
“There are those who had been in the inner circle who could not take it any longer and left. And those who leave often seem to be branded as people who would not go through with God and who would not accept the will of God. They are the bad ones… following a lower spiritual pathway.
“Families have been wrenched apart, father against son, brother against brother, uncle against nephews and nieces.
“Family weddings of excluded brethren are not attended by those in bondage to [mission] ordinances. Even parents or grandparents of the bride or groom are refused permission to attend the weddings. Unnatural divisions are imposed upon formerly loving and now heart-broken families.
“People simply withdraw from any who would dare to go against the accepted regime, however close the family relationship. They side with the leadership for fear that they would themselves be the object of ostracism and rejection. It happens in a moment. The family or person is excised with military precision. They have fallen from grace and are now no longer fit to be in the community.
“If this is not brainwashing then it is close to it. And all this is very close to developing into a cult.”