Leadershipless in a severe crisis

KwaSizabantu becomes entangled in contradictions / “KSB damages the reputation of all churches

The impact of the abuse cases uncovered by the South African online news platform News24 has triggered a hectic bustle on the KwaSizabantu mission. As if from a surrounded castle, the mission’s defenders are firing from all directions at anything that moves outside the castle.   Inside, the motto is: “Stay strong, do not falter, the enemy will not overcome us. Outwardly, however, the mission speaks in several tongues that often say the same thing: only KwaSizabantu is in the right, only KwaSizabantu itself can clear up the accusations, only KwaSizabantu is the victim, no one else. But there is a statement which is surprising

One after the other. 

One of the mission’s preachers, Dr. Albertus van Eeden, did not respond directly to the accusations against KwaSizabantu in the first Sunday service after the publication of the earliest  series of News24 articles – which would have been real news in the history of KSB.  As always, when complaints about the practices of the mission were voiced, this time too the lectern appealed to the audience in the service to remain strong and to close ranks – van Eeden was silent about which accusations were involved. Attacks against KSB were already a habit, but the opponents had not yet been able to destroy the mission, van Eeden said. Only to then rhetorically turn back into the theological one-way street of KSB: The enemy of the KSB church is bad behavior of its members, especially when they do not confess their sins – which could eventually lead to God abandoning the mission. 

For those familiar with the KwaSizabantu mission, it is no surprise that KSB is once again taking the bull by the horns, once again under the premise We ourselves are the truth department. About a week after the first publications by News24, KSB pulled a measure out of a hat that was noted with head shaking by observers in the media, politics and connoisseurs of the internals – KwaSizabantu announced in a press release the establishment of a separate committee to investigate the accusations against the mission. A whole two lawyers from Johannesburg, commissioned by KwaSizabantu, are to find out, of course quite objectively, in a very short time what is true and what is not true. Original sound KSB: “Part of their mission is to reach their conclusions by October 9, 2020. Thanks to their training and experience, they will be able to deal systematically with the various allegations”.

Why is there head shaking everywhere? Because some questions are being asked and the answers are clear. For example, these: How neutral do you think lawyers will be when KSB engages them for its cause? With whom do the lawyers want to find out whether the accusations are true – with the victims concerned or without them? Which abuse victim will hand himself over to lawyers in individual interrogations to clarify his own fate, if they were appointed by the organization responsible for the abuse?  The Lawyers can stress a hundred times that they are independent – only: the experiences with KwaSizabantu are so numerous that the most independent lawyer in the world will not be able to overcome the wall  of distrust against his client. 

Meanwhile there is speculation in South Africa as to whether the two-man KSB commission might talk to witnesses who are performing a kind of theater play on behalf of KSB, tell made-up stories and then praise the wonderful treatment by the commission and the humble pleas for forgiveness by KwaSizabantu. And this even though they have never been physically or sexually abused on the mission itself. 

Does the question of haste still remain. Why of all things until October 9? It is all about money. Business is going badly, too many customers have cancelled all orders because of the massive accusations against KSB and its commercial enterprises. Haste is the order of the day. Because if no money is flowing, the employees of the companies leave the site in droves. Then there is the threat of bankruptcy. KwaSizabantu is planning a demonstration march on the mission, in which the workers are to demonstrate that no longer whites in the KSB companies should be in charge, but blacks. 

It is almost logical that KSB’s idea of having its own Commission of Enlightenment is met with general mistrust in South Africa. Why, as the report by Azarrah Karrim in News24 on October 1 makes clear. Because News 24 reminds us that there was once a commission that attempted to clear up very similar accusations against the mission twenty years ago – a commission of 14 nationally and internationally known leaders of Christian organizations, almost the entire leadership of the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa.  News24 describes in detail the efforts of the commission, which heard over 15 witnesses of abuse of all kinds in KSB and tried to discuss the matter with Erlo Stegen and the leadership of KwaSizabantu. The accusations were the same then as now. News 24: “Reports of unbiblical preaching and the role of fear, brutality, abuse and exclusivity in mission shocked the panel, which produced a detailed report of its findings, which was later made available to the public.“ Getting the mission to come to terms with the situation was left without a chance. Stegen flatly refused to talk to the commission, and he relied on an old strategy: He invited its members to come to KwaSizabantu individually and to convince themselves that the accusations could not be true. This was the trick KSB had always used to convince the skeptics: with impressive human achievements and love-bombing, the great friendliness of KSB’s inhabitants, as found in all sects. KSB relied on showing the nice face to hide its ugly face. The members of the commission did not fall for the trick and stayed away from the mission. 

(The commission’s report :  https://www.ksb-alert.com/urgent-plea-to-the-leadership-of-kwasizabantu-mission-ksb-kwazulu-natal-south-africa/

Now, however, there has been a paradigm shift that is causing astonishment everywhere. For in the chorus of different voices of KwaSizabantu to the latest accusations, a daughter of Erlo Stegen, Ruth Combrink, has now joined the choir. While Albu van Eeden wants to close his own ranks with a sermon, Michael Ngubane tries to convince the world via Radio Khwezi that there is absolutely no truth in the accusations, while KSB preacher Marius Pretorius puts ancient videos on youtube that lift Erlo Stegen and the mission to heaven and describe KwaSizabantu as paradise par excellence, sounds come from Ruth Combrink that shake KSB’s previous line of defense. Even though she talks nonsense about how the Mission deals with the allegations of abuse 20 years ago, she also expresses a certain amount of regret for the victims of the Mission then and now – even though, according to the official reading of KwaSizabantu, there are no victims of abuse there.

New24 writes: “According to Combrink, the accusations were taken up at the time, and those who wanted reconciliation had met with the mission leadership. Combrink told News24: “Most importantly, those who had complaints and were genuinely seeking reconciliation had already met with the KwaSizabantu mission leadership in 2000. At the meeting these parties were able to discuss their complaints. On the same day, restitution and reparations were made, and the apologies were offered and accepted by those present.” All wrong: there was no one the leadership of the KwaSizabantu Mission met with at the time to discuss the allegations – on the contrary, KSB denied all the results of questioning their victims before the Evangelical Alliance Commission. 

Letters to the editor under the article with their statements in News 24 contradict Combrink vigorously. Just like this one:

“Dear Ruth Combrink, in 2000 I was still a member of KwaSizabantu, and I do not remember meetings with dissatisfied members with whom reconciliation took place. Your father, Mr. Erlo Stegen, would certainly have “presented” such a person to the congregation. On the contrary, I remember that the atmosphere was triumphant because he had resisted the enemy. To refute me, please tell me with whom reparation was made.”

Or this one: 

“I know the people who spoke before the panel and can testify to the fact that KSB (Kwasizabantu) treated them as “dissidents and enemies” who did not deserve the time of day of the mission. The report of the panel speaks for itself, it is just a pity that the world as a whole did not pay attention and did not act. Some of the extreme pain that has been inflicted on people since then could perhaps have been avoided. KSB only warms to ex-members when the ex-member “repents”. 

Or this one:

“As someone who spoke before this body 20 years ago, I can testify that KSB never tried to contact me to set things right. Then as now, it is up to me and the others to go to them. And I will never set foot there again – they knew my story long before the Board. I saw no signs of true remorse or regret – neither then nor now.”

Yesterday came the confirmation that Ruth Combrink’s statements are indeed not true. The General Secretary of the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa, Moss Ntlha, confirmed to Natal Wittness that there had been no willingness on the part of KwaSizabantu at the time to clarify the allegations of violence and abuse in any way. Ntlha, who was himself a member of the Evangelical Alliance commission at the time, told the newspaper, “We still maintain that abuses in the mission exist, and we are concerned that the practices of the mission may damage the reputation of the Christian faith in the country.“ It is a serious accusation that he is making: “KwaSizabantu mission damages the reputation of all churches!“  

However, what Ruth Combrink says about the new accusations is almost confusing in the maelstrom of current events.  According to News 24, she said that the mission takes the latest reports seriously and expresses its “deepest sympathy”. That is astounding. For while all the other spokespersons for the Mission are vehemently rejecting the allegations of abuse, dismissing them as a smear campaign and telling lies, Combrink suddenly talks about “compassion”. Compassion for whom? Has the woman understood that the accusations are not lies after all, or is she only supposed to gain sympathy for the “mission of horror”, as News24 calls the sect, with a little publicly shown empathy?  

We don’t know if it is another deception – but never mind, her statement is astonishing, because it is diametrically opposed to those of the other speakers of KwaSizabantus.: “First of all, we express our sincere sympathy and share the suffering of each individual who has experienced the trauma and pain of abuse. We offer them our support and invite them to turn to us in this regard”. She added: “It is our unconditional intention to work to rectify proven wrongs and we commit ourselves to take all necessary measures to make amends for such things”. 

The outside world is surprised and wonders what is true: all lies or shared suffering for every victim who has experienced abuse? 

The aggressive self-defense of the mission on the one hand, the sweet words but also the false statements of the Stegen daughter on the other hand, a KSB-own commission to clear up the accusations which is not taken seriously by anyone outside the scandal mission, now also criminal charges against critics of the mission,  – South Africa’s public experiences a “Christian” organization at the center of a huge scandal. A mission that is staggering through a severe crisis without leadership.  A mission whose voices contradict each other, whose otherwise so confident crisis management is getting out of control, when control has always been the most important instrument of power in KwaSizabantu. 

The mission KwaSizabantu, the “place where you will be helped”, the mission that lies in a district that was once called Jammerdal – Valley of Sorrow – is shaken to its very foundations. It will never again be what it once was.