By Megan Powers
Allegations of physical and psychological abuse, sinister mind control and ostracism at a Christian mission in KwaZulu-Natal have been made, sending shockwaves throughout the country’s religious circles.
On Saturday theologians and clerics from around the country held a closed crisis meeting in Durban to determine what action should be taken.
The Kwasizabantu mission near Greytown, which has ministered to thousands of people in KwaZulu-Natal since 1970, still educates hundreds of children and attracts scores of local and international visitors each year.
It now stands accused of running a draconian “cult-like” organisation under the guise of Christianity, a claim the mission “rejects with contempt”, saying it is non-sectarian and holds “mainline orthodox beliefs”.
The flood of allegations against the mission follows the publication in a local magazine of a woman’s account of the 13 years she spent at the KwaZulu-Natal mission, both as a pupil at the Domino Servite School and as a teacher. Within days of Erika Bornman making certain allegations, she had received dozens of calls from other ex-pupils and preachers who said they agreed with her.
“I, and many others, can sum up our experience at the mission in one single word: Fear. That is why people have remained silent about the place. I have decided to speak out, not because I have conquered the fear, but in spite of it,” said Bornman, now living in Sedgefield, near Knysna, and working in tourism.
The 28-year-old claimed there had been public beatings in an “upper room” at the mission, where mission staff allegedly beat children violently for misdemeanours, ranging from thinking a boy handsome, admiring themselves in the mirror or clapping during a school play.
Bornman claimed black pupils were forced to undergo virginity tests, contact between girls and boys was forbidden outside the classroom, chapters dealing with animal reproduction or human anatomy were ripped out of their biology textbooks, and certain songs in family films like The Sound of Music were censored before being screened. Her claims were supported by several reliable sources.
“There was an all-pervasive fear that surrounded the place. We were taught to be so afraid of God that I lived in constant dread of dying if my life wasn’t right with God,” said Bornman.
But it was only after a counsellor allegedly made sexual advances towards her, after which she was allegedly called a “whore” and a “slut”, that Bornman decided to flee to an aunt in Pietermaritzburg in 1993.
Her mother, sister and brother-in-law still live at the mission and have largely disowned her.
Ex-pupils who contacted the Tribune this week claimed there were cases of excessive violence, in which they were beaten by mission staff until they were bleeding.
An evangelical preacher, who spent almost 20 years at the mission, said he and his family left after witnessing the “most terrible attacks”.
“What I saw there shocked me into near hysterics. I once watched about 80 women in the upper room punch and beat a young man for allegedly peeping through their windows. Several leaders were present during the beating and one of them actually took part in the attack,” claimed the theologian, who asked not to be named.
“What really worries me is that so much of what they practice at the mission, including their attitude towards and control over normal relationships between male and female, has no scriptural basis whatsoever.
“There is no biblical foundation for their behaviour at all. Little of what happens there has any part in Christianity,” he said.
Sibongile Malinga, a 24-year-old liaison officer for a national company, who was expelled from the mission school when she was 15 because she was alleged to have “fallen in love”, believes that the beatings – allegedly sanctioned by leadership – may have led to the death of her young cousin in 1989.
“He was taken to hospital after a beating by his father and later died. But the mission made no mention of this,” said Malinga, who claimed her father had no choice but to beat her with a hosepipe and evict her from the mission, even though she had repeatedly protested her innocence. She claimed that a year before her expulsion a rule was passed that anyone expelled should leave the mission with only the clothes on their back.
When the Tribune requested an interview with the mission’s leader, Erlo Stegen, on Friday, he was said to be preparing for a “men’s seminar” and was unavailable. But a “committee” of Stegen’s nephew Arno Stegen, Kjell Olsen, Fano Sibisi and school principal Dorothy Newlands agreed to an interview.
They said pupils had been exposed to corporal punishment up until 1994, but this had only been the standard “six cuts with a cane”. They confirmed “hidings in the upper room” in which plastic pipes were used on pupils, but this had been carried out by parents, not staff.
They were “aware” that a boy had died after being beaten by his parents on their premises, but they had no specific details. They confirmed virginity testing was carried out at the mission, but only by Zulu parents who wished it.
They admitted excommunication was performed, but denied ever evicting anyone.
Olsen said he doubted Borman’s allegations that Stegan had cursed her and called her derogatory names, but added that he (Olsen) had no problem using the words “whoring” and “slut” when preaching.
Newlands admitted the school censored certain films which were “explicitly graphic” and that biology textbooks were still censored and “our own notes used”.
“We’ve had a 100 percent pass rate for 11 years and are listed as one of the country’s top schools,” said Olsen.