By Megan Powers
A controversial Christian mission in KwaZulu-Natal, accused this week of abuse and cult-like behaviour, allegedly doubled as an anti-liberation agency for military intelligence and the security branch in the ’80s and early ’90s.
Well-placed sources told the Tribune this week that a sophisticated system of information gathering within the Kwasizabantu mission near Greytown is claimed to have led to the kidnapping and arrest of United Democratic Front and ANC activists in northern KwaZulu-Natal. This has been denied by the mission.
One former member of the mission, whose identity is being withheld by the Tribune, revealed how he had been recruited by intelligence agents, undergone military training, been supplied with intelligence equipment, including a briefcase with a hidden microphone, two secret bank accounts into which the military paid his expenses and told to report back on anything that was a threat to the “status quo” and “law and order”.
“We were deeply involved with the security forces. We were used to propagate the apartheid message around the country and we were used as informants. I know of cases where special forces took people out as a direct result of information I gave them,” said the source, who claims he was discouraged by other mission “agents” from going to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but still believes it should be investigated and exposed.
“Someone would repent and the next minute the whole of the security branch knew about it. Many co-workers were informants and some of the mission’s leadership, which remains the same to this day, knew all about it. At one stage we received VIP Protection training because it was believed our leader Erlo Stegen had become an ANC target,” he said.
Information was secretly gathered during “confessions” – a cornerstone of the mission’s religious practice – and allegedly passed on via daily calls on “scramble phones” to Colonel Tobie Vermaak – who worked in military intelligence – and a security branch captain in Greytown, whose identity is known to the Tribune.
Colonel Vermaak – who was “put on pension” in 1992, the same year De Klerk purged the SADF of military intelligence officers suspected of alleged “dirty tricks” – allegedly requested, paid for and accompanied (in civilian clothes) preachers and the mission choir on “outreach campaigns” and preaching tours in volatile troublespots around the country in the ’80s.
It is also alleged Vermaak used a military plane to fly himself and certain mission preachers to Namibia in 1989 where they used the scriptures to preach an anti-Swapo message. Vermaak allegedly operated in Namibia under an alias, which is known to the Tribune. Following Swapo’s election victory that same year, a mission preacher was allegedly sent to Namibia at the military’s expense.
Regular visitors to the mission included deputy minister of defence and later minister of law and order Adriaan Vlok, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, King Goodwill Zwelithini, and senior government and military officials from the homelands.
When contacted at his Pretoria home this week, Vermaak said he’d “met the Lord” at the mission 15 years ago and that his two children currently attended school there. But he described the claims of the mission’s involvement with state intelligence as “laughable”.
“The mission was a well-known anti-apartheid organisation.
“Nothing of that nature happened there. I went there and attended meetings while I was in the military because the country was in chaos and it was uplifting to see hardworking black people who weren’t negative,” he said.
He denied ever going on any preaching trips with the mission, either inside or outside the country and said he “doubted” the military ever funded the mission’s activities. When asked why Vlok, Buthelezi and other members of the state’s security structures had visited the mission so often, he said he “could not talk for them”.
Kjell Olsen, one of Kwasizabantu’s spokesmen who has been at the mission since 1976, denied the mission had ever been used as an agency of the state and claimed they had in fact been harassed in the ’70s because they were considered “communists”.
He said that Vermaak was, and remained, “our friend” and had helped raise money for the mission.
“We gave assistance to people in the community who came to us and wanted to repent. But we never revealed information to anyone without their full permission. Maybe people who have since left the mission were involved in such things. It’s possible they know things that we don’t,” said Olsen.
He said he was “unaware” of military funding of any preaching tours although he believed the mission choir had been “sponsored” at some stage. A later request for clarity and details on the funding issue was not forthcoming.
He said Vlok, Buthelezi and others from state security structures had come to the mission for “our advice on how to move towards a non-racial society”.