MORE startling claims about the activities of a KwaZulu-Natal Christian mission emerged this week when its leaders boasted about being behind the arrest of top cop Piet Meyer.
Police leading the investigation of Meyer, suspended head of KwaZulu-Natal’s organised crime unit, confirmed that a witness in the trial against Meyer was found at the Kwasizabantu mission, but denied that this had led to Meyer’s arrest.
The latest revelation adds to a long list of shadowy dealings at Kwasizabantu, near Kranskop, which has been accused by dozens of ex-devotees of routinely beating children at the mission’s school and of having strong links to the apartheid regime’s military machine.
Pastor Kjell Olsen, related by marriage to charismatic leader Erlo Stegen and unofficial spokesman for the mission, said that last year’s arrest of Meyer came after a member of the mission claimed he was involved in crimes allegedly linked to Meyer.
“We were involved in the arrest,” said Olsen. “A person who is waiting to be called as a state witness in the trial came to us for spiritual help and we took the matter to the police.”
But the Directorate of Public Prosecutions told a different story. Their own investigations had led them to the witness, said a spokesperson for the directorate. “If Meyer was arrested a few days afterwards, it is just coincidence.”
Meyer’s trial is due to begin in the Durban Regional Court in September, when he will face 17 charges of defeating the ends of justice, fraud and theft.
Olsen made the surprise disclosure while responding to allegations that Kwasizabantu worked closely with military intelligence operatives to glean information from politically active youths.
Leaders of the mission – including Olsen and Stegen’s nephew, pastor Arno Stegen – have admitted that Colonel Tobie Vermaak, a senior staff officer in the SA Defence Force, was sometimes present during confessions by devotees.
While explaining Vermaak’s presence, Olsen let slip that the mission “often” passed on to police information such as that concerning Meyer.
Confessions are a routine part of life for the mission’s 1 200 residents, who work on several farms and small enterprises in return for food and accommodation. There are an estimated 40 000 Erlo Stegen followers in South Africa, Germany, France and Switzerland.
Meanwhile, fresh allegations about life behind the mission’s walls emerged this week, among them, that of the assault on a woman wrongly accused of adultery in 1995.
“All of the married women were brought together in a room and assaulted me,” she sobbed, too afraid to be identified. “I couldn’t do anything for a week.”
Khulekani Mathe, 29, a former member of “Choir Number Two” – the mission’s second-highest group of pastors – also went public this week after years of silence and agony.
“I was a sincere 15year-old Christian when I joined the mission. The way things were done were so subtle that a visitor or newcomer couldn’t immediately detect it .
“People right at the bottom, the workers, were treated differently – even the kind of food they ate. I had first-hand experience of that,” he said.
“If you questioned anything, you were labelled all sorts of things, often a communist,” he said.
“There was clear discrimination on the basis of colour and gender. It’s the most patriarchal system, although they window-dress with a few women and blacks at the top.”
Despite the mission’s multiracial environment, it has never conducted a mixed-race marriage.
It enforces strict rules on relations between the sexes. Only men may initiate interest – they must tell their counsellor they believe God wants them to marry a certain woman – and all communication is relayed via third parties. Dating is banned and couples may not speak until married.
“The worst sin was holding a boy’s hand or writing him a letter,” said a 21-year-old woman who fled the mission with her family. “Most of the beatings I remember witnessing at school were because of that.”
According to Koos Greeff, a high-ranking mission member who left in 1994, a black teenager was beaten to death by his uncle after writing a letter to a girl. Afterwards, Greeff was asked to “handle this situation with the police”.
Olsen admitted that a boy known only as “Mtungwa” died after a beating by his uncle.
Greeff’s family – who are related to Erlo Stegen – this week received threats of physical harm from a man claiming to be a member of the mission after reports had been spread that Greeff had talked to the media.
His family is one of dozens that have been torn apart after some members opted to leave the mission.
Erika Bornman has not spoken with her mother, Esther, and sister, Hanna Pretorius, for more than a year. “My mother told me that until I come back and accept Reverend Stegen, I am not her daughter,” said Bornman, who prompt