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The Other News Round-Up: Cu(l)t loose

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you some of the world’s stranger happenings. This week: the elusive world of cults.

Last week, the lead in the Sunday Times was an in-depth report on the Seven Angels Ministries, the cult believed to be linked to the massacre at an Eastern Cape police station that left six people dead.

Since then, many more details of cult members’ lives have emerged. I say “emerged”. But that’s not really the word for it. Because in 2016, Seven Angels Ministries made headlines when social workers removed 21 children, aged 5-18, from the premises. Just days later, another three children were rescued.

Nearly two years ago, therefore, it had already come to light that the church did not allow congregants to have jobs and children were not permitted to attend school. Now, it’s been reported that some 100 sex slaves, including minors, were found at the premises.

The community had reportedly been complaining for some time of Seven Angels’ cult-like activities.

The cult was run by seven brothers and their mother, having reportedly been started by a Mr Mancoba in Nyanga village. After his death, his sons didn’t want to follow in his footsteps and, according to City Press, formed a breakaway group with their mother. The Hawks have since made a breakthrough in their investigation, they say, and will be handing over a report shortly. But they are still searching for more suspects.

It’s also been reported that the Hawks have been aware “for some time” of churches being used as a front for crime, in particular sex trafficking.

And this is where it gets murky. Because not only have the Hawks been aware of a broader context of churches being used as a front for organised crime, but the community itself, as we’ve seen above, has been issuing complaints about Seven Angels. And there has been a previous intervention for children being kept out of school illegally. Social workers have investigated and been concerned enough by what they found to remove children from the premises.

Riddle me this: how was the situation allowed to escalate, unchecked, until there was a massacre at a police station that left six dead? (I’d love to know where this places Jacques Pauw on the priority list for search and seizures, but never mind.) How did someone – anyone, at any level of authority – not go back and investigate further after twenty-four children were removed from the premises and the community complained extensively? How was this not escalated, further tragedy not prevented?

There’s a bigger problem here. The first aspect is that child abuse, in general, is woefully under-managed. The 2017 Child Gauge reported that some R300-billion was being lost to the damage done to South Africa’s children by violence, poverty and inequality. A third of South Africa’s children are sexually abused in some way, with abuse generally being hugely under-reported. Daily Maverick has reported on the “one child at a time” killing of South African children, who are very poorly protected in general, despite progressive legislation.

The second is that abuse in general and sexual abuse in particular are under-reported, and abuse within cults is a separate minefield on which there is very little reliable, accessible information. The dearth of data on abuse is not helped along by a culture of secrecy and shame around cults themselves.

However, the general public, media and authorities don’t help either. We tiptoe around cults. I’m going to go ahead and say it: if you’re religious, you’re going to be regarded as blasphemous if you criticise a religious organisation. (Just ask the Catholic Church, which – though not a cult – has successfully protected sexual abusers for generations.)

And if you’re not, you’re going to be regarded as superstitious or sensationalist if you regard cults as a serious problem. So intelligent discussion of cults is thin on the ground, barring pleas for help by people who are personally affected, or the occasional burst of sensational headlines when there’s a shoot-out or dramatic event.

Statistics aren’t widely available or easily accessible. There are some academic studies on cult dynamics, but not much else; perhaps also partly because the lines around what actually constitutes a cult are a little vague.

Where do you draw the line between that charismatic pastor who is cashing in a little too vigorously, perhaps a little dishonestly, on the local tithes – even if it’s seriously financially disadvantaging his congregants – and the truly vicious, violent narcissist? I’d argue the abuse is just a matter of degree, if it’s based on the hopes and dreams of desperate people.

But when you start layering isolation, secrecy, and punishment on top… That’s when you enter the realm of silence, when it becomes more difficult to trace or talk about. And so the data becomes even thinner. Stories often emerge only when cults are blown open through drama or catastrophe.

In other countries, data is a little better, though not much. But we need reliable data and open discussion, because cult or sect members – particularly those who are considering joining a cult or those who manage to leave – need outside support and validation. This conversation must be started, and it needs to go beyond gruesome headlines. We need a deeper understanding in academia, media, and in our private homes. And we need to stop pretending that this problem doesn’t exist or hardly exists. Even if we don’t know the numbers. Because hey, even one is too many.

There is not enough contextualisation of child abuse and sex abuse within “religious” organisations, or sex trafficking with religious organisations as a front. As it is, we barely have reliable statistics on sexual abuse. What chance do we have to fight sex trafficking and other abuses within cults if we do not make some attempt to understand what we are up against?

Those sex slaves were not unseen. It’s just that somebody did not want to see. Now, because the story has the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster, everyone wants in.

But for victims all over South Africa, cult abuse is a private tragedy it takes a lifetime to get over, if they get over it at all. So consider this a plea to open up the conversation. A real conversation, preferably one not coated in shame or sensation. Push for these stories to be told, read, heard, contextualised. Even if it’s murky, even if it’s inconvenient. They’re right there. We just need to see them. DM


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