News / South Africa

News24 Wire
Wire Service
4 minute read
16 Oct 2020
11:41 am

CRL Commission hears harrowing testimony of abuse and empty promises at KwaSizabantu

News24 Wire

Witness says after years of abuse, she 'couldn't take it anymore' and tried to commit suicide.

Leaders of KwaSizabantu Mission in KwaZulu-Natal have been implicated in abuse. Picture: All4Women/Facebook

In a full day of harrowing testimony on Thursday, former members of the controversial KwaSizabantu Mission told the CRL Rights Commission of first-hand, disturbing experiences of abuse at the hands of members and leaders.

The commission is investigating allegations of abuse at KwaSizabantu in KwaZulu-Natal after a News24 exposé.

Survivor Maritjie Bothma struggled through a flurry of emotions as she recounted years of alleged abuse and sexual assault at the mission, which, she said, started when she was a child in the house of mission leader Erlo Stegen.

Bothma said she was made to “suck on the breasts” of Stegen’s daughters – Ruth Combrink and Elizabeth Vermaak – who “tormented” her as a child.

Through tears and gasping breath, Bothma said the abuse continued in her home as well as in school, adding that she was sexually abused by her counsellor at the mission.

When Bothma tried to report her counsellor, she said she was locked up in a tiny room for days, seemingly a common punishment for Bothma.

“Whenever you were naughty in class… they would come into the class with the co-workers and us ‘naughty children’ would be pointed out and you would be laid on the table and they would beat you in front of the class,” Bothma said through tears.

“If you were not responding to the beating, they would take you to Erlo Stegen’s house, into his room, where you would be beaten up.”

Eventually, she started to express her unwillingness to be at the mission and “started communicating with… visitors at KwaSizabantu” for which she received brutal punishment.

“They made my mother open a soap bar and I had to chew it, and the more I was vomiting the soap they were beating me on my back,” said Bothma sobbing.

After years of abuse, Bothma explained that she “couldn’t take it anymore” and tried to commit suicide.

Another survivor Mmeli Sibisi, his sister Ndumi Sibisi and brother Mbonisi Sibisi also shared their testimony before the commission on Thursday.

The Sibisi siblings are related to the mission’s leader Lidia Dube.

Speaking on behalf of their family, Mmeli, who is Dube’s nephew, said co-workers at the mission were not fairly paid and in some cases, not paid at all for their work at the mission.

“You are made to understand upon arrival that you are here as a volunteer and you must not expect any pay,” Mmeli said.

“But as the mission started to have profit-making entities supporting the ministry work, the general expectation was that the co-workers would start to get an income.”

While the mission would pay those who were general workers, “they would not pay the co-workers, the pastors”, Mmeli said.

These co-workers would need to live off their volunteer work, despite the mission receiving donations which were aimed at uplifting the community.

When aQuellé started, Mmeli said, their parents were told that since they had worked at the mission for so long, they would receive dividends from the company.

Mmeli said they were told their “lives would get better”, but “it never happened”.

He explained that they had to apply for funding from NSFAS (National Student Financial Aid Scheme) despite “our parents… sitting in these entities as trustees and directors”.

“Our parents understood they were there only on a representative capacity, so they sit in aQuellé as a director, they sit in board meetings at aQuellé, here’s the bank statements being read out – how much money was being made – it’s all considered KwaSizabantu Mission’s money,” Mmeli said.

Mmeli also recalled that the mission’s school expelled 42 children in one go in 2010, including Mmeli’s younger sister and two cousins, for seemingly not showing “excitement” for school.

He said he and others approached lawyers, the KwaZulu-Natal legislature and the provincial executive committee but their action prompted no reaction from the mission.

It wasn’t until Mmeli and his team threatened legal action that KwaSizabantu responded and reinstated the children.

Mmeli, who also implicated leaders of KwaSizabantu in abuse, said they must account for their actions, regardless of when the alleged abuse happened.

“The one thing that the mission will fight you on is accountability… if you ask them to account, they will come out guns blazing,” Mmeli said.

For more news your way, download The Citizen’s app for iOS and Android.