Human trafficking allegations against the World Mission Society Church of God is not only untrue but also dangerous.
So says Kusile Kewana, a spokesperson for the church which made headlines, both in print and online, last week. Since then students who belong to the church say there have been incidents where they felt ostracised and persecuted at various university campuses around South Africa.
“Our students at the University of Cape Town (UCT), the University of Stellenbosch (SU) and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) have told us of incidents where their fellow students had surrounded and pointed at them, saying, ‘those are the human trafficking people’,” says Kewana.
She says there was a post on WhatsApp, under the header “Hunting God Mother Down”. It read: “Any male figure at UJ (University of Johannesburg) whose interested in hunting this god Mother down at Campus Square, DM me the keyword God Mother. I’ll send you the WhatsApp linkchat where we can meet and strategize (stet).”
Kewana says their Johannesburg leader went to the police to complain. “They were told a case could only be opened if a member was physically attacked.”
Lesley Damons, also of the church, says this is what they are afraid of. That a student member might approach someone who believed the stories on social media.
“UCT has just issued their female students with pepper spray. What will happen if one of our church members engage with the wrong person at the wrong time,” she asks.
The claims first got traction when student online media MatieMedia reported on them on Tuesday 27 August. The online article was updated 10 days later with an official apology for not including comment from the group in the first version of the article, as well as comment from the church, but by that time the story had already spread like wildfire.
It was picked up by local newspapers the Weekend Argus (“Stellenbosch University fear sex slave threat”, 31 August) and the Cape Times (“CPUT on high alert over alleged human trafficking around campus”, 2 September).
All three of the articles spoke of students who claimed they had been approached by church followers, asking students to meet with them later.
Damons says evangelists do ask people they approach if they would like to meet later for 30 minutes to explain their beliefs.
“We ask them where they would prefer to meet or we refer them to a room at the university allocated to our society for Bible study.”
She says the church, as a university-approved society, has been allocated the Beatie Building (the room changes according to a revolving calendar) at UCT, and at CPUT the church meets in the Commerce 2.55 building. She says the church has been active at CPUT since 2012 when students who were enrolled there registered the club as Elohim.
“But we make arrangements to meet anytime from the morning to late afternoon – during the university’s ‘business hours’ – never at night. And there are always lots of people at the Bible study,” says Damons.
The official spokespersons for CPUT, SU and UCT confirm there have been no complaints lodged at the university structures of abductions or human trafficking.
Lauren Kansley, the spokesperson for CPUT, says Elohim is a registered social club at CPUT. She says the student representative council (SRC) is responsible for approving these clubs and not the institution.
In one of the articles, CPUT’s president of the SRC Sipho Mokoena told of an alleged abduction attempt outside the District Six campus. Kansley says the alleged abduction alluded to in media reports was never reported to campus protection. “It has never been verified or linked to actual students, to our knowledge,” she says.
According to Martin Viljoen, the spokesperson for SU, the university is aware of articles in student media and social media posts doing the rounds of suspected human-trafficking associated with a religious group.
“The articles and social media posts could have created the impression that the university has placed students on high alert and warned students against this particular group. This is not the case,” says Viljoen.
He says the MatieMedia article also made mention of Dr Viljoen van der Walt, director of risk management and campus security, referring to the group being active on the Tygerberg campus.
The article stated that the group had been denied access to the Tygerberg Campus after student complaints. However, Viljoen says it has been established that the group Van der Walt was referring to (active at the campus two years ago) is not the same one.
“To date, there have been no complaints laid at SU structures of any abductions or reports of human trafficking. That said, students should always take safety precautions as human trafficking is a reality in many parts of the world,” says Viljoen.
Elijah Moholola, the spokesperson for UCT, confirms there has not been any incidents of human trafficking on campus. “The university is also not aware of any incidents involving members of the student society referred to. Any incidents should be reported to campus protection services,” he says.
Captain FC Van Wyk, Western Cape police spokesperson, says no cases of human trafficking have been reported against the Church of God at Cape Town Central, Mowbray or Stellenbosch police.
When asked how the human trafficking rumours got started, Damons says it can be traced back to a Facebook post in 2017 in the United States of America (USA).
“Two of our evangelists approached a mother who had her child with her. Later that evening the mother posted online that she had been approached by two people and she was afraid because of human trafficking rumours. It went viral, and even though subsequent newspaper reports in the USA showed the allegations to be false, these posts just keep on popping up”
The church has been active in South Africa since 2004. Damons says they had been aware of the sex trafficking allegations in the USA, but they never imagined it would happen here.
“All we can think is that students who had been approached by our evangelists googled our church and saw these posts. They just took them to be true.”
The church was founded in the Republic of Korea in 1964 by Ahnsahnghong, who, it says, is the second coming of Jesus according to the Bible. Interpreting verses found in the Bible, it believes there are two gods: God the Father and God the Mother. Today it has 7 500 churches in 175 countries.
Next to evangelism, volunteer services form the second part of its mission. Under the auspices of Asez, it leads various clean-up projects around the world in efforts to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs), spearheaded by the United Nations. Two recent local projects include Green Campus clean-ups at UCT on 28 March and at CPUT on 31 March, respectively.
Viljoen says SU subscribes to the values and human rights contained in the Constitution, which includes freedom of religion.
“It also entails that religious beliefs cannot be forced upon each other,” Viljoen says.
He describes unacceptable behaviour as an insistence on secrecy; engaging with students in a forceful or aggressive conversation with a view to coerce them to join a particular group; emotionally manipulating students to leave their studies or families and blackmail or intimidation of any kind.
Students who feel their rights are infringed upon can lodge complaints at student affairs or campus security. Call SU Stellenbosch campus on 021 808 2333, SU Tygerberg campus on 021 938 9507), CPUT Cape Town campus security on 021 460 3122 and UCT’s campus security services on 080 650 2222.