Musa Zondi recalls his childhood at KwaSizabantu Mission, but also losing a friend to HIV/Aids who had worked at the mission.
Sweat merged with the tears running down our faces.
We were crying out for help.
Some even fainted as the temperature at the back of the truck seemed to climb. The wailing accompanied by the panic made the back of the truck even hotter.
The tarpaulins, pulled tightly, emitted its own stench of heat - like plastic burning slowly.
We were dehydrating. Some of the cries became fainter and fainter.
As some of us drifted in and out of consciousness, suddenly someone opened the tarpaulins.
A collective sigh of relief and renewed crying - partly because of happiness that we were safe and because we couldn't understand how adults had forgotten scores of children in a truck in the summer heat without an iota of breeze coming through.
This was my first and everlasting impression with KwaSizabantu Mission. It was hell. Literally.
The idea of leaving our rural village during holidays to go on an adventure to Kranskop was initially appealing as nothing happened in the village at the best of times. But they also had thick slices of bread with liberal application of apricot jam and tea on offer. It was an escape from the gnawing pangs of hunger if we stayed at home.
We gladly hopped onto the truck.
At the campsite itself, they had tents and warehouse look-alike structures where we would sleep. Again, for most of us, this was a relief from leaking thatched rondavels from where some of us came from.
As an adult, the first time I saw a Jim Jones documentary on that killer camp in Guyana and the arrangement they had, I was taken back to the Mission arrangement.
It was exactly the same.
Non-stop services with strict rules of what should be done or not be done.
There were long queues for food and you felt with every slice that you were being done a favour. At any given time, you would be herded one way or another like sheep.
So when News24 published the story of KwaSizabantu, I was triggered.
My mind drifted off to that rainy Friday in Greytown. After a long time of not communicating with one Busi Zakwe, I received a call from one of her sisters saying Busi was sick.
Busi was one of those beautiful people - aesthetically and in her soul. She carried that beauty through her smile. Because of her love of milk, I called her a cat and no-one was allowed to call her that.
We were born in the same year and were neighbours.
At the time, their family was the richest in our village - they had buses, trucks, tractors and all the other things that set them apart from everyone else such as owning the first television set.
They were also generous to those of us who had little and they never turned a stranger away.
Our friendship was deep. And even when we played hide and seek, we would always be on the same team. It was the same when we played games of dads and moms. We were on the same team.
I arrived in the Greytown hospital one April night in 2013.
It was rainy, misty and treacherous. But the call made it clear that she was on her last mile.
After getting lost and being treated with nonchalance by the hospital staff, I found her room. There she lay. Bones protruding from the marked hospital bed sheet. One minute she was cold, the next she was hot.
She had been awakened by my voice asking the security officers about her and here she was in all her emaciated glory. For a minute I thought they had brought me to the to wrong person until she flashed her pained and tired smile.
Busi was one of those people who had dedicated her life to KwaSizabantu Mission.
She sang in the choir like her big sister who had first made the transition to the mission. Busi also came in handy as she was a mechanic and she spent hours in the engine rooms producing aQuelle water tightening or loosening bolts, changing pipes and any other work that required her expertise.
This skill was learnt in her father's house and even though she had not studied for it, she could take an engine apart and put it back.
Most of the people working there were like that.
But here she was, under the sheets. Unable to pull a blanket over her emaciated body. Unable to ensure a smooth running of the production of that water.
We tried having a conversation. It was sparse.
She had to allow herself a chance to recover as she ran out of breath after a few words. Her eyes and face smiled, but it took effort and looked painful.
She reached out her hand as if asking for understanding. I took it and cried. There was no need for anyone to die of Aids at this time. Why hadn’t she taken the ARVs which were now being supplied for free?
It was not allowed at the Mission. They were told that they would be healed with prayers. It had also taken long for her to be admitted as they were still praying for her.
I boiled with anger at a life that had been wasted because of the cult.
In the end, she just said that she had chosen Sizabantu. I could not argue with that. She had indeed, but her choice killed her.
Previously when I asked why she was there, trying to get a sense of what she was being paid, she always ducked and dived. She had two boys from her marriage, which was over because of her choosing the cult.
As I pulled the sheet over her, I knew that this moment was our final goodbye.
She turned, with great difficulty, and looked the other way. I walked out into the night while her soul got released that evening.
A week later, I listened as one of the members of the Stegen family which owns the farm where the mission is based, mouthed platitudes of being received in heaven. I cried as the choir sang, gesturing to the sky because the person in the tomato box was on her way to heaven. She did not need to die.
I wondered how many people had died as a result of the cult, but there was no energy to fight. I wondered about Busi's unsaid things. I wondered what else might have happened to her.
We buried Busi on 27 April 2013. Freedom Day. How ironic when her freedom to live had been dealt a blow. By the cult. And then they served us flavoured aQuelle, which I thought was the ultimate insult.
My family and some of my closest friends do not drink aQuelle. I stopped drinking it before Busi died.
Her death strengthened my resolve to always boycott anything related to them, including their radio station.
The latest revelations have added to my questions about that cult. A dangerous cult.
But there is no Busi to ask.
- Musa Zondi is an award winning journalist, and currently consults on Media Relations and Training, Communications and Stakeholder Engagement.
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