This story is part of a seven-month News24 investigation into accusations of gross human rights violations, alleged money laundering and turning a blind eye to sexual abuse. To read our full production, click here: Exodus | Uncovering a cult in KwaZulu-Natal
Celimpilo Malinga was 15 years old when she was disowned and thrown out of KwaSizabantu for accepting chocolate from a male employee at the mission's supermarket.
Accused of "seeing" the young choir member – against the mission rules, which warned of expulsion should a relationship with someone of the opposite sex be discovered – Malinga had denied the accusations, and refused to have the act of kindness land the man in trouble.
Speaking to News24 about her experience with the mission, Malinga said her refusal to confess and ask for forgiveness saw her mother and father summoned to the mission that day in 1991.
"My parents had to act prudently, so my dad hit me with a pipe loaded with sand inside, so that it had more weight. After that, he said I must leave, taking nothing that they had bought me, and that I should not go home."
He warned her that if they ever meet anywhere, she should "never call him my father".
"I left him in consultation [with the KwaSizabantu leaders], hoping he'll have pity on me if he found me walking outside the mission. It was only a wish – they drove past me and left me on the street to find my nowhere-slowly destination."
Only five years earlier, she and her older sister had started attending school at KwaSizabantu with the rest of the children from her congregation.
This after the church had taken exception to the introduction of sex education in schools, Malinga, 44, recalled.
At the mission, they were taught under trees, inside scrap buses and in some buildings, she said.
The Domino Servite School, which on its website said it "progressed unerringly in its commitment to academic excellence and upholding Bible-based moral values", was opened in 1986 after much fundraising and donations.
Excited by an "amazing interracial environment" where everyone was supposedly equal, the disparities later became glaring, Malinga told News24.
Black children and white children were taught and ate separately in her early years there, she recollected. And while white girls could grow their hair long and tie it into a bun, black girls had to keep their hair short to "not tempt men".
Malinga, a sociable 10-year-old "black butterfly" at the time, lived in a dormitory with more than 300 beds. The only ventilation came from four windows and a normal sized door, and toilets were in a separate building.
She shudders as she remembers the condensation caused by the hundreds of children's breaths dripping from the corrugated iron roof onto her in the early hours of the morning.
White children, mostly the offspring of the employees at the mission, as well as a few black families who worked at KwaSizabantu, lived in rondavels, huts or houses, she said.
During school holidays, children were allowed to go home, but could not visit their extended family as they "would corrupt our good nature".
And upon their return, Malinga claimed, the girls would be subjected to virginity tests, an allegation also made by other former members of the mission.
"We would form a line outside and wait our turn before walking through the wooden door into what we called the waiting room," she remembered.
Children who were found to have been "tampered with" were expelled, but in some instances would face punishment and be pardoned at the leadership's discretion.
The parents of girls found to no longer be "pure" would be expected to disown them, and the girls would be excommunicated from the church.
Her voice faltered as she told of her own excommunication and how her parents drove past her without stopping the day she was thrown out of KwaSizabantu. She walked with welt-covered legs from the mission where she had lived for half a decade.
The teenager literally had only the clothes on her back. Expulsion meant you could not benefit from anything the church or your parents had given you.
She had sought shelter with family, but her father had put pressure on them not to allow her to stay.
Malinga ended up in Durban, where she worked as a nanny for a month and slept on the floor. She later worked as a live-in helper.
She returned to school while also working as a cleaner. Later, she worked as a waitress at a local restaurant, determined to finish matric and return to her family to show them she had made it on her own.
After her final exams in 1992, she returned her textbooks to Kwesethu High School.
That day, she was gang raped by a gang of fellow students, who held her hostage for three days.
She didn't report it to the police.
"Not that I did not want to. I actually went to the police station, waited my turn. As I was waiting, just seeing how people in front of me were being treated, I grew apprehensive about telling my story."
She had asked to speak to a female officer, but was "received with mockery", asking if it was for her being "sour for a bad performance".
"I walked away, never to return again," she said. "I wasn't going to put myself through the humiliation."
Her plans to marry her boyfriend, who had planned to pay lobola after she finished school, fell through after she told him she had been raped.
Determined to make something of her life and show her parents she could make it on her own, she got a scholarship and went on to study public relations before moving to Johannesburg.
In 1993, she became pregnant and gave birth to a girl. When she moved to Johannesburg, her extended family took care of her toddler.
She reconciled with her family in 2001, after a split between KwaSizabantu and its Tugela Ferry branch, to which the family had belonged.
Their reunion also followed the death of her teenage brother, who had been disowned by his parents three years earlier after being caught smoking.
He had worked on the taxis while Malinga tried to help him obtain his licence.
He was killed in an unrelated vehicle accident while with people in his newfound circle.
"My father died with him, emotionally and spiritually. Of his six kids, he was his only son," she said.
Her father, the family's breadwinner, suffered a stroke a week after the reconciliation. Malinga then started taking care of the family.
But being disowned all those years ago robbed her of a relationship with her sisters.
When she walked away from the mission almost three decades ago, she was a child in a reality she hadn't known existed, Malinga said.
'Fear drove everything'
"We knew nothing about the outside world. We didn't listen to the radio because it played secular music. We didn't watch TV because it was referred to as the devil's box. We weren't exposed to politics. Nothing could prepare me for what I found when I walked out of those walls.
"All I knew was a life of confession. The psyche of that place was based on fear – fear of making mistakes, fear of God returning and finding you not ready. Fear drove everything."
When the mission turned its back on you, you were cursed and told you won't amount to anything in life, Malinga said.
"They tell you you won't make it. You have this fear instilled in you and it's debilitating. This new world [outside of KwaSizabantu] throws its pleasures at you as you try to survive. I have seen people lose themselves to alcohol and drugs because they can't reconcile the reality and what we knew at the mission."
A list of questions was sent to KwaSizabantu, including whether the mission still subjected black girls to virginity testing.
News24 had also asked about excommunication, as well as the grounds and process involved.
Despite a detailed list of questions about several former members' claims, in a blanket, unsigned statement KwaSizabantu said the various allegations "relate mostly to private family matters".
The mission said it would "respect the privacy" of those involved.
"As much as you are implying that the mission is responsible for every incident involving its congregation, we can assure you that we strive to always act within the prescripts of the law," the statement read.
The mission said they "doubt the authenticity and motives behind many of the charges", saying they had been approached for comment by others "on essentially the same issues".
"It smacks of a smear campaign rather than a genuine search for justice," it said, adding that it "welcomes any police investigation into any of the allegations".
Read the mission's full responses to News24 here: 'A smear campaign' - KwaSizabantu's response to raft of allegations
Malinga admitted being conflicted about what she believed should happen to KwaSizabantu.
"People came there and were healed of illnesses. God must have had his hand on it at some point. But it's true that God can leave. What was once good, can be spoilt," she said.
She would like to see the mission return to what it once was – "authentic and what God wanted it to be".
"Because those people who live there… [they] literally don't have anything else in the outside world. If it collapses, how many will be left destitute?"
Do you have a KwaSizabantu story to tell? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article and you need someone to talk to, please contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) on one of these numbers:
- To speak to a counsellor between 8am and 8pm Monday to Saturday, phone 011 234 4837
- For a suicidal emergency, call 0800 567 567
- For the 24-hour helpline, call 0800 456 789.