Exodus | 'There are now too many of us to dismiss' - a woman's story of being 'cursed' by KwaSizabantu leader

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Erika Bornman.
Erika Bornman.
Aljoscha Kohlstock

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 and watch our full series, click here: Exodus | Uncovering a cult in KwaZulu-Natal


Erika Bornman said she was 21 when Erlo Stegen put a "curse" on her life after she left KwaSizabantu.

A spontaneous, chatty and vivacious blonde little girl when the family was introduced to the mission, she said she walked out a shadow of the person she was when she arrived there 13 years earlier.

"I was a happy, sunshine child. My dad called me his kurkproppie – you could push me underwater, but I would always pop back up again.

"That changed for a while, but I got it back again. They didn’t completely kill that part of me."

The Bornmans were introduced to KwaSizabantu in 1979, when Erika’s mother Esther heard one of the mission’s leaders preaching in Worcester, where they lived at the time.

"They preached revival, repentance of sin and God’s forgiveness," Erika said.

It was what her mother felt she needed – she had had an affair with the owner of the local store where she had worked, but she and her husband had decided to stay together and try to make their marriage work, Erika recalled.

"She came back with stars in her eyes and said to my dad that, if there is anyone who can help her, it’s them."

'I shrank'

The Bornmans packed up and moved to Estcourt, where Esther spent three months at the mission while her husband worked as a teacher and took care of their three children.

The day her mother returned, she burnt all her clothes, jewellery and makeup, dumping them in a pile and setting it alight, Erika recalled.

Erika and her sister’s little shorts and trousers also went up in smoke, as girls were "not allowed to wear boys' clothing".

This marked what her mother called their "new life", which saw them leave the Dutch Reformed Church and trek on Sundays to KwaSizabantu, about 160km away.

This church was not her favourite place, and she was glad that they only had to go there once a week, she remembered.

Her mother had changed too, Erika said. The young academic achiever was no longer praised by Esther for doing well at school, or made to feel special anymore, because "God was the clever one".

"Slowly and insidiously, I shrank."

'Root of all wrongdoing'

The Bornman children moved into the dormitories of the mission in 1982 when her parents left for France to learn French to work as missionaries in French-speaking African countries.

Erika, only 10 at the time, said fear became her constant companion as kids were punished for the slightest misstep: talking to a boy, or back-chatting an adult. 

Erlo Stegen.
Reverend Erlo Stegen.

Among the teachings was that men were superior to women, who were decried as temptresses and the root of all wrongdoing.

"Patriarchy is alive and well," Bornman said.

Life at the mission was so traumatising that she started wetting her bed. She never told her parents about the abuse as she didn’t want her father who was on another continent to feel responsible for what was happening.

After their return, the family moved to Johannesburg in 1984. Her father Daniel had been employed by a mission unaffiliated to KwaSizabantu. But three years later, Erika and her parents returned after her father was asked to be the principal of the new multi-racial Domino Servite School the mission was establishing.

Her siblings stayed in Johannesburg as her brother was in matric and sister was studying at a local technicon.

'Straight to hell'

Daniel, whom his daughter idolised, succumbed to a heart attack before the school term had even started.

Erika recalled:

"When my father died, I was first taken to Erlo Stegen who told me I needed to confess my sins and repent. He convinced me that if I did not do so, I would never see my father again in the afterlife."

She was only allowed to see and be comforted by her mother after she had confessed.

Followers were each assigned a counsellor to whom they would have to confess their sins. This person would then pray for God to forgive you, as those who died with unconfessed sin went "straight to hell".

For a year after her father’s death, she didn’t confess her sins, Erika said. Her mother warned her that the school board had decided they would expel her and she would be kicked out of the house and the mission.

Erika said she chose a young married man as her councillor, the brother-in-law of one of the prominent leaders at the mission, whose intelligence and wit reminded her of her father.

Members of KwaSizabantu gather for a service.

His name was Muziwendoda Kunene.

Saga

Kunene, an IT consultant, would years later be implicated in the ANC's "hoax email" saga, implicating senior ANC members in a supposed conspiracy against Zuma, the ANC's deputy president at the time.

The saga involved hoax emails, made to look as if they had been written by senior political leaders, discrediting Zuma.

He was acquitted on these charges in 2009.

Kunene is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of KwaZulu-Natal estate agent Lynne Hume after he was convicted in 2009 alongside two co-accused.

He was also handed a 14-year sentence for the attempted murder of his son, who was to be to one of the State witnesses in his trial.

Mosebenziwenkosi Kunene was shot a month after Hume was killed.

Kunene maintains his innocence, saying he is in the process of preparing to appeal the judgment.

'He placed God's curse on my life'

During their counselling sessions, Erika recalled them speaking about history, of which he had an expansive knowledge, rather than the confessing of sins. But his intentions at some point turned sexual, she claimed.

"I had no knowledge of sexual interactions whatsoever, as we were not allowed any knowledge of this and our parents were barred from discussing this with us."

He would hug, kiss and later fondle her, she alleged. Naturally, her body started to respond to his affections, she said.

Suspecting she could be feeling lust, considered a "big sin" at KwaSizabantu, she told the counsellor who took her to Stegen to confess.

"Erlo told me I was a whore, slut and a Delilah and I was barred from having anything to do with my counsellor and his family. Erlo expressly forbade me to discuss this with anyone, including my mother."

Kunene nevertheless continued to call her – via his domestic worker - to see him, and she would comply because he was a "man of God" whom she had to obey, Erika said.

She was 20 years old when she left the mission to travel. She returned in 1992 and was again summoned and allegedly fondled by the former counsellor. She left KwaSizabantu and moved to an aunt, although she still attended church services.

"I was summoned by Stegen and asked if what I was doing was God’s will for my life. I replied I hadn’t consulted God on this and he then got very angry and placed God’s curse on my life."

A year later, she returned to the mission and told Stegen what had actually transpired between her and the counsellor, Erika said.

He said he was "horrified", Erika recalled, and told her the counsellor would be removed from his position and not allowed to have contact with unmarried girls.

Two weeks later she saw a newspaper article that suggested nothing had changed. She called Stegen who told her that he could not even remember their discussion, she said.

'Introduced terror into my life'

Erika’s mother is today a respected leader and committed follower of Stegen at the mission, which Erika said "introduced terror into my life".

"What I learnt there is that God is a malevolent being. He exacts retribution. They say he is a God of love, but that is not the God that they showed me there."

She added: "He is someone to be scared of. That is how they control people – they rule them through fear."

The first time she wore a pair of jeans after leaving the mission, she was convinced lightning would strike her as she walked through the streets of Pietermaritzburg. She had been taught that women wearing trousers were sinful.

"The whole structure is built on fear. Their culture is fear. I don’t think you can repair that without radical intervention," she said.

News24 approached the mission for comment on the allegations of women and girls being taught they were inferior to men and the "root of all wrongdoing".

Attempts were also made to obtain comment from Stegen on why no action was taken against Kunene after Erika reported to him what had allegedly happened with her counsellor.

Despite a detailed list of questions on each of the former members’ claims, KwaSizabantu in a blanket, unsigned statement said the various allegations "relate mostly to private family matters".

The mission said that it would "respect the privacy" of those involved.

Read the mission's full responses to News24 here: 'A smear campaign' - KwaSizabantu's response to raft of allegations

Kunene: 'That I didn’t do'

Kunene, who is serving his sentence at the Leeuwkop Correctional Centre in Sandton, in a phone interview denied that he had acted inappropriately with Erika, but said he had had an extramarital affair with another "white lady" at the mission.

"Do I know her [Erika]? Yes. But did I fondle and kiss her? That I didn’t do," he said.

KwaSizabantu
KwaSizabantu.

Kunene claimed that he was not her counsellor, as younger black men were not allowed to counsel white members.

But a number of former members denied this, arguing that KwaSizabantu had allowed this as it tried to promote an integrated "utopia".

Kunene nevertheless maintained his version, denying that he had ever done "anything improper to Erika Bornman".

"I would suggest if Erika really insisted, she should take me to court. Let's fight it there.

"Do I want to hurt her? No, I don’t. But if she persists, I will fight back."

While she wanted to see the mission closed down, Erika said she was mindful that it would affect hundreds of people whose lives and livelihoods revolve around KwaSizabantu, including her mother, sister and three nieces who live there.

"But there needs to be oversight and accountability. They have been above the law since the 1960s, acting with impunity and not answering to anyone.

"I have always maintained that in a place where so much evil is perpetrated, you cannot say that God’s work is being done."

Erika's mom responds from the pulpit

Erika's mother Esther declined to comment to News24.

However, just this month, Esther during a sermon preached about her two daughters - the eldest, who she said served God and was living with her husband and children at the mission, and the youngest, Erika, who "allowed a root of bitterness in her life that she did not deal with".

"And that root of bitterness grew so that eventually she could not stay any longer in the home. She could not stay any longer at KwaSizabantu, so she left," she said from the pulpit.

Bitterness has the "power of the lie within it", she preached, and after some years it "burst open into the media".

"But now it was so mixed with lies that one could see this bitterness has changed the perceptive of this daughter. It changed her so much she became a victim in her own mind... There was no responsibility that she had because of these circumstances.

"And in this victim mentality, because of the root of bitterness, lies were easily spoken."

Everything was "coloured with this bitterness", Esther said.

She in her sermon claimed Stegen's second-in-charge Lidia Dube, were being persecuted by the media, comparing it to women abuse.

"This smearing of her name, all these lies that have been told because of this bitterness, has only succeeded in bringing more glory on her face, the glory of God is seen on her face. Kindness has just deepened in her life. And gentleness. There is not a sign of darkness in her life."

'There are now too many of us to dismiss'

Bornman said she "knew at the outset that there would be a price to pay for helping to shine the spotlight on KSB".

"Even so, I didn't realise just how deeply it would hurt to witness my mother denouncing me from the pulpit. She has to, though, because how else could she justify her own behaviour, never mind the actions of KSB?"

She said she tried for years to repair the relationship with her mother, but to no avail.

"She has always maintained two things: I am bitter; and that we would meet at the cross or not at all. I've had only two proper conversations with my mother in recent years – in 2009 in Montagu and a few years later in Pretoria - and I told her both times that I have forgiven her.

"My one consolation is that I am not alone anymore. There are now too many of us to simply dismiss my story as that of a disgruntled child."

Do you have a KwaSizabantu story to tell? Email us at exodus@24.com.

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.
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