Intelligence structures failed to raise the alarm about what was happening at the notorious Seven Angels Ministry Church in Ngcobo, where 13 people were killed in one week in February, Deputy President David Mabuza admitted to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) on Wednesday.
He said the government did not suspect that there were criminal activities at the church, which locals have described as a cult.
Asked if that meant that South African intelligence structures had failed the country, Mabuza said: "Yes, there was a failure there."
"There was a failure to detect what was happening behind the church [walls]," he said. "Intelligence structures should have warned us.
"The fact of the matter is criminality has invaded the church," he added.
He expressed concern about this as the "church was regarded as our backbone as a nation".
Earlier during the question session – his first in NCOP as the deputy president - he spent much time on corruption at state-owned enterprises. He was also asked about the farewell party for former Free State premier and ANC secretary general Ace Magashule, and the ongoing land question.
News24 reported on Tuesday that the Free State government instructed all government officials to abandon their posts on Wednesday to bid farewell to Magashule and welcome the new premier, Sisi Ntombela. It is claimed that R20m from state coffers would be used to fund the shindig.
Mabuza said it was "correct to raise concerns about this matter of a farewell party".
"As leaders, we must use the very little resources we have correctly," he said.
Mabuza, who himself had to be replaced as Mpumalanga premier when he was appointed deputy president, said he will enquire about the matter.
"I'm here. I didn't have a party at home, but I'm still surviving because we didn't have money."
He said he would "persuade them to use money sparingly".
The land question
While addressing the land issue, Mabuza said communal land was held by traditional leaders on behalf of the people and traditional leaders can't sell this land.
DA MP Jacques Julius then referred to a case where Mabuza, then agriculture MEC, was involved in a land deal. The case was later withdrawn by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).
"You are referring to a case that was put before the NPA and withdrawn," said Mabuza. "You want me – me! – to come forward and clear myself? No! It's the other way…" he said.
He said he was MEC then, now he is deputy president, and he is still accountable.
In what has quickly become a refrain during the two question sessions Mabuza had in Parliament - one in the National Assembly and the other in the NCOP - he challenged an accuser to lay a charge at the police rather than expecting him to answer questions on it.
"Anybody who alleges anything about me… you have the right to open a case.
"I'm not shy about what I've done because I've protected the rights of our people."
He said there has been much consultation with traditional leaders about land reform and that engagement with stakeholders would continue.
"Our white compatriots must not be scared about this," he said.
"We can no longer afford to postpone this question. It must be answered now and here.
"As a nation, there are certain things that bind us together. We must be careful not to break those bands."