'We left him in the custody of KwaSizabantu' - family fears worst as man still missing 1 year later

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  • Edwin "Gerald" Subramani has been missing since 2 October 2019.
  • He was last seen at KwaSizabantu Mission's rehabilitation facility, where he had sought treatment for his alcoholism.
  • His brother insists he would not have run away, especially since he was an apprehensive and timid person who was about 70km from home.

When Edwin "Gerald" Subramani checked in to KwaSizabantu Mission's "spiritual needs" facility on 28 September 2019, he was content, eager to get the help he needed to fight his alcoholism at what his family believed was a rehabilitation centre.

His younger sibling, Mervin, remembers saying goodbye to him, giving him some words of encouragement and promising to contact him regularly during his 21-day stay.

READ | Cele denies being at KwaSizabantu after former member recalls seeing minister and 'his hat'

That was the last time he saw his brother. He went missing on 2 October 2019.

"We left Gerald in the custody of KwaSizabantu, and since he disappeared, they have shrugged their shoulders and say he jumped over a 1.8-metre wire perimeter fence," Mervin said.

"This is not possible because my brother is a small man. He is a lovely, kind gentleman, but he is not athletic."

Mervin has refused to believe that Gerald fled the facility as he had consented to being admitted to the mission's programme.

READ | KwaSizabantu: A first glimpse into how independent review panel will deal with abuse claims

Gerald's battle with alcoholism started about six years ago after the death of their father.

Edwin Subramani.
Edwin Subramani.
Edwin Subramani.

"They had had a very close relationship. He didn't take my father's passing well," Mervin said.

His drinking habits saw the unemployed maintenance man fall on hard times, resulting in Mervin financially supporting him.

READ | 'Some of that happened to me too' – journalist Sipho Hlongwane on growing up at KwaSizabantu

He recalled that when he had asked Gerald if we wanted to get professional support to help him beat his addiction, his brother had eagerly agreed.

"He wanted to be helped," Mervin insisted.

"The fact that it was a mission, a Christian facility, was the main reason I took him there."

Gerald, from New Guelderland in KwaZulu-Natal, was in a positive space when his loved ones booked him in a year ago, Mervin maintained.

On their way out, they had befriended a security officer to whom Mervin gave his phone number, asking him to "look after Gerald".

The last time he spoke to his brother on 30 September 2019, Mervin said Gerald had told him he was "doing okay".

"He said he was fine and I encouraged him, reminding him that he would be home in just under three weeks. I told him to give me a shout if he needed to talk and promised him I would pick him up the day he finished there.

"In my heart, I was happy. I was excited that he was at that place, getting better."

He never spoke to Gerald again.

"Days later, on October 2, we received a message from the security [guard] that he couldn't find my brother."

One of Gerald's sandals had been found outside the wire fence of the compound, and Mervin was told that Gerald had jumped over the fence during the night.

"Gerald is a [homebody] and a shy man. If he left the mission, he would make his way straight home," Mervin said.

"He knows he has a home and a family, that we would welcome him."

According to Mervin, his brother's clothes and belongings were in his room at KwaSizabantu.

He questioned why his brother would flee "wearing just one shoe" and without any of his possessions, including cash and his ID which he had handed in upon his admission.

For more than three months, the Subramanis had driven to the mission and surrounds, looking for Gerald.

The mission offered no help, Mervin said, and no one from KwaSizabantu had called the family to ask about their search for Gerald.

"Me, my family and friends were the only ones looking for him. No one from the mission ever came out and said, 'What can we do?' It was like an animal was lost, not a human."

Mervin insisted that his brother would not have run away, especially since he was an apprehensive and timid person who was about 70km from home.

"Right now, I am fearing the worst. It's a year since he went missing," he said.

Members of KwaSizabantu gather for a service. (Photo: ksb.org.za)

"We have no idea of his whereabouts. What we know is he was a quiet person who was struggling to quit alcohol only. Now he could be worse off somewhere, dead or alive – we don't know."

Police spokesperson Captain Nqobile Gwala confirmed that a missing person docket had been opened at the Kranskop police station.

"He is still being sought by police," she said.

News24 recently published claims of human rights abuses, impropriety, virginity testing, racism and patriarchy at the 50-year-old mission station in KwaZulu-Natal following a seven-month investigation.

It is now being investigated by the authorities, including police and a provincial government department.

The mission - which is also being probed by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission) and the KwaZulu-Natal social development department - labelled the claims against it "a smear campaign".

It has since said a review panel has been appointed to investigate the allegations.

In a statement following the exposé, KwaSizabantu said it had been running a programme for drug and alcohol abusers for more than 10 years, where it "offers free assistance, accommodation and food to over 18 500 addicts over the years".

This programme, however, is unregistered and has not made an application for registration as a treatment centre, KwaZulu-Natal social development department spokesperson Mhlaba Memela confirmed to News24.

Complaints of an illegal facility were received as far back as 2015, Memela said, resulting in officials travelling to the mission that year and again in 2018.

They were, however, not allowed into the compound, with officials being told that KwaSizabantu was private property.

The mission had also denied to the department that they were running a rehabilitation facility, calling it "a centre that dealt with the spiritual needs of clients for a period of 21 days".

Unregistered rehabilitation centres were against the law, Memela explained, citing the Prevention of and Treatment for Substance Abuse Act.

It states that no person may establish or manage any treatment centre "maintained for the treatment, rehabilitation and skills development of service users or in which such persons receive mainly physical, psychological, spiritual or social treatment unless such treatment centre is registered".

As part of the application process, the organisation, which has to be a legal entity, must include a copy of its constitution, a detailed treatment programme as well as a medical and psychiatric treatment policy, among other things.

The treatment of substance abuse requires the expertise of specialists like doctors and social workers who are experienced in dealing with addiction and the body's response to it, Memela said.

Tyronne Reyneke, who said he had already kicked his own drug habit months before, was sent to the rehabilitation facility after divulging his history of tik use when he joined the mission's Goldfields branch in January.

Tyronne Reyneke.
Tyronne Reyneke

He spent just more than three weeks at the rehabilitation facility, comprising a number of rooms which he likened to prison cells made up of about 40 "bug infested" beds.

Their days were always the same, Reyneke said - three meals and three services where they were simply told to confess their sins and change their ways.

He described it as an attempt to "pray away the addiction". According to him, KwaSizabantu "don't understand the first thing about it, that it's a mental thing".

"There was no doctor or social worker. You only had a spiritual counsellor to whom you had to tell your story. It wasn't even confidential because sometimes they would use what you said and make an example of you in the service."

He said people experiencing withdrawal were offered no assistance.

"I remember one guy in my room, he was about 13 years old and coming down from whoonga. He was in pain - moaning, aching, tossing and turning.

"They didn't help him. The guys who felt sorry for him took a Coke bottle and filled it with warm water to massage him to help with the cramps."

News24 approached KwaSizabantu for comment on the circumstances of Gerald Subramani's disappearance, its failure to inform his family that he was missing, as well as what effort, if any, was made to help the Subramanis find their loved one.

The mission's rehabilitation process was also queried, as well as the methods it uses to treat addicts seeking assistance.

KwaSizabantu did not respond by time of publication. Their comment will be added once received.

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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