Erika Bornman is the author of Mission of malice, published by Penguin Random House. She has just been awarded the Dianne Casoni Award. It is an international award which aims to promote and reward written work which addresses one or more aspects of cultic phenomena or which deals with the various areas of intervention in cultic environments. The award was presented during the International Cultic Studies Association’s annual conference.
Izak de Vries spoke to her.
After this weekend, you can add “award-winning author” to your bio. Congratulations on winning the Diane Casoni Award. How does that feel?
I’m blown away and I feel so honoured. When I left KwaSizabantu back in 1993, there was very little support available to survivors of cultic and coercive groups. It was pre-internet days, too, so I was on my own and really struggled. Books saved me, however.
Today, it is wonderful to have an entire community who are creating resources – books and podcasts, documentaries – to help people heal from what they’ve experienced (and hopefully help stop others from joining high-control churches and groups).
Reading books that other survivors have written helped me so much to realise that I’m not crazy, I’m not evil. I’m not bad. This stuff has happened to others as well. And I am so unbelievably grateful that I’ve been able to publish my account of what happened to me and, in so doing, hopefully help aid understanding and healing in other people.
Getting this award from an organisation dedicated to raising awareness and helping survivors of cults is a singular honour.
Your title refers to KwaSizabantu (KSB), the mission where you grew up. Yet the book is full of humour, often at your expense. It is about the bumpy road you have walked to becoming human. Do you not relive the trauma every time you have to write and speak about the past again?
In many ways, yes. Though it gets easier with every retelling. It’s extremely hard the first time I speak about a certain incident, and then as I work through those emotions, it becomes easier to tell that part of my story. Therapy really helps – I would recommend anyone who has gone through trauma to find a trauma-informed therapist. (I’m lucky that my medical aid pays for 15 sessions a year for me.)
In order to survive, I basically had to pack up my entire past in boxes, seal them tightly and put them up in the attic. And that allowed me to survive, because in those first few years after leaving KSB, I was focused only on survival, and I couldn’t look at or deal with what had happened to me.
It took me almost three years to realise fully that what I had experienced and witnessed was abuse. Then, the more I became myself, the easier it became to go up into that dusty attic and occasionally open a box.
To write this book, I had to march up the stairs into that attic, bring down every damn box to the lounge and open them one by one, delving into their decades-old content. And I asked other survivors to do the same with their own attics full of boxes.
For two years, I sat and wept in my lounge for myself and for all the others who shared their stories with me. I’m surprised I still have any tears left.
Something I realised in therapy that helped me tremendously is that the shame I had owned for close to four decades belonged to them, not me. The shame of wetting my bed as a 10-year-old. The shame of being defiled by my religious counsellor. The shame of my mother disowning me. The shame of never being good enough. And now I can tell the stories with empathy for the little girl I was, but without the accompanying shame I felt for so many decades. That makes it a lot easier.
Also, I’m so happy you spotted the humour in the book! I’m such a Pollyanna, always seeing the bright side and the funny side. While a deep vein of sadness runs through me, I no longer tap into it as many times a day as before.
A number of investigations are underway into KSB. One is through the Rights Commission for Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities. Many others who, like you, have escaped, regularly contribute to the website KSB-alert. Your story was the impetus for a huge investigation by News24 that has led to the publication of Exodus: Uncovering a cult in KwaZulu-Natal. What would you say if people were to say: “That’s enough now. Grow up and move on with your life”?
Gosh, I’ve heard variations of that phrase so often in the past three decades. “Leave the past in the past.” I genuinely envy people who say things like that, because chances are good that they have never had traumatic experiences that shaped the rest of their lives. (Or they’re so deep in denial about their past that they’re projecting their need not to go up into their attic onto me.)
I absolutely can let go of the past, move on with my life. And I would, but for one stark fact: my past is still the present for the children growing up there.
Erlo Stegen, the founder who is on his deathbed now, always preached that you have to “shape” the spirit of a child by the age of three. In my day, they did that through instilling fear and punishment – beating young children, for example. They might not be beating children in the open anymore, but you will never convince me they’ve stopped tormenting children, turning them into obedient little beings with no will of their own.
My past is the terrifying reality for many children as you read these words. So, no, I’m not going to leave my past behind until it is no longer their present – or their future.
If I may quote from my book:
This desire to have people move on is typical of abusers. They want their victims to let it go already. No. We will not be moving on any time soon. And do you know why? Because without genuine remorse, without reparations to victims and without a stated intention to change behaviour, they will do it again when given the chance. Abusers stop abusing when under scrutiny. When the scrutiny goes away, they pick right up where they left off. And therefore the scrutiny cannot be lifted until they have been held fully accountable. Until they have publicly acknowledged how they abused people and how they covered up that abuse. How they knowingly allowed abusers to live among them, or quietly asked them to leave without protecting the most innocent among them.
You can tell I feel quite strongly about this, eh?
The book starts with a powerful metaphor. You’re asked to make a fruit salad, but you don’t know how. That fruit salad moment is such an amazing metaphor that I have wondered whether it really happened?
Oh, it happened exactly as described! In my twenties, especially, I had so many other fruit salad moments. Even today, my first instinct is to run and hide when faced with an entirely new situation. I don’t, of course, at least not often. So many other ex-members have written to me and told me about their fruit salad moments – including this reviewer who wrote about my book on LitNet. We all have them.
An-Mari do Carmo writes about this in her brilliant novel Toe als groen was, based on her experiences at KSB. She describes herself as a puzzle piece that has landed in the wrong box. (See the LitNet interview with Ami here.)
Many South African children have grown up in church communities where rules and discipline are more important than love. Many people of your age, men and women, had to be virgins when they got married, had to wear their hair in a certain manner, or weren’t allowed to wear clothes that weren’t approved. You speak very openly about these things, and then you focus on your own journey to a new life. Thousands of people would therefore identify, even though they weren’t at KSB, or am I missing the point?
You’ve hit the nail right on the head there. My experience may have been more extreme, but I think that many people can identify with the emotions and the sentiments of what I experienced. I’m thinking particularly of people from the LGBTQ+ community who have been scorned or even shunned by their families for being different, for not conforming to their norms. Or people who choose to “live in sin” and not marry, or get a divorce, or even people who choose not to have children when their family and their community and their church all have such high expectations and a particular mould you need to fit into.
My book resonates with people whose parents are more concerned about conformity than their children’s happiness. And then, of course, there’s my brief marriage to a man who used coercive control to mould me into the perfect obedient wife. Many women – and men – can identify with that aspect of my story, and how my very strict childhood, having to earn the approval and the love of the people who cared for me, actually primed me for abuse in my adult relationships.
Trauma in a school hostel is something that many South African children can identify with, even though everybody’s story is different. Did you ever speak to your dad about how bad it was?
No. And that is something I deeply regret. I asked my brother this question when I was writing my book, and he also said he never had. My sister and I don’t communicate, so I can’t ask her.
My silence had two sides to it. The first is that I had been indoctrinated to believe that KwaSizabantu was God’s will personified, so everything that happened there was God’s will. Also, I was never allowed to question my parents’ decisions, and since they left us there, I believed that they sanctioned everything that happened to us.
On the other hand, I also understood that my dad certainly would have been distressed had he known exactly how everything affected me and how full of fear I was.
People who grow up in total isolation from the outside world often behave as though they are immigrants in their own country when they enter the big wide world. Did you find that your time in England was better because you were among other immigrants?
Oh, wow. Yes, definitely. I was kind of out of place, but everybody else was, too, except, of course, for the British people. So, yes, what an astute observation. I recently listened to a podcast where the listener commented that it was as though they had to learn an entirely new language after leaving a cult, the language of the world. And that is so very true for me, too. I don’t think it’s possible to describe how unbelievably alien I felt. I didn’t belong and was sure I would never belong. I despaired often in the beginning that I would never figure it out. And lay awake at night, fearing that through my ignorance, there would always be some kind of misstep in every situation. That would show everybody else that I was a fraud. An imposter. And I shouldn’t be here at all.
As a much younger child, you did have some insight into life outside the mission. For example, you write about a visit to your parents in Europe as a rather positive experience. Did you sometimes, later on, begin to doubt your own memories of an existence outside the boundaries of your little world at KSB?
The outside world did become very unreal very quickly. Also, I’d hear on a daily basis how evil and bad the world was, and how absolutely fortunate I was to be given the opportunity to know what God really wants from us, and to “walk in the light”. And they would preach about people who had turned their backs on God (ie KSB) and the horrible ends they had met as a result. Struck by lightning. Died in a car crash. And they all had ended up in hell, of course. Hell was something very, very real to me. So, I ended up fearing the outside world while yearning for it. I had to keep my yearning a secret, though. I don’t find that particular mental torment easy to describe at all.
Réney Warrington wrote an entire novel, October, as a document for her sisters’ children, whom she loves terribly but whom she is not allowed to see. I see similarities with your sister’s children. Am I right?
Oh, man, my nieces. The third one, the youngest one, hadn’t even been born when my brother-in-law and my sister forbade me to have anything to do with them because they had to protect their children from Satan. (I’m evil because I chose to leave.) Words cannot express how intense my sadness is around my nieces. And the pain I feel for them – they know no other world.
In January this year, one got married. The other got engaged recently and is set to marry, too. Both marrying complete strangers. The first time they’re alone with their husbands is on the wedding night.
And think of the mindfuck when you’ve been taught your whole life that lust and sex are something to shun, and now it’s not only allowed, but you’re instructed to submit to your husband any time he wants it. My whole being rebels at the thought of what that first night might be like. And every subsequent night. But I’m projecting, of course.
While everything I do is for the children there, I fear that I can no longer save my nieces. But you know what? I can maybe save their as yet unborn children.
Let’s talk about sex. You write very openly about how you had to develop agency in sexual relationships. At times, it’s damn funny, like when you started blowing at the request for a blow job, but sometimes also sad – a beautiful, sexy young woman who does not know who she is and therefore does not dare to be herself. Suppose one of your sister’s children escapes and comes to stay with you, what will you teach her about sex?
If she’s anything like me, sex will be the last thing on her mind. But her ignorance will make her easy prey. Before I say anything to her about sex, I will discuss boundaries. I will have to teach her what personal boundaries are. Because, like me, hers would have been demolished as a child, and everything about her upbringing would have taught her that she is nothing. So, I can guarantee that she would have no concept of herself as being worthy of protection. She would have been taught to look out for others, especially men, at her own expense.
I will teach her how to say no. Especially to men. I will tell her that despite what she’s been told, she is not responsible for their actions, for their thoughts, for their desires.
I will show her that she can trust herself. And listen to that inner voice that she has had to silence. I’ll start easy. I’ll ask her, “Would you like brown bread or white? Pasta or rice?” And I’ll keep asking her until she can make the decision for herself, and not the decision that she thinks I want her to make.
And then, and only then, will I speak to her about sex (if she wants to). I will tell her that it is something beautiful and enjoyable and lovely and often quite funny, too. And that it’s okay to feel and have all those things. And then I’ll tell her about some of my experiences. And I’ll say to her that if she wants to avoid some of the pitfalls of her aunt, I recommend she takes it really, really slow, and that her first priority is to be comfortable in herself before she embarks on any kind of relationship with anybody. I’ll teach her a trick I learned, the body compass, that helps you to tune into your body for guidance when you’re in doubt. I will tell her that sex is not shameful, but that it is always her decision and her choice to do anything at all. She is in charge. She decides.
Many of our Afrikaans readers are familiar with Chanette Paul’s novel, Marilyn. It, too, is blatant about how women are oppressed when sex education is not honest and freely available. Her fictional character’s journey is rather similar to yours. Many people, especially men, say that sex education leads to immorality. What is your response to that?
Sex education does not lead to immorality! I feel very strongly about this! If I may quote from my book again?
Here’s the thing. Parents who think they are protecting their girl children by not teaching them about sex are actually leaving them wide open to exploitation. These parents, and they’re mostly super-religious people, teach their daughter that purity is the ideal state. Her understanding of what purity entails will vary depending on what they allow her to know. They also teach their daughter that she is inferior to men. They may not think that this is what they’re teaching her, but they are. Trust me on this.
She learns about her inferiority from watching her mother interact with her father. She learns it in their religious institution. She learns it from seeing how much more freedom boys have than girls. If she’s Christian, she learns it when female characters from the Bible are decried from the pulpit. Chances are, she has no agency over her body, and she’s not at liberty to decide what she wears.
Her purity is the prize. This is a message she hears repeatedly.
As long as she remains in their home with little or no access to the outside world and outside influences, her parents can probably keep her pure. Their aim is her purity and not her happiness, of course. They simply want to keep her pure until the day she marries.
What happens to her after she marries is not their concern – she’s allowed to be defiled by her husband, after all. Because it’s a union sanctioned by God, suddenly all the impurity is stripped from the act, and she’ll have to get with the programme. But she still has no agency and must submit to him whenever he wants her. Consent is not a concept here.
Her purity is the prize. She has to keep it at all costs. And yet she’ll constantly come up against men who want to take that prize from her. And men are her superiors, she has to give in to them in every other aspect in her life. Bow to their wisdom. Serve them first. Make sure they are happy. See the problem here?
Teaching young girls that they have agency over their own bodies is essential. And placing the onus on them to stay pure until marriage is just plain stupid. You cannot teach a girl that men are in control and also expect her to remain pure. Because there are men who do not want her to remain pure, I can guarantee you that. And, unless you lock that young girl up until she gets married, how will you protect her?
You protect her by educating her. You protect her by enabling her to make the right choices. You protect her by giving her rights and teaching her that she owns those rights.
Until hours before his death, your father was still extremely excited about his dream of a raceless society that could supposedly be created during the apartheid years, only to find that his dream was not what KSB’s leaders had in mind. What do you think your father would have done for you and the rest of the family had he stayed alive?
I have wondered about this so often. In my daydreams, he puts us in the car and he drives away and he finds a job as a teacher. He was such a brilliant teacher.
For many years, I actually felt quite responsible for my dad’s death, as crazy as that might sound. Here’s something I wrote more than two decades ago about this very thing:
how could you do that to me daddy
I was your poplap
your sunshine child
yet you left me in the very heart of darkness itself
when you chose life
I protected you
from the knowledge of what they had done to me
but the day you died
I knew it was me
who had killed you with my silence
I don’t blame myself anymore, of course. But it’s still a very, very sore, sensitive point. And it’s something I’m never going to know: had I told him, what would have happened? Would he have protected me, protected us, and taken us away from there? Or would he have somehow found a way to justify it all? And that’s a road I don’t want to walk down. My dad’s my hero. I don’t want to think that he might have willingly allowed us to endure abuse. So, I don’t really know where to go with that and simply tend not to ponder it too often.
I don’t think my mother would have left, and they would have probably divorced. In my daydream, I was given a choice, and I chose to be with my dad. The only time KSB is okay with divorce is when the one spouse leaves and there are children involved. KSB helps the spouse who remains to make it extremely difficult for the spouse who has left, to see their children. And this is still happening today, by the way; there are cases happening as I write this, where the husband who has left is kept from seeing his children.
Ag, man, now I’m crying. But I’m not scared of tears, and I never apologise for them either. Never. And whenever I’m with someone and they start crying and then say, “Sorry,” I tell them that I don’t believe that anyone ever needs to apologise for their tears. Whoever caused those tears is the one who should be begging forgiveness instead.
Jy was jou pa se kurkproppie. Your dad often referred to you as being like a piece of cork that would always resurface, no matter what. It is such a lovely metaphor. I think your dad would burst with pride had he been able to see you today – a prize-winning author, nogal! Look at yourself in a mirror. Who do you see when a 50-year-old kurkproppie stares back at you?
Whew, it’s so hard to let go of being so hard on myself. When I look in the mirror, I still see somebody who could do better. But I also look at myself and I’m so unbelievably proud of what I’ve done. Because I do believe that all this hardship I’ve gone through, writing this book, will mean just a little less hardship for someone else.
I turned 50 a week before my book was released. And I realised that for the first time in my life, I actually like myself. I like Erika. I’m still working on loving Erika. Baby steps.
KwaSizabantu. It is a lovely Zulu word. Kwa (the place), siza (to help), bantu (people). The place which helps people. For many good reasons, you are critical of the present leadership of KSB. Let’s play a game. Make a wish and place you yourself in charge of KSB. We give you carte blanche to use the land, all the money, the school, the factory selling bottled water, all and everything of it, as you wish. What would Erika Bornman do if she were to be given the opportunity to run the place that is supposed to help people?
Oh, from your mouth to God’s ears (yes, the God I don’t believe exists!).
Let’s take the school first. The first thing I would do is suspend all the teachers. Every single one of them. The second thing I would do is gather all the children and tell them they can do whatever they want with their hair. Black children there have to shave their heads; they are not allowed braids or anything else. I’ll tell them they can wear jeans if they like. And I’ll give them age-appropriate access to content: firstly online, but I’ll also buy them TVs and subscriptions to various streaming services – again, age-appropriate ones.
I would stop Radio Khwezi from broadcasting, but pay all staff while they’re suspended.
Secondly, I would put a stop to the profits of aQuellé and the farming operations being funnelled directly into KwaSizabantu’s coffers and direct them into a trust. I’d also immediately triple all the salaries of the many workers who are on minimum wage and give them all a huge bonus (except possibly the managers).
Then I would appoint an enquiry consisting of social workers, psychologists and lawyers to do a comprehensive audit of everyone who has ever lived there and left – thousands of people, and all over the world. People who left or were forced to leave – many of those left with absolutely nothing. Children who had their schooling curtailed because there were stupid infractions of stupid rules. Workers who were fired. Workers who retired without a cent to their names.
The panel would evaluate every single case and establish the harm that has been done, then decide on a reparation amount. Even the people who are active members there now (and, in my view, doing more harm than good) also deserve recompense. Even if some of them should be in prison, again in my opinion. Two things can be true at the same time.
Then I would give past and current workers shares in the many business ventures.
I would completely divorce the businesses from the church. The workers who are keen can get whatever training they require to come back and run operations – until then, experts will keep the businesses going.
I would not remove children from their parents necessarily, but I would have experts speak to every single child there to ensure their safety; these experts would have to understand indoctrination. And I would put cameras in every single home that has children, so that the parents know they’re being monitored – for their words and actions. (Not sure what to do about bathrooms, but possibly have a camera trained on the door with strict instructions that parents may not enter the bathroom with their child. That wouldn’t work for the little ones and babies, of course, so experts would have to weigh in on how we could make sure each and every child is protected from harm.)
And then I would bring in someone like advocate Gerrie Nel and have him put together a prosecuting team to work alongside the panel of reparations experts. They would be tasked to build cases against every single alleged perpetrator of abuse who is still alive – bearing in mind that many of the people who are adults there now were once children there. Not all children who are abused grow up to be abusers (case in point: me!), but there has to be some leniency for the coercive control they experienced from birth. Dr Janja Lalich calls it bounded choice (do read her book by that name – and every other book she’s written).
As for the church, and seeing that I’m the one with carte blanche, I would close it and then speak to the community surrounding the compound, who mostly live in poverty, what they would like to see happening with the church facilities. Turn it into a huge sport centre for youth, or something.
And then, on the seventh day, I would rest. And I’d be able to sleep better than I have ever slept, because I would know that each child there is now as safe as I can possibly make them be.