Mission of malice by Erika Bornman: A reader impression

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Title: Mission of malice: My exodus from KwaSizabantu
Author: Erika Bornman
ISBN: 9781776096237
Publisher: Penguin

This reader impression was written and sent to LitNet on the writer's own initiative.

Mission of malice seems to be written with two explicit purposes in mind: to chronicle the journey of the author in a standard autobiographical form, and to shine a bright spotlight on a Christian organisation with an interesting past. KwaSizabantu is a mission station in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, founded in the early 1970s by Erlo Stegen. The name, ironically, means “the place where people are helped” in Zulu. Its inception was the result of an alleged revival which took place among the Zulus, and it eventually grew to become one of the largest mission stations on the African continent. It now houses a school, a training college for teachers, various agricultural pursuits and the well-known aQuellé water company. Investigations against the mission are currently under way, as allegations have mounted. These include allegations of human rights violations and various forms of alleged psychological and spiritual misconduct typically associated with cults.

Given the ongoing nature of the investigations, Bornman’s book is a timely and substantial contribution to the numerous stories which have emerged over the last year. Her efforts, aided by a dedicated team from News24, have finally provoked an investigative response from the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities. Her background in writing and editing is apparent. This book is engaging, superbly written and among the best of its kind in chronicling a story of resilience in the face of cultic oppression.

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Despite the title, the main subject is Erika Bornman herself. She emerges as a courageous but self-admittedly flawed heroine who navigates her way through a life in which fate seems to conspire against her almost every step of the way.

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Despite the title, the main subject is Erika Bornman herself. She emerges as a courageous but self-admittedly flawed heroine who navigates her way through a life in which fate seems to conspire against her almost every step of the way. Fate, in this case, is aided greatly by the religious organisation which the author found herself subjected to during most of her formative years.

Bornman’s honesty about herself and her experiences is poignant and intimate – almost like having access to a private journal which I had to remind myself I had permission to read. Her transparency, humility and openness stand in stark contrast to the secrecy and obfuscation we have now come to see are KwaSizabantu’s default modus operandi. Given the very likely probability that this book could be weaponised against her by the mission and perhaps her family, one has the impression that her courage involves no small amount of sacrifice.

The book is structured in six parts, chronicling Bornman’s life from early childhood until the present day. The table of contents immediately made me chuckle, as some of the chapter titles seem to be deliberately provocative: “A heathen in jeans”, “The big O” and “Whore”, to name a few. Gratefully, it seems KwaSizabantu did not extinguish the author’s cheekiness entirely. It made me speculate whether some of the titles were chosen in part to shock members of the mission, should they be brave enough to engage with the book.

Reading the prologue, I was surprised at the strong visceral reaction I had as Bornman describes an emotionally traumatic event which was triggered by the simple act of being asked to make a fruit salad. The scene serves as a microcosm to highlight the devastating long-term psychological effects inflicted by her upbringing: anxiety, depression, scrupulosity and imposter syndrome. As I am a former member of the group myself, the scene resonated with me deeply. I believe that most children who grew up under KwaSizabantu’s influence have had their fair share of “fruit salad” moments in their lives.

Part one (“The shadow child”) and part two (“The shrinking teenager”) focus on Bornman’s youth and read like a modern-day Shakespearean tragedy. Numerous calamities which occurred during these formative years are recounted: her relocation to KwaSizabantu, the death of her father, her sexual grooming at the hands of a mission co-worker, health struggles and the rejection by her family (with the exception of her brother, to whom the book is dedicated). It seems, after all, that it is in the crucibles of life that most heroes and heroines are forged.

Bornman’s initial description of the natural beauty surrounding the mission, combined with the ominous title of the book, brought a sense of unease – not unlike the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s The shining, in which lush natural imagery is underscored by the ominous “Dies Irae” to create a sense of foreboding. There is, it seems to suggest, a similarly sinister undercurrent to this mission station perched among so much beauty.

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I must confess that due to my personal acquaintance with KwaSizabantu, some of Bornman’s descriptions of the mission’s policies may have lost their shock factor for me slightly – specifically, the severity of the punishments and the treatment of members, particularly children.
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I must confess that due to my personal acquaintance with KwaSizabantu, some of Bornman’s descriptions of the mission’s policies may have lost their shock factor for me slightly – specifically, the severity of the punishments and the treatment of members, particularly children. I can only imagine what it will be like for the unfamiliar reader to encounter these aspects of life at this mission for the first time. But these elements of KwaSizabantu are shocking: eternal damnation colouring every part of life, a culture of fear and vindictiveness, and stories of alleged physical and psychological abuse – most disturbingly, beatings, virginity testing of young Zulu girls, and traumatising films shown to children. What is particularly commendable is the author’s ability to convey succinctly some of the intricacies of the organisation’s belief system to the uninformed reader. A good example of this is her description of the numerous laws that govern dating, courtship and marriage.

Bornman’s sexual grooming at the hands of a mission co-worker and the subsequent handling (or perhaps more accurately, mishandling) of this by the leadership of the mission is heartbreaking. It is also indicative of the alleged culture of misogyny and disregard for the safety of their most vulnerable members. (As an aside, it is perhaps for this reason that KwaSizabantu has so vehemently attempted to discredit Bornman’s account in their recent press statements.) Additionally, her guilt as she describes being coerced into administering hidings to her school students is difficult to read. One cannot help but feel a sense of anger at an organisation that would force a young lady to violate her conscience and leave her with lifelong regret as a result. It brought to mind an interview with Mark Phelps (son of the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps), in which he describes participating in the punishment of his younger siblings. In the interview, he is still visibly wracked by guilt and regret over the actions his father demanded from him. This is, tragically, the power of religion gone wrong. It leaves the victims with lifelong guilt when they merely do what they must to survive, while the real culprits deny all culpability.

Part three (“The uneasy mimic”) focuses on Bornman’s life post-KwaSizabantu. We follow her journey to try and integrate into mainstream society while being shunned by the place that was formerly her home. Her attempts to overcome the past are marked by ongoing physical and psychological symptoms as she navigates the real world. It is initially a strange world, which includes dressing in normal clothing, work, dating and sex. Discussions of this type are often woefully neglected when dealing with the topic of cults and sectarian religious groups. Too many have the misconception that the worst is over once the group in question has been escaped. Bornman is at times brutally (and hilariously!) honest about the highs and lows of her young adulthood as she attempts to forge a future while processing the past.

Part four (“The wounded whistleblower”), part five (“The resolute runaway”) and part six (“The awakened activist”) cover Bornman’s journey as an author and activist attempting to bring public awareness to the happenings at KwaSizabantu. This culminates in the events leading to the award-winning Exodus exposé by News24, which consists of a documentary, a podcast series and numerous articles. I highly recommend taking the time to explore them. Equally fascinating is the recounting of the response by the mission. This is particularly pertinent, as the investigation into the allegations against them is currently ongoing.

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Interspersed throughout these three parts of the book are anecdotes of interactions between Bornman and current members of KwaSizabantu, including her own family. I found these interactions, both private and public, to be among the most interesting from a psychological perspective.
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Interspersed throughout these three parts of the book are anecdotes of interactions between Bornman and current members of KwaSizabantu, including her own family. I found these interactions, both private and public, to be among the most interesting from a psychological perspective. Bornman has an uncanny ability to avoid sugar-coating the true horror of the treatment she received (and continues to receive) at the hands of her family, while managing to convey to the reader a sense of sympathy for them. After all, they are merely victims of the same machine. Her fondness for her family is particularly expressed in a touching chapter (chapter 56: “The ache that won’t go away”) in which she shares the pieces of classical music she associates with each family member. As a composer, I found this excerpt from the book very moving, particularly as it becomes clear that her love of music stems from the influence of her father in childhood.

I highly recommend Mission of malice to anyone who is interested in KwaSizabantu and the influence of cultic religious groups on individuals. It is timely, moving, heartfelt, tragic, yet inspiring. Ultimately, it is a story about survival and the resilience of the human spirit. Bornman embodies both the fragility and the tenacity of a cult survivor. What is particularly remarkable about the book is the fact that it avoids the tone of a personal vendetta against the people who harmed her. I sincerely believe that the author’s main intention in writing is to prevent other children experiencing the horror that she and so many others had to endure. In chapter 55 (“London calling”), she writes:

I like to think that if I were an animal, I’d be a lion (I’m a Leo and a cat lover and I’m from Africa). Fierce and proud, protective of her young, and also playful. The reality is that I’m probably more like an ostrich. All that burying my head in the sand ….

I would humbly venture to disagree with this self-assessment. Ostriches do not write books to expose multimillion dollar organisations at great personal cost. KwaSizabantu has made the mistake of underestimating the anxious little girl who was thrust into their ranks many years ago. Little girls grow into strong women. Cubs turn into fierce lions. And this one is roaring very loudly, indeed. It is time for the authorities and the public to take the appropriate steps to bring justice to the victims and ensure that the alleged cycle of abuse finally stops.

See also:

Devilsdorp: Mystery and suspense cleverly maintained

In gesprek met Jana Marx oor rekordslaner Devilsdorp

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