TRAUMATIC: Residents of Ngcobo gather outside the premises of the Mancoba Seven Angels Ministries Church. Many people had escaped from the church to the mountain in the background following a police raid. Picture: I’solezwe lesiXhosa/African News Agency (ANA)
Insecurity, lack of identity, desperation, a high unemployment rate, the collapse of morals and the rise of hedonism.

These are some of the triggers believed to be the reason some people engage in cultism.

The recent killing of police officers in Ngcobo, Eastern Cape, by members of what was believed to be a cult left many in shock. Five officers and a soldier were killed by members of the Mancoba Seven Angels Ministry, which many said was a cult.

When other members of the church were killed during a shootout with the police, social workers and police removed 18 children, following reports that they were being prevented from attending school.

It was also reported that older members were forbidden from working. The church leaders allegedly saw themselves as angels sent by God.

Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities chairperson Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva described the situation now with regard to churches that have turned into cults as “a state of emergency”.

Professor Maria Frahm-Arp, of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Johannesburg, said cult movements had been around as long as people, and could be defined in a variety of ways.

“It is difficult to define when one is a legitimate prophet or when someone is abusing people. But when a religious movement gives life, it is good; only if it destroys people’s relationships will it be it a cult.” she said.

Frahm-Arp also argued that cults were centred on one charismatic leader, while “a religion can be described as an organisation that is brought together by religious beliefs or philosophical ideas”.

“People who get themselves into cults are not stupid and gullible, but they are more than willing to do extraordinary things for prosperity. They end up eating snakes and grass hoping that God will answer their prayers quickly,” said Frahm-Arp.

She also said cults were not always religious, saying there were Doomsday cults, who believe that the world is ending and Jesus is coming.

Destructive cults, she said, were centred on the idea that whatever was bad in society needed to be destroyed, and if something was wrong with people, they had to be destroyed too.

Political cults, for example Isis, were very inspired while racist cults, such as the Ku Klux Klan, focused on racial supremacy, she said.

“Polygamous cults believe that it is okay to marry more than one partner.

“Central to cults is the idea of disenfranchisement. It is not only economical, political or gender based, it can be all of this,” said Frahm-Arp.

According to her, these are some signs of cults:

* Opposed to critical thinking.

* Isolate members and penalise them for leaving.

* Emphasise special doctrine.

* Seek very inappropriate loyalty to their leaders.

* Dishonour family units.

* Separation from what is known as the mainline orthodoxy of that religion.

In response to why there are many cults in South Africa, Frahm-Arp argued that desperation, unemployment, the institutionalisation of poverty, the collapse of morals and the rise of hedonism were the main causes.

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“People are in quest of prosperity. They join cults and use unorthodox ways to improve their lives.

“They end up doing sexually provocative things, very often with the pastor, drinking petrol to expel evil, eating grass and snakes to be blessed.

“Young people, especially women, get to a stage of giving up everything they have, wanting to gain more.

“Youth unemployment was 52% at the end of 2017 - young people are desperate, they are economically disenfranchised.

“The education they are getting is not giving them jobs, nothing is going to change to get them a job except a miracle,” she said.

“People are not stupid, they are strategic, but life is complex, so in desperate situations they will make strategic decisions to try to make the impossible possible.

“If everyone in your village is not employed, what hope do you have to be employed except through a miracle, for your prayers to be heard better than the next person? You feel you have to do extraordinary things so that God can see the depth of your seriousness.

“This is not being stupid or gullible but desperate and searching for answers,” she added.

Frahm-Arp suggested that the youth empower themselves so that when they engage with someone, they can discern what they are being led into.

Dr Alex Asakitipi of the International Union of Psychology said the public must engage with the media to create awareness.

He also said the youth needed to grab every opportunity to make their voice heard, to stand up and fight problems that have befallen society.

Agnes*, who was part of a cult operating as a church, said she fell prey to it at a time when she was trying to secure a job and find a life partner.

“I was introduced to this church through a friend who seemed to be doing well in her life.

“I attended two church services and * got myself a job through one of the church members, and they promised me several other things.

“The problem came when * got my first salary and the pastor said I should surrender all my salary to God as first fruits because he gave me the job. Failing to do that, everything that God had given me, including my health, would be taken away from me,” said Agnes.

Dr Sathasivan Cooper, vice-president of the International Social Science Council and president of the International Union of Psychological Science, said people were engaging in cults because they had lost identity - they wanted adulation.

“Mediocrity and self-service are the cause of this. Human beings are complex beings.

“There is little known of people who start a cult. They have become redundant. Value that brings us together has been replaced,” he added.

Cooper suggested that religious bodies must organise themselves and come up with some sort of peer-evaluation committee because peers were the ones who know the ins and outs of their practices. He said it was not the CRL Commission’s prerogative to set up such a body; it could play an oversight role in the committee.

“These structures need to be made available to the public so that they know where to go to find answers.

“Cult movements emerge when people feel disadvantaged, so dealing with issues that make people feel disadvantaged is of prime importance.”

According to Dr Somadoda Fikeni, a political analyst, there is talk about state capture, “but we have not talked about church capture, because in essence that is what has happened, where people have to suspend their thinking and it is now being outsourced to this one person”.

Fikeni suggested that there should be an early-warning system put in place that would assist people to detect these signs “before things turn bad”.

* Not her real name

The Star