Long Read | Part one: Growing up in KwaSizabantu

In the first of this highly personal, two-part series, Nontobeko Hlela tells the story of her early life and how she came to be a pupil at the KwaSizabantu mission school.

The evangelical KwaSizabantu Mission was founded in 1970 in rural KwaZulu-Natal. It has been accused of violence, human rights abuses, sexual assault, complicity with the security apparatus of the apartheid regime and financial mismangement in a News24 investigation.

Nontobeko Hlela was the head girl of the Domino Servite School at the mission in 1995 and this is her story.

I was born in 1978 to Jabu Hlela and Johnson Hlela. My mom had always been a “church girl”, she grew up Methodist. In 1978, when she was pregnant with me, she was invited by a friend of hers to a “revival”, a church service in a tent in the area of Sweetwaters in Pietermaritzburg, where my parents lived. 

She was mesmerised by the energy at the service and by the white man who spoke isiZulu. By the end of the revival, my mother had converted, become a born-again Christian and joined the KwaSizabantu Mission. 

My father would drive my mom to services and wait for her outside in the car, smoking his cigarettes. After some time, he got curious as to what was happening inside the tent and went in. And just like that, he also converted. 

He stopped smoking, dancing and singing. When he was younger, he used to sing and dance in an isicathamiya group. He would have friends over and they would sing and dance, and my older sister and brother would join in.

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By the time I was born, my family were already members of KwaSizabantu. The life of the mission was all and everything I knew. My earliest feelings are of fear, of not wanting to do anything to draw attention to myself, of not wanting to be bad, of having to always be mindful of what I did, who I spoke to and, especially, making sure that my actions did not reflect badly on my family and my mom.

Although my father converted later than my mom, he ended up being a major proponent of the mission and its biggest enforcer in the family. From the time I was a little child, life revolved around church. On Wednesday evenings there would be a church service in one of the homes of abazalwane (the brethren). On Sunday mornings from 11am, there would be the Sunday service either in my parents’ lounge or, when we moved house to Imbali, in the garage, which would have chairs set out on Sundays; in Claridge, the Pietermaritzburg outpost of the mission; or sometimes we would drive the hour and 45 minutes to the mission.

As a child, I didn’t mind going to the mission. It was an outing, albeit a long drive, and I liked the food that would be served in the dining hall afterwards. At some point we started attending the youth services at the mission that would be held for a week during the June and December school holidays.

The mission

KwaSizabantu was beautiful and tranquil. It had rolling green hills, dams and waterfalls. Gentle mist rolled over the meadows while cattle stood gently chewing the grass and soft, beautiful rain fell for an entire week at a time. 

Children from all across South Africa would descend on the mission. There would be buses and trucks and all sorts of vehicles spewing out excited young people who were coming for the first time, or those returning looking forward to seeing the friends they had last seen six months before. I liked going to the youth services because it was like a holiday, but with thousands of people there. The services were fun with all the singing and hand gestures led by Dubulile Zuma. She had an amazing voice.

5 October 2020: Rondavels at the KwaSizabantu Mission. (Photograph by Rogan Ward)

In those days there was no auditorium, so the services were held in massive tents. We slept in the big dormitories that each had three bunks. There was a smaller section, a passage, a big section that was double the size of the smaller section, another passage and then another smaller section. 

The bathrooms were separate, so you had to walk outside in the dark if you needed to go to the bathroom at night. My eldest sister and brother would also be there, so I didn’t feel alone as I was always following one of them around.

I didn’t really see my brother that much once we were at the mission, but my sister and her friends were there and they looked after me. 

One of my funniest memories from the youth services was when they preached about hell, and showed us the video of the song Thriller by Michael Jackson to show us demons and why we shouldn’t watch and listen to this “heathen music”. Instead, the entire tent erupted in song, singing Thriller, and they ended the film.

Banished from the family

I must have been around eight years old when I began to realise that there was something wrong with the church. My big brother, whom I adored, was expelled from home, or he left by himself in expectation of being expelled. He went into “exile” at the mission. 

When he was 16 years old, he made the neighbour’s daughter, whom he had been seeing in secret, pregnant. That was one of the worst sins you could commit, so, knowing this, he left school and exiled himself.

When my parents found out, my father was furious. It was the topic of conversation at home and a preaching point in the services for months to come. We were told we could not have any contact with my brother and that he was no longer part of our family. When the baby, my nephew, was born, we had moved to the new house in Imbali. But I remember that we once went back to Sweetwaters for a church service and I went to get the baby. 

I took the baby with me into the church and held him throughout the service. I could hear the hisses and whispers behind me from abazalwane because I had dared to bring that child of sin into the church service.

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During the school holidays in September 1987, we were at the mission as a family. On the Sunday after services, as we were driving home to Pietermaritzburg, my father pulled off to the side of the road somewhere near Kranskop, got out from the driver’s side, and came and opened the back of the bakkie.

He reached into the car, took my sister’s suitcase and put it on the side of the road. Then he reached in again and pulled at my sister. A cousin and I tried to pull her back and keep her in the car, we were screaming and crying and shouting at him to leave her alone. Eventually he pulled her out, closed the bakkie, got back in the driver’s seat and drove off. My mom never moved.

I later learnt that while we were at the mission, a boy had called on one of the internal phones at the kitchens asking for my sister. My sister never got to speak to this person, so she had no idea who it was or why they were calling her. But the person who answered the phone reported that a boy had called and this was enough for her to be abandoned on the side of the road, to be pulled out of school in standard 9 (grade 11) and to lose two years of her life. It changed the entire course of her life.

School switch

In 1988, when I was nine turning 10 and about to start standard 3 (grade 5), we were told that we would be going to Domino Servite School (DSS), the school at the mission. I didn’t want to leave home, to leave my mom and my friends, but it wasn’t a choice or a matter up for discussion. We were just told it was happening. 

My half-brother who was in high school at the time, my half-sister who was the same age as me and my younger brother, who is three years younger than me and would have been six turning seven, were all going to the mission school, together with a number of kids from the Maritzburg KSB (KwaSizabantu) branch. We were all put into my father’s bakkie with our storage trunks – I had a blue aluminium trunk – and our padkos for the road: homemade fried chicken, jeqe (steamed bread), and homemade biscuits. 

When we got to KwaSizabantu it was a very different vibe from before, when I had come for Sunday services and June or December youth services. There were fewer people there and I knew I wouldn’t be going home in a week’s time. By this time, the school had been running for two years. 

One of the first things I remember after we arrived at the school is being told to go to the school hall. When we got there, the co-workers – those who live and work there and are the backbone of the mission, the ones you go to for counselling – were going through a pile of clothes on the floor and telling us what was acceptable to wear and what wasn’t. I think Thofozi (Lidia Dube) was one of them, but more about her later. 

We were told that any clothes with logos and writing on them were “heathen people” clothes and not allowed. Logos such as Kappa (said to represent naked people), Apple (the half-eaten apple was said to be the sign of the devil) and D&G (said to be devil writing) were banned. We were not supposed to wear anything fashionable or of a fashionable length, ie above the knee or to your ankles. Girls’ dresses or skirts had to stop somewhere in the middle of the lower leg. Women wearing pants was not something that was even spoken about. It was taken as a given that girls would never dare to wear pants. 

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After this, the next traumatic event was being told that all the girls from standard 3 and upwards had to go to the Waiting Room. 

The Waiting Room was in a building to the left (when coming from the school) of the mission’s main road, and on the right is the airstrip, so any passing cars would see it, and people walking around the mission walked past it. There were the girls, the African girls, standing in a queue, waiting to go in one by one. When you walked into the small room, there were three old women that I had never seen in my life before. The air was filled with the smell of Savlon disinfectant. On the floor there was a small round dish with water and Savlon and a red cushion like a couch seat. 

Two of the women would be sitting on the couches and one standing. They would tell you to take off your panties and lie down, put your legs on the red cushion and open them. The woman who was standing would crouch over you and take hold of your labia and open you up, moving your lips this way and that. The other women would come closer, I guess to also look. I don’t know, I always closed my eyes. Then they would tell you to get dressed and tell the next girl to come in. 

This snake of girls would wind itself into the Waiting Room throughout the day, in the sun and the glare of the boys walking past and giggling because they knew what was going on. From then on, I knew what the Waiting Room was and dreaded the beginning of term, because it inevitably meant a visit to that building. Without fail, my one dear friend would be told that she had been naughty, ugangile, and her parents would be called to the mission. At nine years old, we were already being sexualised and being told sex was bad and sex is always the woman’s fault.

Interrogation and ‘punishment’

Every morning, school started with an assembly where a sermon would be preached. Each lesson started and ended with a prayer by the teacher. From the first year that I was there, the reign of fear was being implemented. We would be sitting in the classroom during the evening study session, which was from 6.30pm to 8.30pm every day except Saturday, when someone would pop in and say, “Standard 3 upwards is being called estezi esisha (the new double-storey building).” 

After the first time this happened, my heart would sink whenever we got the message that we were wanted in the new double-storey. The first time we went there, I had no idea what was going on. By the time the primary school kids got there, the high schoolers were already sitting there. 

Mr Alpheus Mdlalose, now deceased, and Mr Michael Ngubane were there. They were members of the school board and were almost always there for any disciplinary action being taken against the schoolkids. It appeared that there were some high schoolers that were having or were suspected of having a relationship and they were being interrogated about this. 

This was one of the cardinal sins for which you could be expelled from the school. This was stated in the school rules, which had been read to us: no relationships between boys and girls. At some point, the orange plumbing or electrical pipes came out and the kids were hit over and over again. A number of times some of the girls were told to strip down to their underwear in front of all of us and walk to the front of the room, lie down on their tummies and be beaten. The point of the interrogation and the “punishment” being conducted in front of practically the entire school was to instil fear in the rest of us, so that even if you were not involved or part of whatever was going on, you would think twice about doing a similar thing.

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Once at the school, I found out that my sister had been left on the side of the road in the sugar cane fields as a lesson. Apparently, my father had arranged with Mr Michael Dlamini, who was a co-worker at the mission, to go and pick her up afterwards. They had arranged to leave a 17-year-old girl on the side of the road to scare her and teach her a lesson. While I was at DSS and getting an education, my sister now living at the mission, was one of the serfs. As part of her punishment, she worked in the fields, looked after the chickens, cleaning their coops and slaughtering them, and made the jam that would be eaten at the mission and sold at the mission shop. 

Celimpilo Malinga and my sister were friends. One day, something was said at the school assembly about Celimpilo, ingane yomzalwane waseMaritzburg, (a brethren child, from Maritzburg) whose home the co-workers had been visiting, and a boy. I knew they were talking about my sister because there had been a group of co-workers that had been in Pietermaritzburg over the weekend, staying at my parents’ house. 

After school, my half-sister and I went to the mission to find my sister and we told her what had been said at school. She went to Thofozi, who was her counsellor, to find out what it was about and why they were talking about her at the school. Counsellors were the cornerstone of the mission’s attempt to enforce its ideology; they were the co-workers that all the congregants had to go to for confession. A congregant would either choose a co-worker to go to for confession or have one chosen for them. Regular confession was strongly encouraged, the frequency or lack thereof determined how holy you were.   

A few days later, I was surprised to see my father at the mission during term time, in the middle of the week. He called us to the rondavel where he was staying. When we got there, I got a talking-to and was given a beating for having spoken about “school matters” to my sister. He told me that he had had to apologise and seek forgiveness for me from the Mamas – the second-highest authority at the mission – as they were ready to expel me because of my actions. I was reminded again that I had to mind myself and behave in a Godly manner.  

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When I was in standard 4 (grade 6) in 1989, one of our subjects was health. Some of the kids in my class received new health books, while others received the old books. When they opened the new books, there was a drawing of a pregnant woman with labels. Kids being kids, they started showing each other the picture of the pregnant woman. Miss Wilson, who was our health teacher, came in and saw what the kids were doing. She grabbed all the books and took them away. When the books came back, all pages referring to anything to do with reproduction had been sealed together or redacted in black koki pen. 

During that same year, there was a netball match where the Under-18 girls, which we referred to as the Open girls, played against some of the female teachers and co-workers. From what I remember, the Open girls beat the teachers and we were all happy and that was that. The following day at school, Ms Bouwer, who was our Afrikaans teacher, and who was one of the teachers that had played in the netball match, came into the class. She had greeted us and said that only the boys responded, and the girls didn’t. She thought that we were being boastful because the girls’ team had won and we were laughing at her. We apologised and shouted out our greetings and thought the matter was done.

That night, we were in our dormitory when we were called to go to the school hall. I remember that I was already in my pyjamas and just put on a gown, as we were told that we didn’t have time to change. When we got to the school hall, the high school girls were already in the hall. What now, what had we done?

The interrogation started. We, the schoolgirls, were being disrespectful and boastful about winning the netball match. The orange pipes came out and we were beaten so many times, being passed from person to person. I remember one teacher, Mr Radebe, our Zulu teacher and later the deputy principal, giving me extra lashes because he knew my father.

That same year, I was reported by another child for being in a relationship with a boy because he was wearing one of my woollen gloves. My brother and I had received woollen winter gloves from my mom. I had red ones and my brother had navy ones. One day during break, he took one of mine and I had one of his, so we each had one blue and one red glove. At some point he gave one of the gloves to a friend of his, who wore it. It was assumed that we were in a relationship and this led to me being beaten and told to confess. 

I was also told that I could no longer participate in the choir because I was sinful and only people that were pure could sing in the school choir. For a month or more, I was one of the “naughty” kids that had to sit in a separate classroom while the choir was practising. At some point, under duress, I “confessed” that I was having a relationship with the boy. I think he was beaten again because of my confession.

A different life

I was in standard 4 when I met Monika Greef. Monsie or Mons was the eldest daughter of Oom Koos Greef, a co-worker at the mission, and Tante Estelle Stegen, the daughter of Uncle Friedel Stegen, the mission founder Uncle Erlo Stegen’s brother.

We were milling around before the bell went, waiting to go into morning assembly in the school hall. Monsie and I had hit it off almost immediately and we became lifelong friends. I loved going to Monsie’s house, it was my escape from the craziness of the school and the mission. On Saturday mornings after breakfast, I would go to their house when they still stayed in the rooms in one of the mission buildings and, later, when they moved to one of the houses on the other side of the airstrip. 

The house was beautiful, full of light, laughter and love. I had never seen a family interact like this, a father sitting with his family and laughing. There was no screaming. There was no fear or recriminations. It was strange for me to see the children playing with Oom Koos because I had never played with my father. 

If he wasn’t closeted in his room, we would only see my father when he came to reprimand us for some Christian omission we had committed. Or when he was standing in front of the congregation preaching, the same fire and brimstone and vision of a God to be feared that we heard at the mission. By this time, my father had become a trusted member of KwaSizabantu and was referred to as Baba Hlela from Maritzburg. 

I was drawn to the warmth, love and family that I saw in the Greef home. I watched Oom Koos intently, but I was also intensely scared and shy around him because I associated grown men and fathers with fear, sternness and recriminations. I think I have been trying to find, without success, an Oom Koos of my own ever since. But everything at KwaSizabantu was entwined with its ideology. I recently learnt that while still at the mission, Oom Koos was working with apartheid Military Intelligence.

5 October 2020: A view of the KwaSizabantu Mission, seen from a distance. (Photograph by Rogan Ward)

As the years rolled on, I learnt that I had to hold my cards close to my chest. I learnt that I couldn’t trust anyone as confiding in someone could land you in trouble. I learnt to say the right thing and to confess the right thing, because you could get a beating for confessing the wrong thing or the same thing over and over. I learnt to make up things to say, such as that I was thinking of a boy or having bad thoughts, so that every time I went for confession I would have a different sin to confess. They seemed to like that and then I wouldn’t get a hiding. 

My counsellor in primary school would sometimes beat me up in the old double-storey building, and then she would leave me there and switch off the lights. I would have to try and find my way, in the dark, out of the jumble of beds and mattresses that were stored there. 

When I got to high school, I was tired of all the beatings and making up stories. So I went to Ms Dorothy Newlands, who was then the principal, and asked her to be my counsellor. 

Life was easier for me with Ms Newlands as my counsellor. Yes, she was strict, but she was also sweet to me and treated me nicely. There were a few times when I made up stories with her, but it was normally because of something that had happened at the school when we were all in trouble for one thing or another. But generally, I didn’t mind going for counselling with her as we could just sit and talk and it didn’t have to be about sin, although I knew that I had to be seen to be confessing regularly.

A racial hierarchy

As a 10-year-old, I had intuitively realised that the white members of the church had significantly different and better lives than the majority of the black congregants, and were definitely better off than the black schoolchildren.

It was little things, like the fact that most of the white kids lived at home with their parents. Even the kids whose parents did not live at the mission did not stay in the big dormitories with us and were given special places in the mission accommodation. I think that is one of the reasons why I gravitated towards the Greefs and Ms Newlands, because my life was very different when I was with them.

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During the first few years that I was at Domino Servite School, my brother was still living there in exile. But a year or so later, he left for eSikhawini in northern KwaZulu-Natal, where he completed matric and found work. During this time, we were still not allowed to talk to or see him, despite the fact that he had paid his penance by staying at the mission and forfeiting his education. When he started living in eSikhawini, he would try to come home over the Christmas period like everyone else who would be trekking home. 

We would be so happy to see him and would sit around talking for hours. But as soon as my father got home, all that would change. He would start screaming, asking why my brother was there and berating my mom for letting him into the house. My brother was still not allowed to come home because of his sin of having fathered a child out of wedlock. My father would scream, “Get out!” We would be crying and screaming for my brother so stay. My mom stood silently or asking softly, “What sin has he committed that has never been committed by anybody else. Has he killed a man?” 

I hated Christmas time.

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