Religious cult recruits SA students
The Independent (South Africa), 26 April 2000.
Authorities, families and theologians are worried that a controversial international cult – outlawed from several UK and US universities for its alleged “brainwashing” tactics, aggressive proselytising, demanding cash and splitting families – is recruiting vulnerable youngsters on Cape Town and upcountry campuses.
The International Churches of Christ (ICC) is banned from at least one South African university and is being investigated by others after increasing complaints from ex-members, worried students and parents, psychologists and traditional Christian church organisations.
UCT’s religious affairs spokesperson Wilma Jacobs confirmed the ICC’s bid to become an official campus society had been vigorously blocked by worried parents, students, staff and theologians.
UCT’s YMCA exposed the ICC last year but were heckled by ICC recruits when they tried to expose their activities at a society meeting.
The Rand Afrikaans University in Johannesburg banned them in 1999 after receiving complaints.
The University of Pretoria conducted an investigation into the ICC last year. Campus priest Willem Nicol said: “The ICC must be exposed. We didn’t ban them simply because we did not want to give them publicity. They are a dangerous cult and youngsters need to be protected because they are not allowed to leave once they join. ”
The ICC – not to be confused with the mainstream “Church of Christ” which has several congregations in South Africa – is accused by a growing number of concerned parties, including specialist “mind control” therapists, of high-pressure, manipulative tactics unbecoming of its charitable and religious claims.
The ICC boasts on its website of being active at Parow High School, UCT, UWC and the Cape Technikon.
The ICC’s Cape Town branch holds weekly after-hours services at Groote Schuur Primary School in Rondebosch and Parow High School, attended by up to 400 people, Parow High School principal Willem Smith confirmed.
But he expressed shock at the ICC’s alleged tactics. “They pay their rent for services every Wednesday and Sunday and cause no visible problems as far as I know. They are not to my knowledge recruiting our pupils. We will be reviewing this agreement after conducting an investigation.”
The self-styled leader of the ICC’s Cape Town branch, “evangelist” Werner Vos, a 26-year-old student of Xhosa at UCT, admitted some members had “got hurt by other members” and left, and “mistakes have been made”.
Vos said membership in Cape Town had grown from 160 to 400 since 1995. But recruitment had been “difficult recently” he added. The nationwide figure is over 2000 – internationally it is 160,000.
Vos said proselytising, tithing, baptism, and marrying only ICC members were compulsory “otherwise you go to hell”.
At first Vos denied trying to convert strangers, saying he only approached friends and neighbours. But he admitted later that he often converts “anyone, anytime – I just say ‘Hi, would you like to study the bible with us?’ ”
He said ICC viewed homosexuality as a sin, as was smoking, divorce (except “biblical divorce” – meaning only if your partner was adulterous), drunkenness, drug abuse, sex outside marriage and not being devoted to God. “You will go to hell if you sin,” Vos said. “There is no compromise, and we preach that.”
He added: “The international media and others lie about us. We are the only church that preaches the Bible. All others such as Catholics and Dutch Reformed are wrong. They don’t know the Bible and are not biblical Christians like us.”
Japie Grobler, chairperson of the SA Cult and Evangelisation Centre at Edleen in Gauteng, warned parents to beware if their college or matric-age children developed a sudden interest in Christian fundamentalism.
Grobler said: “The ICC picks on vulnerable types, away from home for the first time, perhaps lonely, friendless, feeling under pressure, depressed or looking for an interest or answers to life.”
He added the situation was particularly serious following the recent tragedy that left some 900 members of a Ugandan doomsday cult dead. “There has been a worldwide increase in cults due to the Millennium,” he said. “The ICC is much more than so-called happy-clappy churches. The ICC is sinister and dangerous.”
Dr Riennie Venter, a psychologist at Unisa in Pretoria and author of a doctorate on mind control techniques used by cults, said: “The ICC is becoming a bigger and bigger threat in South Africa. I have several ex-members on my books. I am very interested in how they operate. They have ruined lives and split families.”
She said one of her patients developed serious eating disorders and “avoidance”, or pathological shyness, symptoms after joining the ICC.
“She is very intelligent with an honours degree in psychology but became very traumatised and unstable, especially after the ICC told her that the eating disorders she developed after joining them, which included bulimia and anorexia, were serious sins,” Venter said. “They forced her out because of these so-called sins.”
An ICC spokesperson confirmed that “anything that harms your body is a sin”.
The mother of a 25-year-old Pietersburg graduate who was recruited at the University of Pretoria said: “I do not want to be identified because I am frightened of them (the ICC). They tried to control everything in his life and told him to leave his family.”
A priest at the Dutch Reformed Church in Bloemfontein said he was so alarmed at his 23-year-old son’s membership of the ICC in Pretoria that he called Grobler. “Although I am pleased he loves God and Jesus, I do not want him associated with this cult,” he said.
Catherine Hampton of the US-based “cult-busters” REVEAL (Research, Examine, Verify, Educate, Assist, Liberate) said the techniques used by the ICC were the same in South Africa as in Britain, America, Australia and Canada where they are accused of mind control, splitting up families, bullying, demanding tithes and ruining young lives.
In London, ICC members befriended potential recruits on the tubelines or in the streets and invited them to parties that become casual bible study sessions.
The ICC trained recruiters to spot “vulnerable” foreigners, out-of-towners, students or ethnic minorities. Then they “love-bomb” them with affection, creating a false sense of security and bonding or “group belonging”.
After persuading new recruits to move in with other members in communal homes, they are told to hand over 10 percent of student grants or incomes from jobs or families, claiming the bible commands this.
After being convinced of the ICC’s sincerity, recruits are told any “sins” result in “eternal damnation in hell”. They are sent out to recruit more members and given daily “targets” which if not met result in humiliation, threats and bullying.
In many developing countries including South Africa, the ICC’s front is an organisation called Hope. It has charitable status and boasts on its South African website of various projects helping children and Aids projects in Soweto.
According to REVEAL, the ICC is banned from at least five universities in England.