CRL focuses on education and law enforcement to curtail religious abuse

by Daniela Ellerbeck
19 August 2020

By Michael Swain, FOR SA Executive Director

On Tuesday 11th August 2020, the CRL Rights Commission (CRL) issued an “urgent media invite” on their Facebook page to a webinar on the phenomena of occults, cult-like churches and true churches, scheduled to take place the very next day.  The given reason for this webinar was that, since their Report of the Hearings on the Commercialisation of Religion and the Abuse of the People’s Belief Systems (the Report), many people (especially women) had laid complaints at the CRL about cult-like practices experienced at some of these churches. For that reason, the CRL has decided to “explore further the phenomena of cult-like churches vis-à-vis true churches”, which they claim are widespread.

Webinar on occults, cult-like churches and true churches

The three-hour long webinar took place on Wednesday 12th August, with presentations by “specialists” from the field of psychology, sociology, theology and psychiatry.  However – except for a young Zimbabwean pastor who admitted to having been involved in leading a cult, using occultic methods, having ritual sex with virgins and sodomising boys – no one presented the views of the vast majority of the religious community.  Equally, no presentation was given on the constitutional rights to freedom of religion (section 15 of the Constitution), and of religious communities to practise their religion (section 31 of the Constitution).

Significantly, cults were defined to include Bible-based groups who have broken away from mainstream belief systems to form their own cult-like organisations which mimic the “ordinary church”.  Concern was expressed that when this happens, a charismatic leader may take control and prey on the vulnerable, using mind control and indoctrination techniques to limit their followers’ exercise of their free will and their right to choose for themselves. They invade every functional area of personal / family life – social, economic and sexual – to exploit people’s basic human needs and vulnerabilities.

The CRL and their guest speakers used the opportunity to predict a “post-COVID” rise in the establishment of cults and their activities because of the destabilizing societal factors of the lockdown.  The vulnerability of young people between the ages of 18-24 years old (particularly university students) was highlighted.  Those looking for a better life, especially the poor, the disadvantaged, migrants and women, were identified as particularly vulnerable to “charming predators” who use and abuse a heady combination of money, mysticism, manipulation, sex and coercion to enslave their “captives” to feed their own narcissistic tendencies.

The guest speakers called upon the CRL to use the media to discredit these cults and to break down their power and control over their members.  The CRL was urged to provide legal support for victims who cannot escape otherwise.  The CRL was likewise encouraged to focus on monitoring fringe groups who are breaking away from the mainstream churches.  Specific mention was made of the need to identify “hot spots” and specific institutions like universities, who are allegedly targeted by cults and other non-profit groups.  They recommended that the CRL should establish an information center to define the difference between “new religions / cults”, to expose “the good from the bad” and to develop interventionist strategies to sort them out. 

A change of direction by the new CRL leadership?

Under the leadership of former CRL Chair Mrs Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, the CRL pushed hard to persuade Parliament to grant them additional powers to regulate religion by establishing “peer review mechanisms”.  These proposals were almost unanimously rejected after five days of public hearings before Parliament (i.e. one day in June 2017, followed by two days in October 2017, and a further two days before the new Parliament in March 2020). At these hearings, religious groups, organisations, denominations, academics and legal experts representing over 25 million people from across the religious community of South Africa made it clear that freedom of religion has never been an excuse or a defence for committing a criminal act.  When a crime is committed, then the State (including the CRL) has a duty to deal with the perpetrator.  The core problem identified has been (and remains) the lack of effective and efficient law enforcement. 

FOR SA and other religious leaders on the CRL’s webinar fully agreed that cult-like abuses are reprehensible, but reminded the CRL that the Constitutional Court has already defined the parameters under which the constitutional right religious freedom is protected.  In S v Lawrence (1997), Judge Chaskalson wrote: “The essence of the concept of freedom of religion is the right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination”. In Prince v President of the Law Society of the Cape of Good Hope (2002), the Constitutional Court declared that people were free to believe – even if their beliefs were “bizarre, illogical or irrational” to others.

In response, CRL Chair Professor Mosoma warned that abuse under the guise of religious freedom will not be tolerated, appealing to “a jurisprudence of community rights”.  During a subsequent interview on SABC TV, when asked if the CRL was a “toothless body” and pressed to define the CRL’s strategies to address the problems identified, Professor Mosoma correctly countered that the CRL already have significant powers granted to it under the Constitution and the CRL Act of 2002.  He said that although freedom of religion is protected, if a criminal charge is reported to the police, they will open a case, investigate, make an arrest and prosecute.  He confirmed that although the CRL cannot make arrests, they are empowered to escalate the matter to law enforcement agencies to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators.  He also confirmed that education is a primary role of the CRL, so they are using experts to help make people aware of the elements and characteristics of “cult-like churches” so they can avoid them – or if they do join, they will know the potential negative consequences of so doing.

While FOR SA will continue to oppose any attempt by the State to regulate religion, we fully encourage the CRL to exercise its comprehensive powers to ensure that existing laws are properly enforced and vulnerable people are educated.  FOR SA has always maintained that one cannot hide a criminal act behind the cloak of religious freedom.  We commend the CRL, under the leadership of Professor Mosoma, for their stated commitment to deal with those who abuse people under the guise of freedom of religion. We affirm the CRL’s support for the religious freedom rights of the vast, fully law-abiding, majority of the religious community so that they can freely fulfil their God-given mandates without interference or threat of sanction.  Given the challenges we face as a society, as a consequence of the severe economic crisis and rampant corruption triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of the faith community to support, strengthen and comfort people, as well as to speak to power, has never been more important.

Michael was raised in England, graduating from the University of Bristol with an honours degree in Law before immigrating to South Africa in 1983. He has been a successful businessman as well as having spent over 30 years in ministry in South Africa, Europe and the USA. He serves as the Executive Director of Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA).

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