Mar 15, 2018

IN DEPTH | How a mysterious cult terrorised an Eastern Cape community

Iavan Pijoos
March 15, 2018

News24 sent a team of journalists to Ngcobo in the wake of deadly shootings between police and members of a confirmed cult. The team spoke to the cult leaders, families of victims, law enforcement and cult experts to piece together a story of brainwashing, vulnerability and violence.

At 20:30 News24 will premiere its documentary Angels of Death; a 30 minute investigation into the cult, its followers and the killings that ensued.

On a hill in Qunu, with a view of the open fields and grazing cattle, Constable Sibongiseni Sandlana, 32, was building his life’s dream.

He had spent the past few years constructing the three-bedroomed house with a double garage, for his parents, siblings, himself and his four-year-old son.

The roof trusses were already in place when he, four of his colleagues and a soldier were shot dead by a group of armed men in the Ngcobo police station, between Mthatha and Queenstown, on Wednesday, February 21.

Two days later, Friday, February 23, seven suspects believed to have been involved were killed in a shootout with police.

Now this shell of a house represents the loss Sandlana's family feels.

Sibongiseni's uncle, Zibone Sandlana, sits in front of the half-built structure, staring at the ground: "He was a good youngster, looking after the family. He was a guy who tried to live peacefully with others."

"We are lost. We are really missing him," Zibone says.

Sibongiseni's sister, Nosibusiso Sandlana, 37, describes him as humble and quiet, just like their father.

"He was a hard-working guy. We used to herd our father's cattle together. He was a responsible person who looked after and provided for the family," she says.

Sibongiseni joined the police in 2015, after taking a gap year following matric. He was planning to further his studies in the police through Unisa this year.

"He liked his job. He never dreamt of becoming a police officer, but it was just a puzzle which came together," Nosibusiso says.

Zibone was watching the news at around 06:00 that Wednesday. "The first thing I saw on the television is that there was a problem at Ngcobo police station. I realised that our son is there."

He immediately went to the Sandlana's house. Police were already there to break the news to the family.

“We started praying and, by God's grace, I knew we had to accept it." It was a hard blow to the the family, he said.

Sibongiseni was the sole breadwinner of the family.

Zibone says he could not believe that a group calling itself a church ­­- the Seven Angels Ministry ­- could commit such a crime.

‘No real church can do something like that’

"No real church can do something like that. I would say it is Satanism. When there is a church, you need to follow God's laws."

Zibone points at the house, takes a deep breath and says: "He will never see the completion of this house, but we will fulfil his wish and complete it."

In Ngxogi, about 30km from Ngcobo, soldier Freddy Mpandeni’s family lives in a two-bedroom house. He was killed along with Sibongiseni that day. The father of four was laid to rest on March 3.

The house is surrounded by tall trees and guarded by skinny dogs. In the yard is a red and white marquee. Freddy’s two broken down Toyota bakkies are parked in the yard. His daughter Wendy Mpandeni's voice is filled with pride as she speaks about them.

"He taught me how to drive in that bakkie. We drove around and listened to his favourite songs. He loved music a lot."

She says he was proud to have been part of the army.

"He loved the shooting range and taught us how to aim the gun. He loved his job."

‘My father loved music, it made him happy’

His son, Ncedo Mpandeni, sits on a plastic chair. Behind him are corn fields and mud huts. The hurt in his eyes is evident.

"My father loved music, it made him happy," he says. "He listened to reggae and RnB. He would play his favourite songs and give us R2 if we could guess the name of the songs."

Ncedo was in Johannesburg when his mother phoned him with the news. He said his father had been shot in the neck and chest while trying to run from his killers.

"I don’t know why these people in Ngcobo changed and became like animals. My father was my best friend. He was my big brother and he was a sweet and calm man," Ncedo says.

Wendy says she heard people in the area speaking about the Seven Angels Ministry.

"I heard of a lady who sold everything and went to that church. I was curious as to what was happening in that church and what the writing on the mountain meant," she says.

The rocky outcrop, visible across the town, has a giant red cross painted on a white backdrop. On one side of the mountain are the words: "In the end of 1260 days is a new beginning".

The words: "Ilizwi lika Yehova limingonaphakade 7 angels [The word of God stands the test of time]” and “Jehova God Angel Forces" are written to the right side of the cross.

‘How are they going to sit in God's presence?’

Siphiwo Mancoba founded the church in 1986. He believed the Constitution and the country’s schooling system were sinful and that the future of his sons lay with God, not in school.

In February 2016, police and social workers forcefully entered the church to remove 18 children who were reportedly being prevented from going to school.

At the time, it was also reported that older members were forbidden from working and engaging with people outside of the church.

During the shootout with police on February 23, young women and girls were taken away for questioning. At least 40 of those rescued from the cult are under the age of 25. One is around 15-years-old.

‘I tried to stop them’

Lucia Tshaba says her mother and siblings joined the church in 2015.

"That church started a long time ago and my family used to visit there. The pastor - the father of the 7 angels - said you don't need education. That is why I stopped going there. I realised I had to go to school."

According to Tshaba, the church had its own beliefs and congregants never prayed or read the Bible.

"They just had their own culture that was different to the rest of society," she says.

Tshaba’s mother told her that she was seeking an everlasting life to sit next to God.

"How are they going to sit in God's presence when they believe in those seven angels and not in God?"

In 2015, Tshaba's mother sold their family home in Centane (Kentani), about 140km from Ngcobo, to live at the church.

"I tried to stop them, but they didn't explain anything. They just said that the masters of the church said they must stick together."

On Saturday, February, 24, she received a phone call from a friend in Butterworth, informing her about the shooting in Ngcobo. She rushed to check her family was safe.

"I found them at social development. They didn't have clothes with them. They left everything at the church, even my mother's bank card. The church uses her bank card to withdraw money."

Her mother and siblings now live with her in East London. They rarely speak about the church, but Tshaba hopes that one day they will change their minds.

'Going back to the church'

"They don’t want to open their hearts to me. They said they are going back to the church."

Loyiso Dlambulo, a maths and science teacher at Nomaka Mbeki Technical Senior Secondary School in the rural hamlet of Ngcingwane near Dutywa, sold everything to join the church.

He was one of the seven people, including three Mancoba brothers - Thandazile, Xolisa and Philile - who were killed in the shootout with police.

Loyiso’s friend and colleague, Sindiswa Binase, told News24 that he had been a brilliant teacher who loved his work and children.

Sindiswa says Loyiso joined the church with his mother. He said Loyiso broke his leg and cracked his ribs in a car accident in 2015.

Loyiso believed the church helped him survive the accident. According to Sindiswa, Loyiso bought a new, top-of-the-range Audi A4 shortly after the accident.

"He informed us that he is going to donate it to the church and then use his mother's old Polo to get around."

Loyiso resigned from his job following his mother's death and moved onto the church’s premises. After that they only saw him being driven around by the church’s members.

Sindiswa says, after the shooting, she saw pictures of Loyiso on social media. Her calls and messages to him went unanswered.

"We did everything we could to stop Loyiso, but he was very principled and he stuck with what he believed in."

One of the surviving Seven Angels brothers, Banele, says they "know things" that other people do not.

“It's like a payslip with the word ‘confidential’ written on it and you have been given an infinite amount of time, but you find something has delayed you. Things are not going to get better, they are going to get worse,” Banele says.

Banele says he heard a young man in the church saying his elder brother Thandazile “King Gabriel”, had led the attack on police, adding that Thandazile had a way of misleading people.

"This is the end. That is why you are seeing all these things happening. All of us will leave one day, but we don't know how we will die," Banele says.

He warns that there will be a "natural disaster, like never seen before".

A few kilometres from the church is the three-bedroomed house of the Nyanga village chief, Zwelivumile Poswayo. Outside it, a shepherd keeps a close eye on about 50 sheep. The house is surrounded by mud huts and mountains.

Zwelivumile ascended to power in 2005. He says the sign on the mountain was written without his permission in 2016.

"No one knew who put it there. It was written by people who claim they were Christians but their actions did not show that," Zwelivumile says.

He and police immediately visited the Mancoba household.

"There we were told that they are the seven angels."

The pastor's wife, Noluvo Mancoba, told Zwelivumile that after her husband died his body was cremated and his ashes were scattered off the Kei River bridge.

"Before this incident [the shooting] there were rumours of other incidents happening around here, including house break-ins, rape of minors. But it seemed they would pay the community to keep quiet.

“We always said, we never wanted these people [the Mancobas] here. I don't know where they originate from. We hear rumours of the places that they might be from and it seems they were kicked out of these places."

Call to destroy 'church'

Zwelivumile has called on the government to destroy the church and prevent people from building on the plot again.

"We are convinced that many people died and were buried there, without the knowledge of the royal house. We want these people gone," Zwelivumile says.

Zibone hopes justice will be served.

“When you kill a person, you must be punished. We have no power to determine what type of punishment they will get, but we are praying and hoping that they will be punished,” he said.

"There are a lot of these 'tent' pastors who pretend to be holy, but are actually conning people,” Wendy Mpandeni says.

“If there is no employment, the youth will continue to be attracted to these churches because they give them empty promises, saying they will pray for them and then they will become right overnight.”

She wipes away her tears and says: "If I had a message to my father, I would tell him that I still love him and ask him to continue to do his work and protect the community.

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