On a Saturday morning in February a crowd looked on as more than 100 girls – including underage mothers clutching small babies – were ushered from the Mancoba Seven Angels Ministry just outside the small Eastern Cape town of Ngcobo.
Some seemed terrified, others appeared to resist police trying to free them. Behind them lay ten corrugated iron shacks in which they’d been living a mysterious, cloistered existence – allegedly as sex slaves, prohibited from going to school.
The crowd cheered as seven bodies were loaded into a mortuary van and driven from the property. The shootout and arrest of 10 individuals followed an attack on the local police station, which saw five police officers and an off-duty soldier murdered.
But while the violent events in Ngcobo came as a shock to the South African public, one organisation was less surprised. The “church” had been a subject of grave concern for the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities since 2016, when it rescued 18 children from the compound.
The ensuing investigation concluded it was a cult and the commission’s chair, Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, described the situation as a “ticking time bomb”. In October 2017 she warned Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs that the situation needed urgent attention.
Four months later, and almost two years to the day since the initial rescue, the Mancoba Seven Angels Ministry would come to a bloody end.
In order to better understand the events leading up to the attack on the Ngcobo police station, and the operations behind the gates of the Mancoba Seven Angels Ministry, News24 sent a team of journalists to Ngcobo in the wake of the tragedy.
The team spoke to the cult leaders, victims’ families, law enforcement and cult experts to piece together a story of brainwashing, vulnerability and violence.
Watch the 30-minute documentary below.
The bustling town of Ngcobo lies about 80 km west of Mthatha in the heart of the Eastern Cape. Home to around 155 000 people, the commercial centre is abuzz with street vendors selling their wares on the pavements as hungry dogs criss-cross the busy roads and shoppers weave in and out of stores.
The friendly residents welcome visitors with big smiles and the greeting of ‘molweni’ echoes throughout the town. The sense of unity among the locals is palpable and everyone seems to help each other.
On the outskirts of the town cows graze and herders guide their sheep along the lush plains. Colourful huts dot the green hills and maize fields sway in the breeze.
It seems an unlikely setting for the gruesome events that played out here in February 2018. The idyllic, open landscape stands in stark contrast to the secretive and sinister goings on at the Mancoba Seven Angels Ministry.
The compound is located in Nyanga village, about seven kilometres outside Ngcobo.
Though it’s only a stone’s throw away from the town, once new followers crossed the threshold and took up life behind the gates, they soon retreated from society.
By all accounts, members were rarely seen by friends and family again.
The Mancoba Seven Angels Ministry was being run by the seven Mancoba brothers and their mother Nombongo.
The Mancoba brothers’ late father, Siphiwo Mancoba, founded the church in 1986. He believed the Constitution and the country’s schooling system were sinful and that his sons’ future lay with God, not in school.
In February 2016, police and social workers forcefully entered the church to remove 18 children who were reportedly 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.
“We always said, we never wanted these people [the Mancobas] here. I don’t know where they originate from.”
– Zwelivumile Poswayo, Nyanga village chief
A 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 on the right side of the cross.
Nyanga village chief, Inkosana Zwelivumile Poswayo, says the message 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,” Poswayo says.
He and police immediately visited the Mancoba household.
“There we were told that they are the seven angels.”
“Before this incident [the shooting] there were rumours of other incidents happening around here, including house breaking, rape of minors. But it seemed they would pay the community to keep quiet.”- Zwelivumile Poswayo, Nyanga village chief
“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.”
One of the surviving Seven Angels brothers, Banele Mancoba, states they “know things” that other people do not.
He warns that there will be a “natural disaster like never seen before”.
“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,” he says.
In the early hours of Wednesday February 21 a group of armed attackers stormed the Ngcobo police station, where Constable Sibongiseni Sandlana, Constable Kuhle Mateta, Constable Nkosiphendule Pongco, Constable Zuko Nelson Ntsheku and Warrant Officer Zuko Mbini were on duty.
According to Police Minister Bheki Cele the attackers planned to rob the Capitec Bank ATM nearby and wanted to obtain firearms at the police station.
Gunmen murdered three of the officers in their own station and gunned down off-duty soldier Freddy Mpandeni as they fled the scene in a police vehicle, taking with them the two other officers. Their bodies were found near Nyanga High School, about 5km from the police station.
Constable Mateta had only served in the South African Police Service (SAPS) for a year and 16 days.
Some 80km away on a hill in Qunu with a view of the open fields and grazing cattle, a half-built house represents the loss Constable Sandlana’s family feels.
He had spent the past three to four years building the three-bedroomed home for his parents, siblings, himself and his 4-year-old son. The roof trusses were already in place when his life was cut short.
His uncle, Zibone Sandlana, sits in front of the uncompleted structure. “He was a good youngster, looking after the family,” Zibone says, his face filled with emotion.
“Here at home we are lost. We are really missing him,” Zibone says.
The constable’s older sister, Nosibusiso Sandlana, describes him as a humble and quiet man, just like their father. “He was a very hard-working guy. We used to herd our father’s cattle together. He was a very responsible person who looked after and provided for the family,” she says.
Sandlana joined the SAPS in 2005, after taking a gap year. The 32-year-old was also planning to further his studies through the University of South Africa this year.
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 his nephew’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 very bad to the family.”
Nosibusiso says she had hoped that he was not on duty that day.
“At some point I thought I was dreaming. I tried phoning him, but he did not answer his phone. I was scared and it was hard to accept.”
Sandlana was the sole breadwinner in the family.
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, Mpandeni’s family lives in a two-bedroomed house. .
Two broken down Toyota bakkies are parked in the yard. His daughter Wendy Mpandeni’s voice is filled with pride when she says the vehicles belonged to her soldier father.
“He taught me how to drive in that bakkie. We drove around and listened to his favourite songs. He loved music a lot.”
Mpandeni describes her father as a loving, caring and encouraging man who did everything he could for his family. She says he used to speak about his love for the military a lot.
His son, Ncedo Mpandeni, sits on a plastic chair staring into the clouds. The hurt in his eyes is evident.
Ncedo was in Johannesburg when his mother phoned him with the news. He said his father was 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 wipes away her tears and says: “If I had a message for my father, I would tell him that I still love him and ask him to continue to do his work and protect the community.”
People from all walks of life can be vulnerable to the appeal of cults for different reasons, explains Associate Professor Malose Langa.
Langa is a senior lecturer with the University of the Witwatersrand’s psychology department.
He says however, that all cults usually have some factors in common, the main one being that followers cannot question what they’re being told.
“When you look at cults… they work on a psychological basis that you need to believe that what you’re being told is the ultimate truth,” he says.
The leader will always be seen as a messiah who has a lot of power and his word is final.
“Messages get repeated and repeated and repeated… This is what they hear almost daily and then it becomes their world – their truth,” Langa explains.
Indoctrination, he says, can happen remarkably fast.
“It doesn’t take long… A week is enough for a person to be intoxicated with the message – and this is why they prefer people don’t leave their spaces because if they’re there it is very easy for people to be caught up in the teaching.”
After a person has been fed the leader’s message, they’ll find that things that made sense to them previously no longer make sense, he says.
Langa refers to Stockholm syndrome – the psychological condition in which hostages become emotionally attached to their captors – and says something similar happens to cult members.
Langa explains that all cults prey on our human weaknesses.
“All of us need a bit of comfort…. Whatever they may be saying may be soothing to you,” Langa explains.
The messages may be tailored to their followers’ specific socio-economic backgrounds, Langa says. Wherever people are desperately searching for meaning, cult leaders may swoop in to provide just that.
Consequently, cults in rural areas may prey on impoverished people who may be gullible and desperate. In urban areas cults may target middle class people who go through existential crises.
Langa says in South Africa people in rural areas are even more vulnerable because there may be more individuals with untreated mental health issues.
Cult leaders provide them with a solution and the promise of ultimate happiness.
HOW TO SPOT A CULT
Langa explains one of the main differences between cults and more mainstream religions is that cults do not require as much of the work that other religious practices do. The solutions they provide are often simplistic, promising their followers a carefree existence in exchange for their unquestioning loyalty.
This is one of the reasons it’s so easy for people to be lured in, he says.
Langa says there are some general telltale signs that indicate someone has been drawn into a cult.
“For them that [the cult] becomes the only point of reference and everything is centered around that – they can no longer be with people who are not part of that cult. Their life centres around the activities of that group,” he explains.
He says violence is frequently either directed inwards (in the form of mass suicide), or outward, while others go to the extreme and plot to kill a person or group of people, depending on their beliefs.
He says there are parallels between cults and fundamentalist groups such as ISIS and al-Shabaab who run active recruitment campaigns before indoctrinating their followers and demanding absolute loyalty.
Leaders will usually wait until a new recruit has been in the cult for some time before they are instructed to commit heinous crimes. By this point the follower may be sufficiently brainwashed so that neither national laws, nor morality will be a barrier anymore.
Langa says once a person becomes involved in a cult, it becomes almost impossible to sway them.
“You can try but look, it’s not easy… you won’t be in their good books if you’re to try and do that. But it’s worth trying.”
He says critique of outsiders is built into the narrative and everyone outside the cult is branded as abhorrent.
“We are seen as dirty and people that cannot understand why they do the things they do,” Langa says.