THE NEWSPAPER Rapport reported this week that the mercurial former Springbok flyhalf Jaco van der Westhuyzen still believes the Nigerian “prophet" TB Joshua cured him of a career-threatening knee injury in 2000.
Van der Westhuyzen was approached for comment after damning revelations in a BBC documentary — Disciples: The Cult of TB Joshua — of large-scale corruption, violence, serial rape, child abuse, fake miracles, fraud, the list goes on.
Few rational people were surprised, but the scale of the alleged evils from the maze of Joshua's compound is breathtaking. There is not just smoke swirling here, it is a seething fire.
In response, Rapport delved into the stories of the legendary Springbok flanker Ruben Kruger and the Bulls lock Wium Basson. In 2000 and 2001, respectively, Kruger and Basson travelled to the headquarters of Joshua's extended church, the Synagogue Church of All Nations, in Lagos, hoping to be cured of life-threatening conditions. Kruger had a brain tumour (astrocytoma) and Basson was in the final stages of liver cancer.
Kruger initially believed that Joshua's prayers had healed him, but in 2007 another tumour was found in his brain. He died in 2010, aged 39.
Basson's story is more dramatic. Two weeks after he was diagnosed with liver cancer, he went to the “prophet" with his mother, Cloeté Geldenhuys. Joshua ignored them in his synagogue for 10 days. A broken Basson died 10 days after his return. He was only 25.
I have great sympathy for the Basson and Kruger families. Losing young people is heartbreaking. Kruger was a husband and a father of three. I do have questions though — not to judge, but to understand how people think.
Kruger and Basson grew up in a modern society where they had to study biology, chemistry and physics at school. They were exposed to the everyday achievements of medical science.
Through the media, they could also experience the exceptional achievements of medical science. In the 1990s, patients swallowed a “smart pill" with a camera for the first time. In 2000, the human genome project was completed. Viagra was launched in 1998. The 1990s brought major breakthroughs in genetic therapy and stem cell therapy.
Kruger's wife, Lize, told Huisgenoot they wanted to launch a website with the latest research on brain cancer. So they had faith in medical science.
The question therefore arises: why would a modern person put so much faith in a complete stranger in a city 7,000km away who claims he can miraculously heal people through prayer, a “method" of healing for which there is no medical evidence? The only reference to it in literature is in a book written 2,000 years ago, large parts of which are mythical. Moreover, Lagos is at the top of every international law enforcement agency's list of cities known to harbour scammers.
When people who act rationally in every other aspect of their lives — in their profession, business and education — put their very survival in the hands of an obvious scammer, then forces are at work that I struggle to understand.
Through repentance and revival
As a white, Afrikaans teenager in the Eighties, I drowned in religion between Christian National Education and the NG Church. I was at every morning service, evening service, Kinderkrans-meeting, Church Youth Action meeting, prayer time, catechesis class, hall opening, Bible class, religious singing period, Sunday school picnic, cell group meeting, Christmas carol service and midnight service.
My father and grandfather were pastors, most of my uncles were pastors and those who were not pastors were missionaries. If your surname is Van Wyk, Louw or Murray, you are probably in a religious family, and we have all those surnames in our family.
We weren't part of the intellectual theological currents in the church, but in the evangelical and Pentecostal currents. The time of Pentecost is the 10 days between Jesus of Nazareth's so-called ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, where the apostles received the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Of the three members of the incomprehensible concept of the Divine Trinity, namely the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is the shining personality.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit involves an immersion in joy and love, benevolence, healing, exuberant worship and speaking in tongues. As I understand it, it's basically the spiritual version of swallowing two Ecstasy pills. The Pentecostal movement places great emphasis on the conversion of people to a personal relationship with a living God, the coming of a revival (mass conversion), instant healing, baptism by immersion and even exorcism.
It is the church movement that most focuses on good feelings and expressive worship, except for the exorcism. It's what many people call the “happy clappies" — the charismatic churches. At first there was only the Apostolic Faith Mission but later the big city churches came — the Hatfield Baptists in Pretoria and Rhema in Johannesburg.
In the Seventies, these churches posed a threat to the reformed sister churches, which allowed no extravagance during worship. Many NG members joined these livelier churches.
Some NG congregations also quietly pursued these “good vibes". Every now and then a regional ring had to admonish certain pastors against frivolities such as the raising of hands during worship or singing.
For me, religion revolved around these themes. I believed that if you devoted yourself enough in faith, you would come into personal contact with a living God. You would also receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I was looking for the spiritual Ecstasy pill.
I “converted" several times, and in my later teenage years joined increasingly radical faith churches to pursue this mystical encounter with the Holy Spirit. But it never happened for me. In these churches, people are encouraged to give their “testimony" — the story of their conversion and how close have been to “the Lord" since then. Most of the people who testify have a date: “Since March 10, 1981 I have walked in the ways of the Lord…" The testimony is usually followed by a so-called “altar call", where people are called forward to conversion.
Such an “altar call" is usually accompanied by special drama, as elders come forward and lay their hands on the new converts. Some of the converts will burst out in gibberish: “Babbela babbela, ooo shama, ooo labela…". Others theatrically fall back, lie on the ground for a while and even twitch a bit.
I also went forward a few times and tried to surrender to the drama and emotion, but in vain. It felt more fake to me each time. I even tried to speak in tongues. I thought you might just start babbling, and when the Holy Spirit sees how brave you are, he, or she, sweeps under you and takes over and the next thing you trip on the Ecstasy. I remember how a senior elder put his hands on my head and whispered urgently: “I can feeeeel the anoiiintment, I can feeeeeel it." I almost said out loud, “Well, great, because I feel fuck all."
At my last conversion I was 21 and chasing a girl. I was a student at Stellenbosch and she was in the well-known Shofar Christian Church. This time I didn't respond to the “altar call" because the girl said she just wanted to be friends, and my irritation with the hysterical rituals, the gibberish and the rotten band made me walk out the door, never to return to religion again.
After that I saw myself as a radical agnostic, because I realised the most dangerous ideas are those of fixed certainty. I never experienced unbelief as a new club or community, simply because for me it was a salvation rather than a new goal. Nor, like many new atheists, did I feel abandoned because I was surrounded by interesting students. Moreover, my philosophy lecturers were almost all former theology students who had been exposed to and enchanted by the rich world of ideas and schools of thought outside theology: Willie Esterhuyse, Willie van der Merwe, Anton van Niekerk and Johan Hattingh. These professors did not campaign against religion but opened the way to new wonder.
Back to school, and to church
For about a decade I led a happy secular existence in which no one bothered me. In 2005 we moved to Cape Town and settled in Bellville, because it is affordable and close to well-known, strong Afrikaans schools.
I was worried about the possible religious nature of Afrikaans schools but also reassured that the constitution regulates any form of belief.
The constitution and the education laws are clear that it is illegal for a school to even indirectly force learners in the direction of a specific religion at assemblies or in class. For example, if a school wants to follow a Christian format then it is obliged to provide Muslim or agnostic pupils with a clear alternative, and must do this in a way that does not put any indirect pressure, such as peer pressure, on a pupil to attend the Christian meeting.
The law goes further. Even when a school has these rules, it also has an obligation to treat different forms of faith fairly and justly. The school therefore cannot promote the teachings and values of one religion over another.
In my head, I saw these provisions as a salvation for teachers and schools from the extra burden that Christian National Education imposed on their predecessors. I figured that if a teacher already had to face the challenges of discipline and a curriculum, it should be a relief for them not to be saddled with the complexity of pupils' spiritual education.
I also thought that any rational teacher would realise that two other institutions are responsible for children's spiritual well-being — the church and the parental home — and that it is mercifully not the school's responsibility. And I accepted that religious beliefs are so personal and varied, even within the spectrum of Christian denominations, that teachers would see it as a risky exercise to educate children spiritually. If I were a Catholic, I would not have wanted a member of the Shofar Christian Church to guide my child spiritually.
I could not have been more wrong. From the outset it was clear that most teachers saw it as their responsibility not only to maintain the Christian status quo but to evangelise at every possible opportunity.
Scripture reading and prayer were a daily occurrence. Religious education, in the new syllabuses a broad introduction to the world's religions, is in many cases reduced to an evangelism session. The first songs my children sang in Grade R were Christian songs.
Each of my three children came home as a converted Christian sometime in the first years because their “teachers" said it was the right thing to do.
I thought I had prepared my children well for people who believed differently. We taught them that people are sensitive about their faith and sometimes strongly believe in their own “truth", and that it is not a good idea to confront people about faith. In fact, I should have taught them to avoid the subject altogether.
One of my children even had a biology teacher who told the class she was teaching them about evolution only because the curriculum forced her to, but that she thinks it is a pot of nonsense and against the Bible.
It is difficult to describe to people what happens to a child who raises his hand when a teacher asks if there are any children who do not believe in Jesus. It subjects such a child to a severe degree of rejection and stigmatisation, and it sticks with that child for the rest of their school career.
Through this experience, I understood for the first time what people of colour mean when they talk about structural racism, because the so-called Christian ethos in most largely white Afrikaans schools is also a structural problem. It does not depend on the influence of one or two fanatics but it is woven into the fabric of the community. It's a silent consensus that you don't even really become aware of until you go against it. I had discussions with several principals, teachers and parents about this and they could not see the problem, “because everyone is welcome in our school".
I also realised that unlike with the old Christian National Education, the Christian ethos actually became part of a cultural identity and a symbol of a certain set of standards, which became part of a simple binary opposition in people's heads. Excellence, discipline, morality, science, propriety and Christianity are bundled together in opposition to decay, corruption, low standards, chaos, rotten discipline and the damned ANC. The idea that our country is falling apart without a Higher Hand that is in control and will intervene at some point is a thought that is just too repulsive for people.
It is more or less the same moment on a large scale that Wium Basson experienced when he stared death straight in the eyes. The moment he decided to appeal to a quack who built his lie on the pillars of a 2,000-year-old mythical book. And Wium learnt from childhood and from all sides that what is in this book is more important than any other values or science.
♦ VWB ♦
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