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The Body on Fire

‘It felt like you were on the edge of something and nobody was near you. We were radical, on fire, eating and sleeping religion.’ Cult survivors break their silence about a charismatic church that became severe, all-controlling and sexually predatory.

Original publication: SL, 2000.

Body on fire

The woman at my side is trying to tell me something. Without looking at me, she whispers from the corner of her mouth. Her face – it’s blank, a mask of stone, but it’s charged with distaste as if a terrible thing had made her flinch once upon a time and the expression had never faded. Poor Delia: she stands clasping her elbows, a handbag slung on her shoulder, pressed up against the dancing worshippers, against the shaking, spirit-possessed student whose lips are twitching at a hundred miles an hour as though he’s keeping a swarm of mice in his mouth. Poor Delia: I’m torturing her for information, and when she gives it I just nod and pretend to hear.

Because even when the music reaches its crescendo and the chorus of doo-wah girls on stage lowers the mood to a lullaby, swaying together as the spotlight-bathed guitarist settles to his knees, overcome not by drunkenness but penitence, the church is never still. Somewhere down in the auditorium, ahead of Delia and I and the standees massed about us at the rear of the hall, a man is apparently being assaulted. On and on he roars. From elsewhere comes sobbing, and before the music swells once more into a total wall-to-wall sound, the sound of a thousand bodies united in one song, an unquiet pervades the place: an effervescence, a seething whisper, voices of the hive.

This is the famous ‘talking in tongues’, the Pentecostal fire that intoxicated Christ’s disciples and infuses the reborn on their baptism into Christianity. It creates an infectious mood, and I get the feeling that if only I were to surrender my reserve and make that first experimental hand-clap, my eyes would soon be rolling up, those death-metal lyrics would boil from my mouth, and I’d be surging forward with the rest of them towards the blazing light … Not a moment too soon I grasp what Delia’s been saying to me: she wants to leave.

Delia is a cult survivor. And though the church we are visiting bears no institutional link to her cult group, it was in just such a place that Delia’s movement evolved – evolved, broke away, gathered steam, turned into a runaway Glory Train, and finally careened off the rails under its own heady momentum. This is a different church; but for Delia it seems as if the years between then and now hadn’t happened: it’s all the same words and rituals, barbed together into a cage for the body and mind. The knot in her stomach is intolerable. She’s seeing herself everywhere, past selves she wants to outrun.

Outside, Delia’s half-panting in agitation. ‘How do I make other people understand what I went through?’ she asks. ‘If I tell them, they don’t believe me. They’re like, ‘How … the fuck … could you let that happen? What’s wrong with you?’ So I don’t really talk about it. I mean, I was in therapy for two-and-a-half years. After leaving the church, I did as much sex and drugs as I could possibly take. I was questioning everything, to the point where I literally questioned why I was putting one step in front of the other. I’d be on LifeLine saying, ‘I am now going to take my life, I can’t stand it anymore.’ When you believe in something wholeheartedly and it turns to shit, your world ends with it.’

How long ago did she leave the cult?

‘It disbanded eight years ago.’

And how long since her psychotherapy ended?

She looks at me. ‘Four months.’

I drink this in. Christ alive. It’s silent in the night air, in the ordinary world that’s asleep to the extraordinary things in its midst. And after a while Delia speaks again, this time with sadness.

‘They say it never leaves you, talking in tongues. I even managed it the other night … Well, I was fucked on drugs. It’s a party trick now.’


Dying to yourself: this was a notion central to the cult Delia joined when she was 13, and it is perhaps foundational to cultic groups in general, where demands for self-denial and self-sacrifice in the name of a religious mission are taken to extremes – sometimes to the point of mass suicide. Not all cults flame out in the high style of Jim Jones’ commune or, recently, the 800-plus victims of Uganda’s Ten Commandments sect, and often there is a fine line between cults and mainstream churches. But where the local chapel asks you to forfeit your Sunday mornings, the cult expects a more intensive commitment. Ultimately, it wants your whole life.

Dying to yourself: it means something’s wrong with what you are, with your selfish ego, your clinging to worldly things, your desire to have it your way. If you’re to be saved, you must renounce the pridefulness of Adam and Eve, who aspired to be God, and bow to divine will – as understood by an inspired leader. These ideas create the conditions for the master-servant relationships, the patterns of abuse and submission, that the secular world regards as defining features of ‘cults’.

‘It happens as a progression,’ explains Malcolm, Delia’s fellow cult veteran, ‘where you accept more and more control over yourself till it’s all-consuming. It starts off subtly and ends up as brainwashing.’ He would know: barely old enough to wipe his arse himself but already reborn to Jesus at age nine, Malcolm had literally grown into the group in the next ten years.

He’s sitting on a couch beside Delia and James, all still close compadres from back then. The two guys insist they’re not ‘cult survivors’. Indeed, hearing the trio laugh and reminisce, finish each other’s sentences and answer questions in unison, you’d swear cult life was a total hoot.

‘I’m not fucked up … as such,’ drawls Malcolm, ‘but many were, and they weren’t given the legitimacy of being told, ‘We acknowledge that you were actually abused, that it’s not all in your head.’ There was no Truth Commission. The thing just dissolved and people went their separate ways.’

The facts are these. In the early 1980s an 18-year-old Sunday school teacher called Victor broke away from a charismatic ministry in Cape Town, taking the youth with him to form a fundamentalist clique known simply as ‘the Body’. He was building an army, he said, and aside from members canvassing school chums (outside pals were a no-no, unless they could be converted), there were campaigns of street-preaching – ‘conversion targets’, ‘Big 300 Drives’. In the ten years of the Body’s existence, some 1,500 youngsters passed in and out of its ranks, with membership averaging at 200 around a core of 80 die-hards.

‘It looked completely real and powerful,’ says James. ‘Maybe there was ambition in us that made it attractive, but it was cutting through all the crap in traditional churches – even charismatic churches were wusses next to us. There were healings, exorcisms, visions … We’d be going fuckin’ mad, praising and speaking in tongues, and people would begin manifesting – falling over, wiping out chairs. Someone would laugh in the corner and the laughter would spread in waves to everyone else. I don’t know if it was psychosomatic or if we connected with whatever energies, but, man … I saw some stuff I can’t explain.’

Delia adds: ‘It felt like you were on the edge of something and nobody was near you. We were radical, on fire, eating and sleeping the church.’

For all its freewheeling ecstasy, the Body was authoritarian and hierarchical, and it exacted a heavy price for the intoxication it offered. Members were assigned a shepherd, a guardian to whom they had to confess their sins and to whom they had to defer in all their decisions: it was like living through somebody else, says Delia. A shepherd and his flock of three sheep constituted a cell; three cells made up a home group, home groups comprised an area group, and area groups, a Temple meeting. This was the Body, with the champion miracle-worker Victor at the head, sending ripples of fear through the organism beneath him.

Extracurricular associations were discouraged as ‘worldliness’ – James, a university student then, was warned not to ‘trust your own understanding’. Dating outsiders was not allowed. On top of the anxiety of asking out a girl he fancied, Malcolm had to first convert her, then get his shepherd’s permission to court her. Not that she would’ve had much real say in the matter. Women weren’t even allowed to address ‘elders’ directly, so why should they presume to reject advances from the church’s menfolk? Love is a decision, they were told. And in a surprising concession, men were tacitly allowed to masturbate for relief, on condition they didn’t fantasise about anyone.

Surprising, because the Body applied its most persecutory forms of surveillance and punishment to the sexuality of its members. If discovered, the mildest transgressors would be shat out and made to clean the cult HQ – and God help the teenagers who had sex out of wedlock. They’d be publicly shamed before a full Temple meeting of 200 people. ‘When I eventually got it right,’ Malcolm says, ‘I had the fear of God in me. I saw that panty-line as a wall of fire. Go below there and you’re gonna be hauled in front of the church!’

James reflects: ‘Mostly the rules came across as just one o’ those things God wants, and I thought, ‘If I’m truly on fire, they’ll feel natural.’ In the same way, I wasn’t happy with the treatment of women, but I thought, ‘My intellectual pride is wrong … What do I know of the spiritual realm? I must die to myself.’’

The Body burned thus for a decade, but there were rumours of inner circles, secret cabals, more intense zones of fire. Victor had handed over active leadership, nevertheless retaining a Mandela-like stature. In 1991 news of scandal filtered out to the rank-and-file; by 1992 the truth was out. The Body imploded, and congregants who hadn’t been scarred, fucked, brutalised and utterly disillusioned joined a new church. Victor shrewdly timed his escape three years before, and has lived in Switzerland in self-imposed exile ever since.

The name of the Pandora’s Box was ‘the Covenant’, an elite so secret you only knew who was in it if you had been recruited yourself – or if you happened to klutz through the fucking door by accident during one of their meetings. Precisely what happened to a dude called Adam.

The three ex-cultists are shouting with laughter, fighting one another to tell the tale first. No, Adam wasn’t murdered to protect the Covenant’s secrecy. Worse – they had to make him a member.

‘It’s hilarious!’ James roars. ‘Because he spent the next three years in absolute fear and loathing!’ 


‘Since that day – I was 18 – my life went into complete darkness,’ says Adam, feasting on a bowl of muesli. ‘I was put under radical domination and my zest for God vanished. The change was like black and white.’

He puts down his spoon to suck on a hand-rolled cigarette.

‘Picture this, hey. I’ve been in the Body five years, all my best mates are there. I’m fanatical, I’m street-preaching, I know the bible by rote. Victor’s my hero because of the miracles he’s performing, I’ve worked my way up to be a home group leader, I’m moving on with God radically and always thinking, Ooh, I wonder if I’ll be called to be a fuckin’ prophet or maybe an evangelist, and then my shepherd – this guy you trust – approaches me and says, Listen, we’ve decided it’s time for you to go a step higher. He says, You’ll be trained as a disciple – it’ll be hard but you’ll be rewarded in heaven.

‘I think: Fuck! Lekker! I’m going somewhere! But they were bullshitting me.’

Adam’s now in his early thirties and a lot has changed since then. When I first meet him, it’s a rainy morning and he’s busy breaking into a flat. Okay, it’s his own but it’s the thought that counts. He jumps down from the window ledge after unsuccessfully trying to kick in the bars and explains: he’s just returned still spun out from a rave to find he’s lost his keys. Nowhere near as bad as one ex-cult leader who’s currently a crack-addict, Adam admits to doing ‘a bit of drugs’. He’s making up for lost time, he says, like so many others.

Sitting in a breakfast cafeteria with him a little later, I notice how his gaze wanders down to my cup and his train of thought breaks off whenever I empty a tube of sugar into my coffee. It dawns on me that this is an after-shock from the strict diet the Covenant had set for him. ‘I’m still phobic about food,’ says Adam, once a fatty of 13 whose desperation to fit in somewhere had originally led him to the Body’s volleyball and table-tennis meets, back in fresher times. Today he’s trim, but glancing at his amulets and bracelets I wonder what the Covenant would’ve said. They prescribed his wardrobe, down to colour codes.

The Covenant’s restrictions were legion. Comprising about 35 initiates and four top leaders, the cabal’s membership overlapped with that of the main fellowship, but stricter, if somewhat different, rules applied. Those who are led by the Spirit are the Sons of God, said its top man, Victor, taking this biblical verse to mean, first, that he was answerable to God alone and, second, that his orders – and those issued by his delegates – carried God’s authority. If I get things wrong, he explained, God will punish me, not you: so obey.

Adam was appointed a pastor called Brett – ‘a cunt’. ‘I remember him shaving one day and saying, “You have to do anything I tell you, even if I want you to lick my feet.”’ If it weren’t for the years of indoctrination, Adam insists, he would’ve told Brett to eat shit. But the Covenant also engendered a new sense of terror. A covenant is a pact before God; violating it invites divine retribution. Members were told how biblical oath-takers would tear an ox in half, stand amidst the entrails, and wish a similar fate of disembowelment on themselves if they ever broke trust – a fate which apparently befell Judas, the archetypal traitor.

‘You became superstitious,’ Adam says. Once, while on errands for Pastor Brett, he ran out of petrol. Never make that mistake again, Brett said down the phone. ‘Afterwards I was always terrified that bad karma would strike me if I the tank was dry.’ Likewise, a woman who’d fled the Covenant suffered premonitions of cataclysm for years afterwards whenever she drove in a car. I can’t guarantee the safety of anyone who betrays us, Victor had warned his flock.

Adam was placed in isolation for four months, unable to leave home without calling Brett for permission. Every Saturday for three years he’d have to wash Brett’s car, clean his flat, wash his clothes, and return on Sunday to iron the laundry and pack it away. His life revolved around Brett, having to be at his beck and call at any time of day; he wasn’t even granted exemption the night before his final exams. His first wage was given to Brett in its entirety, and thereafter he was subject to a monthly tithe. At 19 he was instructed to be circumcised, reassured that it would be painless; 24 stitches later, he couldn’t walk.

With the Covenant’s authority etched on his body, the symbolically castrated Adam then faced his ‘worst fuck-up’: an imposed pairing with Valda, a fellow covenantee, which lasted three years until the Body folded. Initially dating her of his own accord, he realised it wasn’t working and told Brett. But it’s God’s will that you be with her, Brett answered.

And that was that. Homely Valda loved Adam, dutifully posting him cakes when his army call-up came even though they’d broken up by then, but she always knew he loved her not, and when, on the verge of suicide, she pleaded to Brett for dissolution, he replied: Train with my gun so you don’t botch the job. Adam and Valda were trapped in Eden.

‘I’ll never forget what Brett told me,’ Adam says: ‘“It’s God’s will, because you’ll never find a beautiful woman – ever.” Strangely enough, it’s nine years later and I’m still single.’

But Brett had made an important allowance: ‘You can suck Valda’s tits, if you like.’ These words hit Adam like a thrombosis, a brain haemorrhage, a crisis of conscience that tore his head apart while, on the one hand, he grilled his own errant sheep for ‘looking at Peggy-Sue’s tits’ and, on the other, he lay nightly on Valda’s breasts. This was the least of it. Unthinkable contradictions in morality were emerging in the Body, temperatures were rising, leaders were fleeing overseas ahead of the delirium of filth that was due to erupt …

Someone had tried suicide, triggering the shitstorm that killed the Body: Sybil.


‘At my first Covenant meeting I was physically shaking in fear of Victor,’ says Sybil, still in psychotherapy to this day. ‘Even other leaders feared him. He could just look at you to know if your heart-attitude was wrong.’ It wasn’t enough to be tied in chains; you had to welcome them, fasten them yourself. ‘You wanted to be subservient, you wanted to please. You had no needs or rights. You had to die to that.’

She continues. ‘I felt sickness, dread. Victor’s teaching was radically different now. He was saying a man will have many wives, that Abraham gave his wife to guests, that we needed to be unified by sex.’ And when she spoke her fears to her shepherd Tyler, the one human contact allowed her, the man who later took her virginity, married her, succeeded Victor as leader, and slept with seven other obedient lays in the Covenant, returning after each conquest to lie in Sybil’s bed as well, he answered, ‘Obviously you’re not ready, your heart’s not right.’

She was lodged in a flat with a Covenant sister; they were forbidden to discuss what was happening to each other. Every month Sybil forfeited her salary. She ran errands for leaders. She was confined to quarters for six weeks. She screamed into her pillow, dying to herself in a huge silence. One night, Wayne, leader of the main fellowship, visited her with his wife. He said that Tyler, overseas and now Sybil’s fiancé, wished her ‘to die to yourself totally’ before he would marry her. Wayne wanted sex with her. Immediately. His wife sat there, hearing Sybil’s tears, later her cries. She’d foreseen this in a dream. It was okay.

‘I went dead,’ says Sybil. The expression hangs in the air, resonant with undertone. ‘I stopped believing in everything: it was a turning point.’ Because although she married Tyler soon after, their union was in upheaval from the outset, a divorce in waiting. ‘All at once I found my voice, and night and day my anger and rage just wouldn’t stop surfacing in me. It was thanks to my whole divorce that the stories came out.’

For example: a schoolgirl – ‘a gorgeous girl’ – chosen for the Covenant had to have an abortion; another chosen one hid her pregnancy from her parents, went abroad to give birth, and before returning secretly left the baby there in the care of friends for two years.

For example: the Covenant nominated one woman as their ‘stress reliever’; men knocked at her door and she’d undress and give what was needed. For example: Adam’s shepherd was seeing a particularly youthful girl. Adam would drive her over to his pastor’s, do the ironing while she lay in the bedroom, and drive her home again.

For example: a fellowship leader had been instructed to take his wife’s sister, in the wife’s company. The three toiled together, a unified body – shepherd and sheep, man and wife, brother and sister, sister and sister. For example: forced marriages were common. A loving couple were separated, and the woman was made to marry someone else. A leader, one of the highest angelic host, would turn up at the newlywed’s little nest for coffee. Then lead the wife to the bedroom, close the door and fuck her. The husband slept on the couch. In the morning he’d bring the lovers breakfast in bed. This went on for three months.

So many voices speaking in tongues of holy ecstasy, so many victims screaming into their pillows. All walled behind silence in the face of the outside world’s incredulity: How could they let this happen – no one actually put guns to their heads? A mystical ambience, a set of impalpable relationships, unearthly terrors and paradises: in time they take body, seize the body, and fix in the mind. Here is a cage for you, spiked and garlanded. Step into it; carry it with you; rejoice in its grip. The world outside is cold and desolate, your death is sure and your life a crime.

The woman in front of me is trying to tell me something.

‘Everybody fears the fact that they’re alone in this world,’ Sybil says. ‘You come in alone and go out alone. The Body took away the responsibility I should have had towards myself. They said, We’ll take that responsibility for you. It was abusive but protective. So I never faced my fear of being truly alone. But I’m getting there. I’m moving on.’


* Names have been changed.


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