9 most shocking moments in The Illuminated

By Gen Terblanche3 May 2024

9 most shocking moments in The Illuminated

Trying to identify whether a faith, movement or practice is a cult is a slippery process – especially when you’re afraid you might catch an established religion in the net. But never fear, Showmax Original documentary series The Illuminated dedicates its first, short episode to laying out some common signs for viewers to keep in mind and test against them in each episode for themselves.

An exclusive claim to the truth. Even in groups that claim to centre their beliefs on common religious texts like the Bible, cults will piece together their own ways of interpreting texts so that those in charge are the only authorities on truth. 

Secrecy. Within a belief-based organisation, certain teachings are not available to outsiders at all, are only made available to certain members, or are only communicated under a vow of secrecy.

Authoritarian leadership. The human leader of the group demands, commands, expects and enforces unquestioning obedience. 

With those three signs in place (and more), the series then gathers its interview subjects: mainstream church leaders, escaped and expelled ex-members of faith-based groups and movements under the spotlight, those still within the organisations, and human rights groups, including the CRL Rights Commission (Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities), whose actual purpose might elude you by the end of this series. The result can be infuriating to watch – unless you enjoy being lied to. But it’s certainly an eye-opener. 

On the fence? Here are nine must-see moments. 

PS: The observations in this article are based on my own viewing of the episodes and do not necessarily reflect the views of Showmax. 

Binge The Illuminated S1 now.

Episode 2: Israel Visie

Japie van Zyl — Israelvisie Group Leader in The Illuminated on Showmax
Japie van Zyl — Israelvisie Group Leader

Two key figures stand out in this episode as current leaders within the Israel Visie movement: Japie van Zyl (aka Boerseun van Migdol) and Pastor Brenton Boshof (look up his support of colonialism some time). The movement itself centres on end-of-days prophecies of Siener van Rensburg involving a “whites-only Volkstad” after great bloodshed. According to Japie, “There are many different denominations but the one thing we have in common is that we all believe we are the direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the actual descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel.” Based on what, nobody says. 

It’s teeth-grinding to watch those within the movement try to claim that it’s not political, while directly preaching white supremacy and racial segregation. But the real shocker comes in the opening scenes as an anonymous former member describes the visceral racial hatred that drove him, as a member of one of these splinter groups (Dogters van Sion), to commit the 1996 Worcester Bombing. 

Episode 3: Scientology

Did you know that Scientology founder-creator L Ron Hubbard bought a house in Linksfield, Johannesburg, and lived there between 1960 and 1961? During that time, he wrote admiringly to then-President Hendrik Verwoerd, “May I state that you have conceived and created in the Johannesburg townships what is probably the most impressive and adequate resettlement activity in existence.” 

Gaetane Asselin — President, Scientology Africa in The Illuminated on Showmax
Gaetane Asselin — President, Scientology Africa

Aside from that shocker, watch Gaetane Asselin, President of Church of Scientology for South Africa, brush off claims that Scientology is a cult, asserting, “A cult is something secretive, it’s something with ritual, you don’t really know what’s going on in there, and we are the opposite of that.” Unless you have the memory of a goldfish, you’ll also remember her story about a reporter who accessed knowledge of Scientology that he was not ready for and contracted pneumonia – as she warned him might happen. 

Still looking for more shockers? Try this quote from L Ron Hubbard, Student Briefing, OT VIII Series I: “The historic Jesus was not nearly the sainted figure (he) has been made out to be. In addition to being a lover of young boys and men …”

Episode 4: Christ in Me Collective

What can possibly shock us about a movement that began because its founder had a dream about getting tattooed as one of the members of the Stryders – the rugby team from local soapie Getroud Met Rugby – and declared it to be a vision? 

Within the CiM leadership, Neels Labuschagne declares, “According to prophecies [which prophecies is not explained] God would find a man in South Africa at the right time. God would change religion completely.” 

This man (supposedly), Xandre Strydom, founder and “Vision Leader” of CiM Collective, opens the episode boldly, declaring, “This is the first time in 13 years that the media is giving us the opportunity to be interviewed, giving me the opportunity to tell the story.” Perhaps his direct interview with news programme Carte Blanche in 2018 was not to his liking.

But apparently, when you enter CiM, you’re entering a labyrinth of language where truth is relative. Xandre declares of his changes to the Bible, “We started preaching the truth, going on this journey of truth, removing the falsehoods. We advocated and developed the truth.” And watch as CiM leaders Neels Labuschagne and Jake Odendall redefine the word cult, live on screen, to suit their purposes, with Jake conflating cult and culture, and Neels claiming that CiM is not a cult because they “believe the Bible is the written word of God.” Um, which Bible, though?

Episode 5: Selling Belief

Dr Leila Sadien seems to have all the right credentials for being a renowned Integrative Healer. She has a proper medical degree, she claims roots in South African spiritual practices, and her clients and proteges rave about her positive energy. It’s a broad field, as Professor Tess van Der Merwe explains: “Integrative medicine has expanded to include things like yoga, time wave therapy, quantum physics and various other treatment modalities including intravenous infusions.” 

Well, hello there, time wave therapy and quantum physics? Dr Sadien has no qualifications linked to the highly specialised field of quantum physics. What she has is a machine called the TimeWaver, and explaining how it works leads straight into the weeds of scientific-sounding hand-wavey stuff (whether in good faith or not). Inventor Marcus Schmieke (whose other machine, the Healy, is equally problematic) is an adherent of bioresonance therapy, which is not only not supported by evidence, but has produced results like a clean bill of health for a corpse, and delivered no real difference in results between a wet towel, volunteers, and liver pate. 

Episode 6: KwaSizabantu

On the surface, this is a massively successful mission, founded in 1970 by Erlo Hartwig Stegen. It has uplifted the local community, brought financial stability, and prioritised genuine help including keeping children in school. It would be a shame if anything were to tarnish that image.

When young woman after young woman approached Stegen to reveal that their counsellor was molesting them, he and other leaders within the group did nothing. Even when fingers were pointed, time and again at Muzi Kunene, then brother-in-law of Stegen’s protege Lidia Dube, nothing was done. It was only after Muzi was arrested for murder in 2013 that he had to leave the church. 

But when Erika Bornman went public with her story of abuse, it caused an uproar within KwaSizabantu. As more stories leaked out, former high-level KwaSizabantu leader Koos Greeff started getting panicked and accusatory messages. At one point Koos reveals that he received a threatening call hinting that a man would rape his daughter. Police traced the call to a nearby garage, where CCTV footage showed Lidia Dube herself standing next to the caller as he made his threats. 

Episode 7: The New Evangelical Movement

Andrew Selley of Joshua Generation Church may be remembered as the man who fought for his members’ right to physically punish children. In January 2016, the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) found the church’s “Raising Children – Transformation through Truth” manual, which promoted corporal punishment, to be in violation of the constitution. Not content with dying on Beat the Child Hill, Selley believes that South Africa’s Women Empowerment and Gender Equality draft bill threatens his group’s religious rights. And don’t get him started on homosexuality. 

With Joshua Generation Church, what is declared in public statements is almost immediately undermined by what the church’s members do in real life. The Illuminated points this out with glee. Directly after the church’s statement is read in which they claim, “Andrew does not call any person who differs from him a wolf,” an ex-church member plays a message from Andrew himself in which he says, “I am now officially telling you that you are going to be marked as a wolf. I’m giving you until 5 o’clock today to tell me that you are repentant.” 

Episode 8: Mancoba Seven Angels Ministry

This episode opens with church members on trial following a murder spree in which five police officers were shot dead. It just gets worse from there. With the church leadership focussed on end-of-days visions, those in power seem to have careened towards a wild indulgence of appetites before time ran out. One survivor notes that young women in the ministry were urged to have sex with men (generally the seven brothers who had inherited their father’s church) as a service to God. “We watched children give birth to babies and there was nothing we could do. We could not discuss it amongst ourselves. We did not question it. We understood it as God’s will,” she says. The series reveals that the brothers had around 40 wives, some as young as 12 years old. 

And testimony from Banele Mancoba, one of the seven brothers, revealed that he had accused Nelson Mandela of sitting at a table with Satan and “sacrificing children when he gets sick”. 

Episode 9: The Fellowship

In classic form, this Hermanus-based group started with redefining truth and progressed to re-writing the Bible. Leader and founder Johan Pretorius seems to have centred his ministry on a conviction that women should be completely subservient to their husbands (who are to be subservient to him), and he has labelled modern medicine as witchcraft. 

There’s no shortage of shocking moments but the most vivid one might be when Johan’s ex-wife Deidre and former church member Michelle Bosch describe him preaching down to a circle of young women for hours, kneeling before him with their heads covered for modesty, while he was sitting so that his shorts fell open and exposed his genitals at their eye level. When Michelle bravely let him know about the “slip”, he accused her of being dirty minded. And when Deidre confronted him in shock on a separate occasion, she reveals, “He just looked at me. He was blank. He didn’t react at all. He just looked at me like he wasn’t present. This was very strange.”

Episode 10: The Lotters

Again, a tale that starts with murder is, presumably, not going to speak well of the belief. Twenty-two-year-old Matthew Naidoo, claiming to be the Third Son of God, urged 20-something siblings Nicolette and Hardus to murder their parents, Johan and Rickie Lotter. 

It’s the quotes from his diary excerpts that might be the most jaw-dropping, as he writes: “Oh, my dear Lord, thank you so much for helping rob the Lotters of R1 800. But I wish to take more, as in R20 000 at once so I can hurt them. Please, Amen.” And “God, help, I’m so lost on what to do. I feel low and a joke, please let everything work out as planned. Please.” 

The letter he sent to Johan and Rickie just days before their deaths reveals the depth of his malice: “Johnny, Maria, You are going to die. And as for your children, I’m just going to leave them without you. None of them will ever be anything.”

But are any of these movements really cults? Their lawyers are standing by, awaiting your answer.

Binge The Illuminated S1 now on Showmax.

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