Police are investigating whether the hundred or so young women and girls rescued at the Mancoba Seven Angels Ministries in Engcobo last week were trafficked into the cult.
Eastern Cape Hawks spokesperson Captain Anelisa Feni said on Thursday the investigation was broadened to include the possibility of trafficking.
“There are people who were rescued there who have children. So we want to establish how old they were when they were impregnated. We don’t know whether they are married or what is happening. We found young girls there with children, some of them [girls] underage,” she said outside the Engcobo Magistrates’ Court, where one of the brothers, Phuthumile Mancoba, appeared on five counts of murder, two counts of armed robbery, one count of attempted murder and possession of an unlicensed firearm.
“We want to find out when these girls — even those young women over 18 — got pregnant. Are they married or what? Because under trafficking in persons, we want to find out if there were forced marriages. An underage child can’t marry anyway.”
There was a 30-minute shoot-out on February 23 at the cult’s premises, where police tracked down the alleged killers of five police officers and a soldier at Engcobo Police Station on February 21.
Among the seven suspects killed in the shoot-out were three of the cult’s leaders, the Mancoba brothers, known to their followers as the “seven angels”.
Police recovered all 10 firearms stolen during the Engcobo Police Station attack at the church’s premises.
Feni said investigators had already established that children at the church were forbidden from going to school “which is a crime on its own”.
“A child has a right to education and a child must not marry before time. No child must marry because that also falls under the trafficking in persons laws.”Asked whether officers were investigating whether some of the young women and girls found there had been sexually abused, Feni said they were being questioned by police. “I can’t really divulge much at the moment. It’s a matter that is under investigation but of course at the right time there could be people who would be arrested. We have not established it yet, but there is a possibility that there is sexual abuse.”
As police combed the crime scene on the morning of Saturday February 24 they rescued “not less than 100” young girls between the ages of 12 and 21, with many babies, said national police commissioner General Khehla Sitole. They were rescued, with elderly women, from a number of shacks inside the church’s compound.
Sitole said on February 24 that police were investigating whether the girls and women were used as sex slaves.
The Mancobas’ neighbours in Nyanga village described the church as secretive and suspicious.
One said he worried that the church’s recruits were made up of mainly young women and girls, including working professionals prepared to give up their pensions and life savings and “donate” them to the church.
“When those girls were rescued there on Saturday [February 24] you could see they were still small. Others were carrying babies … Then you ask yourself what exactly is this church all about? Because we hear that some of these children get pregnant while they are there; who is making them pregnant?”
Three of the seven angels killed last week were Mancoba brothers Xolisa (37), Philile (33) and Thandazile (37). Other brothers, church leaders Banele (30), Benjamin (23), Ephraim (23) and Phuthumile (31) survived.
Phuthumile is so far the only surviving brother linked to the killing of the five policemen. The other brothers were questioned and released.
On Thursday this week, while police were questioning the Mancobas’ mother, Noluvo (57) — who founded the church with her late husband Siphiwo — Phuthumile appeared in court. His co-accused Andani Monco (30), Siphosomzi Tshefu (24), Kwanele Ndlwane (22), Siphosihle Tatsi (20) and Phumzile Mhlatywa (46) appeared earlier in the week on charges of murder, armed robbery and attempted murder. They will appear in court again on Thursday.
Magistrate Nozuko Mviko remanded Phuthumile to allow him to apply for legal aid after his first legal aid lawyer withdrew from the case.
Senior state prosecutor Nomapha Mvandaba opposed bail. Regional prosecutions spokesperson Luxolo Tyali said Phuthumile would not apply for bail next week because “we believe he is still concealing some information”.
None of the church’s neighbours had anything good to say about it. One said: “That church is very evil. How can they not allow children to go to school? I don’t know what is happening inside.
“They don’t even allow people they don’t know inside the premises. The gates are closed all the time. Even the children in that church are not from around the village. We don’t know who they are or why they are kept there.”
Teachers from Nyanga High School said they were baffled after seeing young children selling fruit outside the school but not attending school themselves.
“When I asked these children why they were not at school, they told me school was the work of the devil and that they were told not to go to school,” said one teacher.
A pensioner from the neighbourhood said the church needed to be closed permanently. “Even the founder of that church [Siphiwo] Mancoba was a cold man. He did not even respond to you when you greeted him.
“He was always at his home and never participated in community activities. It’s the same now, people there live in their own little world and do not interact with the rest of society.” — Sapa