The church at the centre of two bloody massacres this week is home to a sinister cult whose leaders forbid education but drive luxury cars.
What was meant to be a house of God became the scene of a late-night massacre on Friday, as police and a gang of fugitive armed thugs clashed. Several suspects escaped.
When the last shots had been fired, the Eastern Cape town of Ngcobo looked back on a week of murder and mayhem that had claimed at least 13 lives.
Seven men were killed and 10 arrested on Friday night after police received a tip-off that the Seven Angels Ministries church was hiding the killers responsible for the midnight ambush on the local police station that claimed six lives on Tuesday night.
Villagers rejoiced as the bodies of the seven suspects were removed from the church compound yesterday morning.
Police said three sons of the church’s founder, Siphiwo Mancoba, were among the dead.
The church was founded in 1986 and is run by his seven sons, who call themselves “angels”, and their mother, Bongiwe Mhlazana Mancoba.
Congregants habitually bow to the family, and church leaders insist that schooling is “bad”.
“We are not sure whether this is still a church because there is a lot going on there. There are even old people that live there and children. We have been saying in the community meetings that this house must be monitored,” said a neighbour who did not want to be named.
Another elderly neighbour said the shooting on Friday night lasted 30 minutes.
“It was like thunder, I could feel vibrations in my house.”
She said locals had complained about activities at the church for a long time.
Police Minister Fikile Mbalula said yesterday: “There is no church there. There is satanism.”
Mbalula said that some congregants had quit their jobs to live at the church, which would now be shut down.
The Seven Angels Ministries is on a hill just 3km from the police station where the officers were gunned down on Tuesday night.
Police discovered a secret cave in the mountain behind the church and luxury cars with no papers on the premises. They brought in towing vehicles to remove the cars, which included Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, Audis and twin-cab bakkies.
Questions are now being asked about how a murderous gang of heavily armed criminals was allowed to occupy the premises without police officers being aware of it or taking action.
One hundred children
In 2016 Seven Angels Ministries was thrust into the spotlight when social workers rescued 21 children between the ages of five and 18 from its premises.
After the community complained that the church’s “activities of seclusion are … bordering on a cult”, social workers and police broke open the gates to the church compound to rescue 18 children. Two days later three more were rescued.
In 2016 social development MEC Nancy Sihlwayi told the Sunday Times the church prohibited its congregants from having jobs, and children were not allowed to go to school.
Her uncle, Armstrong Luke, told the Sunday Times that Pumla and two of her female colleagues were then told to open the gun safe and go outside.
“They had to walk over the lifeless bodies of their dead colleagues,” he said.
The terrified women were then locked up in a police van covered in the blood of one of their slain colleagues.
Armstrong, who is in a wheelchair, sat outside the family rondavel, sharing memories of his nephew, Ntsheku.
He said the loss was devastating, not least because Ntsheku had been the breadwinner and took care of his younger, disabled, sister.
“Imagine if they [Ntsheku and Pumla] had to both die there. But God had other plans. We are thankful that her life was spared.”
The other officers killed in the attack were Warrant Officer Zuko Mbini, 45, Constable Nkosiphendule Pongco, 32, Constable Sibongiseni Sandlana, 32, and Constable Kuhle Mathetha, 27.
Sandlana’s uncle said his nephew had also been the breadwinner in the family, and had been taking care of his younger siblings. He said he had joined the police force in 2006.
“This is a huge loss to the family. His younger siblings depended on him. We were very shocked and hurt when we heard this, but because we are Christians God has strengthened us,” said Zibonele Sandlana.
He said the family were struggling to prepare for the funeral as bank cards and other important documents were locked in the constable’s home safe.
On Thursday Ngcobo police station commander Colonel Vukile Jackson Ntuli described the scene as out of a Hollywood nightmare. “It was a battlefield. It was an undeclared war. These guys planned this. They were heavily armed with powerful weapons and they concealed their faces. They turned the service office into a battlefield.”
This was not the first time the ATM had been targeted in similar fashion. Last year, while armed robbers attacked the ATM, a second group stormed the police station.
That time a shoot-out ensued and the attackers fled without getting any money. Two officers were injured. “This year they came more prepared. They came like an army,” another police officer said.
A memorial service will be held on Tuesday.
The suspects are due to appear in court on Monday.
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