North Rand police probe 'church of chains'

The plight of mentally ill people was highlighted on Tuesday when it emerged that a North Rand church was holding eight people in chains because it believed they were possessed by demons.

Human Rights Commission (HRC) Commissioner Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo told Sapa that a preliminary investigation into a complaint against the St John Apostolic Faith Mission Church in Etwatwa, Daveyton, had been opened.

"At this stage I think it would be safe to say that investigations point clearly to concerns around violations of human dignity."

'It is of great concern to us'

She said that while a lot of progress had been made on the rights of physically disabled people, those with mental illness still faced discrimination.

"The plight of the mentally ill remains unaddressed. There is still a high amount of ignorance around people with mental illness."

She said once the investigation was complete the HRC would make recommendations as to what actions should be taken. The eight would remain with the church until the investigation was completed.

McClain-Nhlapo said the rights of the mentally ill remained underdeveloped and they were often treated in a barbaric fashion.

"A biblical interpretation was given for them being chained but I don't think keeping people in chains can be justified in this day and age. It's unacceptable. The supreme law of this country is the constitution. This is the legal framework under which we operate. The rights of the mentally ill are protected under the constitution."

'Social workers saw the marks on their ankles'

She could not say how long it would be before the investigation was completed.

"It depends to some degree on the level of co-operation we receive from the church. Rest assured we will address this matter as soon as possible. We recognise the urgency of the matter... it is of great concern to us."

The police have also launched an investigation into the matter.

Police spokesperson Superintendent Eugene Opperman said once completed the results of the investigation would be handed to the National Prosecuting Authority for a decision on whether anyone should be criminally charged.

North Rand Area Commissioner Joel Mokwena said the church had gone too far.

"It appears as if the relevant church had no right to treat these human beings the way they did. They overstepped their mandate and entered into areas of expertise they had no knowledge or experience in," he said.

The Central Gauteng Mental Health Society (CGMHS) reported the church to the HRC after it discovered the church's healing methods included chains and shackles.

CGMHS director Karuna Singh said the situation had been revealed when some of the eight visited a clinic in Daveyton a few weeks ago.

"Social workers saw the marks on their ankles that were made by the chains and asked them about it. When the church was approached it said that this was their policy... that it was a healing process."

Singh said when questioned by the social workers the eight stressed that they were being held against their will.

"But when we met with the church two weeks ago they brought someone with them who said he had been chained and this had healed him."

The situation was a very sensitive one and the CGMHS wanted to work with all stakeholders to educate communities about mental illness, she said.

However, Singh expressed concern about the well-being of the patients.

"Is this not cruel? Is it not a violation of their human rights? The families want them to remain there so they can be healed... but have they (the patients) consented to this?" she said.