Reaching out to a higher power

The Star (South Africa), June 27, 2003
http://www.thestar.co.za/
By Thomas Hartleb

Doomsday” or “revitalisation cults”, as they are also called, hold the promise of salvation for their followers.

They occur in societies or groups that perceive themselves to be under some form of threat – whether social or cultural – explains Thea de Wet, professor in the department of Anthropology and developmental studies at the Rand Afrikaans University.

Although they seek to change the status quo, they are in line with and draw on cultural traditions to legitimate themselves. Cults form around an alternative explanation of the world which is perceived by cult members to be hostile and incomprehensible.

It offers participants social and economic cohesion by offering a formulaic explanation of how to live life, says Paul Germond, professor of Sociology of religion at Wits University.

Through their leaders, which are often seen to have semi-divine status, participants are able to reach out to supernatural powers to help solve their problems.

They achieve a sense of “being connected to something bigger in a direct way”, Germond explained.

South Africa’s most famous example is of a young Xhosa girl called Nongqawuse.

The event occurred in the context of the border wars between the Xhosa and the British in 1856-7. Nongqawuse had a vision.

She explained to her people that if they destroyed all their crops and slaughtered their cattle, then the whites would leave and ships from the sea come and return their cattle.

The result was that they starved.

Revitalisation cults are often driven by a utopian vision that holds the promise of renewal for their followers, of a return to a more idyllic life.

De Wet believes that there could be a possible link between these cults and the Aids epidemic which is placing people and households under enormous stress.

She said she would not be surprised to see more of these cults emerging, explaining that “people look for explanations” and these cults could be one solution.

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