/ 9 April 2009

Expanding the kingdom

The Church of Scientology is moving in big to South Africa. But perhaps no plans are as grand as that of its revamp of Kyalami Castle.

Out of Jo’burg’s more dubious architectural landmarks — Montecasino and Ponte come to mind — none is as peculiar as the Kyalami Castle.

Built in the 1990s by Greek tycoon Demos Dinopoulos and perched on a hill amid the area’s horsey smallholdings, the faux medieval castle’s previous incarnations have included a family mansion and a wedding and conference venue. But now it might have found its true calling.

Since March 2008 the castle has belonged to the Church of Scientology. It’s being transformed into a spiritual retreat for advanced practitioners of Scientology. The purpose of such a retreat, according to www.scientology.org, is to ”provide parishioners [with] the ideal environment for advanced religious studies and spiritual counselling.”

”In Scientology some upper levels of spiritual counselling require the parishioner’s full-time participation for a period of several weeks for the parishioner to achieve the full benefit,” the website states.

Getting to the castle is easy. Coming from Lonehill, you know you’re in Kyalami when you see the ”Jesus is Lord” billboard. Then it’s just a matter of following the signs and running a dusty gauntlet of properties that look like they’re preparing for a visit from Zanu-PF war veterans.

But the adventure quickly ends when you reach the castle’s faded black gates. A security guard, who is more ADT heavy than Arthurian knight, sits alone in a turret and says that there will be no entry until the new owners are in.

So why the delay? Ryan Hogarth, president of the Church of Scientology in South Africa, explains: ”Over the past 18 months the church has acquired properties for our churches in Durban, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Pretoria and these will have to be renovated and open before we open our advanced retreat at the castle. This is a requirement of our mother church.

”Once opened there will be no direct services to the public but it will be open for tours and there are plans to have public restaurant facilities.”

Hogarth did not disclose the price of the property, but one industry analyst said that it had been valued at about R50-million a few years ago, when Michael Jackson was interested in buying it.

The Church of Scientology’s international property portfolio is said to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, with advanced retreats in cities such as Los Angeles, Copenhagen, Sydney and Florida. No such retreats exist yet in Africa, however.

Scientologists have had a soft spot for South Africa ever since L Ron Hubbard, the movement’s controversial founder, lived in Jo’burg in the Sixties.

South Africa has been relatively tolerant of Scientology. The church was recently given a tax exemption and the status of ”Public Benefit Organisation”. Scientologists have been allowed to conduct legal marriage ceremonies since 2000.

But the romance also has its dark side. Allegations that Hubbard greatly admired the apartheid government — HF Verwoerd in particular — continue to dog South African Scientologists.

Hogarth says that such allegations are incongruous with Hubbard’s philosophy and practices. ”In fact the church had its publication banned by the apartheid government and was raided by its security police for exposing treatment of black mental patients in the 1970s. We’ve always had an open policy of inclusiveness,” he says.

Either way, senior Scientologists will soon have a top piece of land with gorgeous views of the Magaliesberg to retreat to — the perfect spot for a bit of soul-searching.