End of the world for French cult couple

Times, South Africa/January 22, 2011

"How many of us could survive for 48 hours away from prepared food, shelter and a tarred road?"

The answer was six days, in the case of French fugitives Dr Philippe Meniere and his partner Agnes Jardel, who died at their Karoo hide-out this week.

Among the reclusive couple's belongings was Don't Die in the Bundu, an ex-Rhodesian army survival guide published in 1967, which opens with the question about survival.

Meniere, 60, and Jardel, 55, evaded capture by nearly 100 police with tracker dogs and helicopters on a 3000ha farm in the Northern Cape in a six-day drama which gripped the country.

They covered the soles of their hiking boots with cloth to disguise their tracks and carried a small arsenal of weapons.

Rough terrain and windy conditions contributed to the length of time it took to find the couple, said the man who headed the search, Colonel Tip Brink.

In the end it was thermal imaging equipment fitted to a helicopter and a tip-off from a resident which led police to their hide-out - a building just 500m from the farm house where they had lived rent free for a decade, and prepared for the end of the world.

Hawks spokesman McIntosh Polela said yesterday that a postmortem would take place in Kimberley this week. Officials from the French Embassy were tracing people in Paris - where Meniere practised before registering as a general practitioner in South Africa in 1983 - to help identify the bodies.

Investigations are under way to determine whether the couple committed suicide or were killed by police.

When Meniere and Jardel moved to Sutherland, they were heeding the word of Ramtha, a man they believed lived 35000 years ago. They stockpiled food and had a collection of guns, ammunition, survival books and literature from the Ramtha School of Enlightenment. They joined the school in 1997 and attended seminars held in Johannesburg in 2004.

A US woman, JZ Knight, has claimed that Ramtha channels his wisdom through her; she has persuaded thousands of people around the world to join the school. Knight this week scrambled to distance herself from Meniere and Jardel, saying they had had no contact with her school since 2004.

"To link the two is preposterous," she said. "RSE is not a survival doomsday cult."

But the school's website tells a different story. Teachings from Ramtha on the site include:

  • "One should not live in the cities ... in the days to come not only are the plagues to run rampant ... there will be murderers on the street who will rob your cupboards and slay you for only a sliver of bread";
  • "You should learn to plant seeds, grow and harvest your own food without chemicals, and then prepare food storage for at least two years and more";
  • "You will find storms that unleash a violence that you have never seen before ... seek dry ground, higher ground, away from that which is called the oceans"; and
  • "Put up food and become sovereign and have lots of water ... work towards a point that regardless of what would happen with the world, you could continue to sustain yourself".

The school is advertising retreats in Rustenburg in North West in May and October, at a cost of up to $1350 a head.

Sutherland residents toasted news of the couple's death on Thursday at the local hotel, which ran a special on French shooters - two for R15.

The couple went on the run after police arrived at the farm Hardie, owned by Gerhardus du Plessis, to look for his tenants' illegal firearms last Friday. Meniere opened fire, killing policeman Jacob Boleme and wounding his colleague, Glenwall du Toit.

The Ramtha school sent the policeman flowers as he lay recovering in a Cape Town hospital on Friday.

Du Plessis's daughter-in-law, Jolene du Plessis, said Jardel had once been a "warm and bubbly lady", but the couple had become withdrawn.

Gerhardus du Plessis had delivered a home-cooked lunch to the couple on Christmas day. Over the years, the grocery list they gave him when he collected supplies in town had dwindled to a few items. "Where they used to buy a loaf of bread, they were now buying flour and using the old farm house sun oven," said Jolene. "We thought they were poor or they needed money, that they'd perhaps lost money through investments."

Farm workers said the couple were eccentric and that Jardel used to talk to the chickens on the farm.

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