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10 March 2009

Melmoth is a small town about 50 kilometres north of Eshowe in Zululand, and this post describes a community development effort that took place there about 28 years ago, during the apartheid era.

I was moved to write about this after reading a post on Tom Smith’s blog Soul Gardeners, in which he said

A few months ago I sat with one of my friends, he turned to me and said: “Tom, the squatter camps in and around Johannesburg is contested arenas”.  His statement puzzled me and I asked him what he meant.  He continued, “So many white rich churches want to come in here and make a name for themselves.  It is nothing more than a competition between them, an ego trip to see who can make the biggest name for themselves”.

This statement, more than any other has shocked me into realizing that the new craze for justice ministries should be re-evaluated.  My friend then told me that their community would rather work with corporate companies and their CSI divisions than with churches and all their hidden agendas and innuendos.

So I thought I would post this as a case study, in the hope that it might b somehow help rich Christians to relate to the poor.

Because of apartheid there was nowhere for black people to live in Melmoth, and black people who worked there were expected to live in Ulundi, 40 kilometres away, and commute by taxi. But some shift workers, like policemen, could not do that, so the town board gave them permission to build shacks on a steep hillside beghind the post office and the primary school, and they were joined by other people. The people who lived there called it called Makhalafukwe, which means “the cry of the cuckoo”, a bird that has a lonely, desolate cry.

Makhalafukwe, Melmoth, in 1980

Makhalafukwe, Melmoth, in 1980

Makhalafukwe was originally in the pattern of a rural settlement, with houses being mainly built of wattle and daub, with thatched or corrugated iron roofs. So there were no problems at the beginning, other than the fact that the residents had no legal security of tenure – they were there by “grace and favour” of the town board, and could be evicted by the town board at any time. But it was also not a proclaimed African urban township, and so was free of the regulations governing such townships.

Houses in Makhalafukwe

Houses in Makhalafukwe

As the settlement grew, however, it deteriorated. The population became too dense for rural housing to be adequate, and the lack of urban infrastructure began to be felt. There was a need for such services as rubbish removal, paved streets, light, water and sewerage. Many of the later dwellings were slum dwellings, built of poles and corrugated iron, cardboard beer cartons and plastic sheeting.

My beautiful picture

Toiletmin Makhalafukwe, made of cardboard beer cartons filled with sand.

There were five church buildings in Melmoth: All Saints Anglican Church, the Assemblies of God, the Methodist Church, the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk and the Roman Catholic Church. The Anglicans and Methodists had a combined Sunday School, and the denominations co-operated in other ways. The congregations were largely white, and except for the NGK, they were English-speaking.

Makhalafukwe, Melmoth, 1980

Makhalafukwe, Melmoth, 1980

The English-speaking congregation of All Saints Church, Melmoth, had generally been served by priests from KwaMagwaza, 10 kilomtres (6 miles) away, but with the growth of the town in the 1970s, it had its own priest, though the parish priest was usually expected to perform diocesan training duties at the diocesan trainig centre, KwaNzimela, at KwaMagwaza as well. From about 1974-1977 the Revd Richard Kraft was living in Melmoth (before that he had lived at KwaMagwaza), and was rector of All Saints Church there, as well as Director of Christian Education for the diocese of Zululand.

In 1977 Richard Kraft became Director of Christian Education for the Anglican Church in southern Africa as a whole, and moved to Johannesburg. I moved from Utrecht to replace him as rector of the parish, and Director of Training for Ministry, responsible for training self-supporting clergy and for the post-ordination training of church-supported clergy. Canon Peter Biyela became Director of Christian Education, responsible for the lay training programmes, though in most things we worked as a team. Peter Biyela was old enough to be my father, and was in many ways my mentor.

The Anglican Diocese of Zululand was divided into deaneries, which were groups of parishes that worked together. Each deanery had a regional dean and vice-dean, In 1980-1981 the regional dean of the Mthonjaneni Deanery was the Revd Hamilton Mbatha of the parish of the Good Shepherd, KwaMagwaza, and Mr Morton du Preez, a layman of All Saints, Melmoth as the vice-dean. A deanery council met three times a year, and the dean and vice dean represented it on the Diocesan Council, which also met three times a year.

Anglican mission in Makhalafukwe

In September 1980 Africa Enterprise (now called African Enterprise), an ecumenical evangelistic group based in Pietermaritzburg, conducted mission and evangelistic outreach activities in Melmoth and the surrounding areas at the invitation of the Mthonjaneni Deanery of the Anglican diocese of Zululand. A wide range of activities was planned in the parishes of the deanery, and the diocesan institutions, including the hospital. The post-ordination training (POT) group met during this mission, and other clergy and sisters of the Community of the Holy Name were invited to attend as well. John Tooke of Africa Enterprise held workshops at the KwaNzimela Centre (10 kilometres from Melmoth), and the participants also took part on other mission activities, in the Biyela Reserve, the hospital, and in Melmoth, including Makhalafukwe.

The post-ordination training group was taught how to do an evangelistic survey, and as a practical exercise, they undertook such a survey in Makhalafukwe. The aim was not just to teach them how to conduct a survey, but it was also hoped that the survey results would be useful to the parish and the deanery in its ministry in Makhalafukwe in future, since none of the Melmoth churches had had any contact with the people living there.


After preparation and instructions, therefore, the POT group went to Makhalafukwe on Tuesday 16 September 1980, armed with questionnaires, to interview the inhabitants. They would also invite them to an evangelistic service and a film show at All Saints Church a couple of days later. Most of the POT group were Zulu-speaking clergy from all over Zululand

Mission team from post-ordination training group visiting Makhalafukwe, 16 September 1980

Mission team from post-ordination training group visiting Makhalafukwe, 16 September 1980

On their return to KwaNzimela, the questionnaires were analysed, and the interviewers discussed their experiences. One of the questions they asked the inhabitants of Makhalafukwe what they saw as the main needs of their community. The interviewers were also asked to write down the needs of the community as they themselves saw them, so the needs were expressed both from the insiders’ and the outsiders’ points of view.

The experiences of the POT group were mostly negative. They found the inhabitants of Makhalafukwe were suspicious and unwelcoming, and some were hostile. They were struck by the squalor and the apparent lack of community in the place. They said that people did not know their neighbours, and they got the impression that they were suspicious of everyone, and not just the interviewers.

One of the needs of the people living in Makhalafukwe, expressed by some of the people themselves and confirmed by the survey teams, was for entertainment. There was nothing to do there, apart from going to a couple of shebeens. An evangelistic service was planned for Melmoth in an evening later in the week, and it was decided to combine this with a film show, so that at least some attempt could be made to meet the need for entertainment.

I travelled to Empangeni to hire a 16mm film, and, when only a few people had arrived at the church, one of the post-ordination trainees, the Revd Posselt Mngomezulu, walked down Hammar Street towards Makhalafukwe, ringing a bell and shouting “Bioscope! Mahala!” That gathered a somewhat larger audience. The film was called Vendetta and the audience, which consisted mainly of children, seemed to appreciate it. At the end we asked the people in the audience if they would like more film shows in future, and most were in favour, so I arranged to make it a monthly event. I drove to Empangeni each month to hire a feature film, and borrowed the 16 mm projector from the KwaNzimela Conference centre.

Entertainment and community

For a few months film shows were held once a month in All Saints Hall. These were sometimes feature films hired in Empangeni, and sometimes educational, evangelistic or documentary films that were available at the diocesan training centre at KwaNzimela.

At All Saints Church, where the services had hitherto been only in English, Zulu services began to be held on Sundays, though at first only 4-5 people attended them. Weekday services were also held, where the language used varied according to who was present, sometimes English, sometimes Zulu, sometimes a mixture of both.

After a few months of film shows we asked people to stay behind after one of the films, and said that we had had the film shows because people in Makhalafukwe had said there was a need for entertainment. but perhaps there were other needs of the people there that also need to be met. People agreed that there were, and some were interested in discussing them.

In October and November 1980 after the film shows, therefore, there were training meetings, using material developed by the Lumko Institute of the Roman Catholic Church, and especially a course called Serving the neighbourhood. The Revd Hamilton Mbatha and the Revd Peter Biyela helped to present these, sometimes also assisted by Sister Lungisile of the Community of the Holy Name, and by those attending the Post Ordination Training meetings.

At these meetings a small group discussed the formation of a community organisation, and I drew up a draft constitution for it. On 23 April 1981 a bigger meeting was held. Everyone was asked to stay behind after the film show, (the film shown was The promised land, which was on “blackspot” removals, part of the ethnic cleansing programme of the apartheid regime) and about 30 people did stay. The Revd Peter Biyela chaired this inaugural meeting. The draft constitution was presented, and accepted almost unchanged. Edgar Biyela (a resident in Makhalafukwe) proposed that the organisation be called Iso loMuzi (The Village Eye), and this was accepted by the meeting. The meeting felt that there were not enough people there to elect a permanent committee, so Edgar Biyela was elected Provisional Chairman and Mandla Mdlalose provisional secretary. At the end of the meeting another film was shown, one from World Vision, on war orphans in Korea.

On 3 June 1981 the Iso loMuzi committee met and chose office bearers: Zachary Mkhwanazi as Chairman, Edgar Biyela as Vice-Chairman, Bonisiwe Ndlovu as Secretary and Cyril Ndlovu as Treasurer. It was decided to open a bank account. On the following day there was a general open meeting, and 13 people paid their subscriptions. There was also discussion of the needs of Makhalafukwe and a list was drawn up.

On 21 August 1981 the Iso loMuzi committee sent a deputation to see the new town clerk of Melmoth, Fanie Lombard. The deputation consisted of Zachary Mkhwanazi, Bonisiwe Ndlovu, Mandla Mdlalose, Nason Dludla, the Revd Peter Biyela and me. The deputation presented the problems in Makhalafukwe. The Town Clerk said that there were plans to build better houses, and that the Port Natal Administration Board had acquired land for the purpose, and this had been approved by Pretoria, and they were just waiting for funds to become available. The committee asked that something be done immediately to improve conditions in Makhalafukwe, pending the erection of new houses. They mentioned particularly water supply, toilets, rubbish removal and lighting.

The town clerk said that owing to the steepness of the ground and absence of roads, the tractors and trailers that the town board used for rubbish collection could not get into Makhalafukwe. He promised, however, to supply plastic rubbish bags and send the tractors to the nearest point, if the residents would pick up the rubbish and fill the bags. He also promised to see what could be done about the other matters raised by the committee.

On 27 August 1981 another open meeting of Iso loMuzi was held. Zac Mkhwanazi gave a report on the meeting with the town clerk, and his response to the various issues that had been raised. There was some discussion on wages, which people felt was the next most urgent issue after housing. The guest speaker for the evening was the Anglican Bishop Lawrence Zulu, who was on a pastoral visit to the Mthonjaneni Deanery. He said he himself had been born and bred in the district.

Within a few weeks a couple of street lights had been erected, and taps had been installed for the residents, and the rubbish had been collected. It appeared that the town clerk had taken the deputation’s requests seriously, and had acted immediately to fulfil some of them.

On 21 October 1981 the Diocese of Zululand was holding a clergy school at the diocesan training centre at KwaNzimela. It was again led by John Tooke of Africa Enterprise, who had participated in the training meetings a year previously, when Makhalafukwe was first visited by a group of clergy at a training meeting. As part of the training at the clergy school, groups were sent to visit and conduct surveys on Protest Farm, among the patients at St Mary’s Hospital, and in Melmoth, including Makhalafukwe.

The clergy school was a much larger group, consisting of all the clergy of the diocese (about 55 in all), but some of those who had been there the previous year were among those who visited Makhalafukwe the second time, after not having seen it since the previous year. When they returned to KwaMagwaza they reported their amazement at the transformation that had taken place. This time, they said, the residents were friendly, and not hostile. They proudly pointed out the new street lights and taps, and the absence of rubbish. Those who visited said that they could hardly believe that it was the same place that they have visited a year before. Now it was a community. They met and spoke to some of the same people that they had seen before, but their attitude had been completely transformed, and they could hardly believe the changes that had taken place in a year.

In retrospect

Looking back after nearly 30 years, I think that my association with the people of Makhalafukwe was one of the most significant things that happened to me in my time in Melmoth. When I first became involved with it, I saw my role primarily as a catalyst. If there was to be a community there, then the people living there must discover the community. Peter Biyela took the same view, and we worked together on this. Our aim was to conscientize the people and enable them to build community for themselves. The Anglican Diocese of Zululand had had quite a lot of experience in attempts at community development. In the early 1970s they took the initiative in getting a community development expert, Dr Milton Rosner, to conduct training for all the Zululand Churches in community development, though he said that he doubted that it could be done by anything smaller than a national government. In those days, however, the government was dedicated to community destruction, so community development had to be done by civil society groups like churches, or it would not be done at all The Zululand Diocesan Health and Welfare Association (Helwel/Zisizeni) became ecumenical, and ran several projects in different places. Both Peter Biyela and I had at one time or another served on Zisizeni committees, and felt that it was top-heavy and bureaucratic. It had too many paid full-time staff, and too much administration. We saw that its bureaucracy could be disempowering to local communities.

We believed that people in places like Makhalafukwe could at least in some respects take control of their own lives, and make decisions about matters that affected their lives. So our main task in the wider community (wider than Anglican church members, that is) was simply to bring people together to talk about their problems. The materials we used for discussion, such as the Lumko courses on Serving the neighbourhood gave input on the kind of things that could be done, but it was as people began to talk to each other about their problems that they began to come up with possible solutions.

Not all the solutions were within their reach, unaided. The erection of street lights, and the provision of taps was done by the town board. But the significant thing here is that it was done by the initiative of the people at Makhalafukwe themselves. The committee represented them to the town board, which was the only body capable of doing public works on such a scale.

I am not sure about this, but I think that much of what the town board did was probably beyond its jurisdiction. The settlement at Makhalafukwe was unofficial and unrecognised. It was tolerated because black policemen who did shift work had to be close enough to do their work. Others moved there later, and were ignored by the town board, conveniently out of sight behind the garage and the school.

When the people of Makhalafukwe organised themselves, they made their presence known to the town clerk, as human faces. It seemed like the beginning of a relationship that could be fruitful, if only the Port Natal Administration Board and organs of the central government had stayed right out of it. A visiting town planning expert, seeing Makhalafukwe, said it would be better to transform the existing place than to try to move it elsewhere. Under apartheid it was not possible to do this. The Port Natal Administration Board, which was separate, remote and bureaucratic, had the power to build houses elsewhere and a few years later it did so.

In the Anglican parish, the white and black residents of Melmoth were just beginning to know each other as members of the same church when the people of Makhalafukwe were moved away.

Lessons for the RDP

I believe that what happened at Makhalafukwe in 1980-81 suggests some lessons for reviving the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which was a key feature of the ANC election promises in the 1994 general election. It is a pity that the RDP was abandoned so soon after the ANC government (when elected in 1994) had said it was “non-negotiable”.

The aim should not be for a government department to have the task of overseeing reconstruction and development, but rather of acting as a catalyst, and helping civil society groups such as NGOs and churches to themselves become catalysts in this process. Leaving it to the private (ie commercial) sector does not develop community, and is not empowering. Whether it is government bureaucrats or big business providing housing and services, the ordinary people are disempowered. Much land reform, while seeking to rectify past injustice, often creates new injustice in the present, as the only ones to benefit from it in many places are absentee landlords.

But thirty years ago a small maginalised group in Makhalafukwe showed that it is possible for people, in spite of circumstances, to become a community and to take decisions about their own lives and circumstances, decisions that make a difference.

Lessons for churches

Much of the material in this post was written for a graduate student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal who was thinking of writing a masters dissertation on Iso loMuzi, which he had discovered some time after I had left Melmoth.  I’ve adapted it as a kind of case study that I hope might be useful for churches like those Tom Smith wrote about in his post Connecting the rich with the poor, when he said:

Though this might sound counterintuitive, the rich must resist their urge to give money to the poor and relearn the art of being with the poor.  Even more radically, the non-poor is invited to become a student of the poor – to allow the poor to teach them something.

And my own church, the Orthodox Archdiocese of Johannesburg and Pretoria has also been guilty of many of the things that Tom Smith writes about — going into poor areas and distributing food and old clothes as handouts, without developing a relationship with the people who receive these things.  And the very fact of distributing such things forms an impenetrable barrier to ever forming a human relationship, because the relationship has gone wrong right from the very start: the one is a giver, the other is a receiver. So there can never be any equality.

One of the things that the Orthodox Church needs to learn is to rediscover the ministry of deacons. Deacons have liturgical duties in worship, but they have social duties which are also their liturgy, and part of the social duties should be to help empower poor people, or people living in poor conditions, such as those in places like Makhalafukwe.


Freire, Paolo. 1998. Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Hayes, Stephen. 1990. Black charismatic Anglicans. Pretoria: Unisa.
Shorten, Richard. 1987. The Legion of Christ’s Witnesses: change within the Anglican Diocese of Zululand 1948-1984. Cape Town: University of Cape Town, MA Dissertation.

If you would like to download a more academic description of this project, you can download it from ScribD here.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 March 2009 9:22 am

    Thanks for writing this down Steve! It really links well with some of my own experiences. Freire’s work is amazing on this subject … now to unlearn some of the old ways.


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