Tales from Dystopia XIX: Ethnic cleansing and a Christian community
Forty years ago, on 14 November 1976, a service was held at St Matthias’s Anglican Church in Utrecht, Natal, to bid farewell to the previous parish priest and to welcome a new one. There is nothing unusual about that. It happens all the time.
But what was unusual about this one was that not only was the previous priest leaving, but so was most of the congregation. The black population of Utrecht was being ethnically cleansed, and within a couple of weeks they would all be physically removed, not only from the parish, but also from the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. They were being moved to the Anglican Diocese of Natal, across the Buffalo River, to a place called Mountain by the local people, but named Osizweni by the apartheid government that was forcing the people to move.
How did such a thing happen?
Utrecht was a small town, or a large village. It had been part of the South African Republic, but after the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 the district was transferred to the Colony of Natal. It was said that British troops stationed there had built the stone church of St Michael and All Angels in the main street of the town. Only white people lived in the centre of the town, and black people and most coloured people stayed in a “location” on the southern edge of town. On the western edge of the town was a very poor area, where mostly coloured people lived, called by its inhabitants Kak Straat (Shit Street) because that was what they thought it was. Towards the southern edge of the town was St Matthias’s Church, which the black and coloured people attended, where they had services in Zulu.
The Anglican priest who served Utrecht died in 1948, and thereafter it was served by the priest from Khambula, 50 kilometres to the east. Khambula was a mission centre, with schools, etc., but when the National Party came to power these were taken over by the Bantu Education Department. There were also many “outstations”, outlying churches which the priest from Khambula visited on a rota once every few weeks, and after 1948 Utrecht became an outstation too.
In the 1970s, however, the state-owned iron and steel corporation, Iskor, decided to build a steel mill at Newcastle, 50 kilometres to the east. This created some employment opportunities in the area, and there were three coal mines in Utrecht, so it looked as though Utrecht might also grow. The priest at Khambula at the time was Bill Johnston, from Northern Ireland, and the growing number of people attending both churches seemed to make it possible for Utrecht to have its own priest again after 25 years. At St Michael’s they collected money to put in a rather fine stained glass window of the Ascension.
Bill Johnston moved to Eshowe to be dean of the cathedral there, and the new priest at Khambula was Edmund Xulu. We were invited to look at Utrecht in July 1976, and decided to go there. We discussed the matter with Edmund Xulu, and after a bit of bargaining decided that in addition to the town itself, the outstations of Groenvlei, Magidela, Didane and Esitilenga would be part of Utrecht parish, while Khambula would retain those in the east. The outstations were poor, the congregations consisting mainly of farm labourers and cowboys. But with 5-10 fairly well-off whites in Utrecht, mostly working on the mines, and about 50 black families in the town, with most employed in the town or on the mines, the parish should survive.
But between July, when we had agreed to go there, and the end of October, when we actually arrived, we found that we would be losing about 80% of our parishioners. Even before we arrived, we had lost half the whites. They worked on the mines, and had been transferred to other mines. There were really only two white families left. And we heard that most of the black parishioners in Utrecht were scheduled to be removed to Osizweni by the end of November.
Such removals were common, and I was not unfamiliar with them. In 1965 I had attended and spoken at a Liberal Party meeting in Charlestown, which looked like a ghost town. Most of the people from there had already been moved to Madadeni (Duckponds) next door to Osizweni, and all over the countryside were ruins of small communities that had been forced to move. The people in Utrecht had been under threat of removal for some time, but sometimes people could live under such a threat for 10 or 15 years before the GG (Government Garage) lorries arrived to load up their stuff and take them to the new place. And in Utrecht they arrived in November 1976.
So one of the first things I did after arriving in Utrecht and unpacking our stuff in a small flat, was to go to Osizweni to visit the priest there, Ariel Mothibi, to tell him,that my new parishioners, whom I hadn’t even met yet, would be moving into his parish, so I wanted him to meet them so that they would know his face and having church contacts in the new place might help to make the forced move a little less traumatic.
He was astounded. He said that was the first time anyone had ever been to him to discuss the pastoral care of victims of forced removals and his parish had been the recipient of many such victims over the the years, from Charlestown, from Alcockspruit, and many other places scattered all over northern Natal. But not once had the clergy of the places people were being moved from ever come to talk to him about it. What, I wondered, were they teaching them in the theological colleges about pastoral care?
So on the day of the welcome and farewell service on Sunday 14th November, Ariel Mothibi and several members of his parish council were there too. He had organised for them to come, and they were introduced to the congregation, and told them about the parish, and where the church was, and welcomed them to Osizweni even before the GG lorries arrived, and by Christmas they were all gone. Many of the people still had jobs in Utrecht, and had to commute 50 kilometres to work each day, but I had never really got a chance to meet them.
There were a few coloured people left in the old location, and within a short time most of them had moved to Kak Straat too.
And then there was Utrecht parish. Since it was mostly the white people who had asked for a local priest, I began holding services every Sunday and saints day in the parish church, St Michael’s. There was one on All Saints, followed by All Souls, and one of the two remaining white families started complaining that there were too many services. They were used to the priest coming from Khambula once a month. But they’d asked for a priest locally, and what did they expect?
And then there was St Matthias. It had no congregation. It was bigger than St Michael’s, but with 90% of the congregation gone, the remainder could fit in St Michael’s with room to spare. Also, the people from Kak Staat had to walk across town past St Michael’s to get to St Matthias. So I suggested that we close St Matthias, which was in poor repair in any case, and think of something else to do with the site. Some of the whites weren’t too happy with that suggestion either. The coloureds should go to “their” church, they thought.
St Michael’s was also used twice a month by the Methodists. The Methodist minister came from Newcastle to hold a service there. And in the evenings, at 7:00 pm, it was used by the Assemblies of God. A lay evangelist, Piet Joubert, who had a photography business in Newcastle, came every Sunday. We also started having Sunday evening services, but at 5:00 pm, to avoid clashing with the Assemblies of God. Suddenly St Michael’s Church was being used 4 times a Sunday.
We would have an English Eucharist at 8:30 am, and rush off to have a service in Zulu at one of the outstations, and come back for the English Evensong at 5:00 pm. The morning congregation was about 15-20 people, the two white families, some people from Kak Straat, and some black families from the mines, who lived in mine housing. One of the youngsters from Kak Straat, Tyrone Dauman, who was about 11 or 12, got religion. He liked coming to services, so after the Anglican service in the morning he stayed for the Methodist one that followed, and after the Evening service he stayed for the Assemblies of God one that followed. The white Methodists freaked out about that, and the next Sunday they didn’t come for their service. Later, much later, we found out that they had started holding their services in the white reformatory on the road out of town, where they were unlikely to be disturbed by coloured kids who had got religion.
Then there was a new white family, Neville and Lesley Richardson. Neville was personnel manager on one of the miens, and they belonged to the Assemblies of God in the previous place where they lived. They started coming to our services. One day Piet Joubert, the Assemblies of God evangelist, said he would be showing a film the following Sunday, and invited our congregation to stay for it, and many of them did. Then we thought, why have two services with the church half full when we could have one that filled the church, so we combined the two Sunday evening services, and had quite an amazing mixture of people, of various races and several different denominations. There was a white Afrikaans Baptist, Oom Manie Craffert. He would go to the Afrikaans Baptist service in Newcastle in the morning, and come to ours in the evening. Our landlord was a Dopper, and there was no Dopper (Gereformeerde) church in Utrecht, so he came along too. The NG Kerk, a large and beautiful building surrounded by oak trees, had Sunday evening services, and ours were for everyone else.
After a few months we invited an evangelistic group, African Enterprise, to come and hold an outreach mission in Utrecht. In evaluating it afterwards, we said there had been a good response from black and coloured people, but not from white people. Oom Manie Craffert said, if you want to reach the white heathen in this town, you must pray for the dominee, because they all go to his church.
Within a few months, Edmund Xulu was transferred from Khambula, and there was no one to replace him, and I ended up having to care for Khambula and its outstations as well. Khambula thus exchanged places with Utrecht. Utrecht had been an outstatuion of Khambula, and now Khambula was an outstation of Utrecht, and the parish council at Khasmbula were not at all happy about that.
One advantage though, was that we inherited the Chevrolet (actually Isuzu) bakkie that Edmund Xulu had used, and so did not have to use Val’s little Fiat 124 over all the rough country roads. But the Isuzu was in poor condition, and burnt out all its valves. We took it to the garage in Vryheid, and they said it would cost R500 to repair it. We told them that we could not afford to repair it, but if they were prepared to trust the Lord for the money, they could go ahead and do so. I needed it to travel 200 km to KwaNzimela to teach at a course for self-supporting clergy at the end of the month. I wrote to the diocesan office and told them we needed R500 to repair the car, and thus could not pay the monthly diocesan assessment for several months. Then the miracle happened. The diocesan secretary got a letter with a cheque for R500.00 from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Eshowe. Our letter had been delivered to them by mistake, and in the same post their secretary had got a donation of R500.00 from overseas to be used where it was needed. And he thought, here’s the money, here’s the need, and passed it on.
With the outstations came schools. These had been church schools, and still used church buildings, but when the government nationalised Bantu Education in the 1950s, the church was not allowed to run the schools. Farmers (white) were, however, allowed to run schools for the children of their employees, so the church schools became farm schools. The farmers could not be bothered to run them, so they usually appointed the parish priest as manager, and that entailed huge layers of bureaucracy. As when they were church schools, children came from all the surrounding farms, and every now and again inspectors would come and say that only children of the employees of the school “owner” were allowed to attend. And I would say, “Who’s going to tell the kids they can’t come to school because they live on the wrong farm? Not me.” The teachers often bore the brunt of the bureaucracy. One teacher, Saulina Sithole, of Enzimane (an outstation of Khambula) had officially retired, but as she had no replacement she carried on teaching at a school with more than 100 pupils at various levels. Every year she had to explain that she was still working, and every year her salary was delayed while the bureaucracy digested that, and when we were there she had to wait seven months for her salary. Fortunately the local shopkeepers trusted her, and gave her credit for groceries etc, and the first thing she did when she got her back pay was to go round and clear her debts. I think she, and others like her, deserve to be remembered for their services to education in South Africa, when the government were going out of their way to make it as difficult as possible. The kids who were in those schools then will be in their 50s now, and I wonder how many of them remember having teachers like Saulina Sithole. It was people like her who kept both the church and schools going.
And then there were the police, especially the security police. One of our outstations was at Magidela, and there was a little thatched church on a farm with an absentee landlord, Mr Klingenberg, who lived in Commondale, over the border in what was then called the Transvaal (now Mpumalanga). We used to hold services there on Thursdays, and the leader of the congregation, Mrs Christina Ndebele, used to walk several miles carrying the altar linen on her head. One day we were just starting the service a white man carrying a rifle came to the church door and said we must all get out and leave, and that the church was to be closed. As we were leaving we saw him surrounded by policemen. At that time there were some people who would have us believe that churches being closed at gunpoint was something that only happened in godless communist countries, but it happened in South Africa too, and much more often than many people think. One of the things our constitution gives us is freedom of religion, and it was one of the things we did not have before 1994.
And then there was our very own SB spy, Alfredo Tembe, but I’ve already told his story here.
So these are some of my memories of church life and pastoral care in one parish, under apartheid. We were only in Utrecht for 11 months, and I was transferred to Melmoth in 1977 to become Director of Training for Ministries in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. But I learnt an enormous amount from the people of the Utrecht parish, and remember them with gratitude.
This post is one of series of Tales from Dystopia, stories of life, especially church life, in the time of apartheid.