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Stephen Gawe: 80th birthday party

31 December 2017

I was pleased to be invited to the 80th birthday party of an old friend Stephen Pandula Gawe.

Victor Mkhize & Stephen Gawe at 1963 ASF conference. Behind is Revd Midian Msane.

We first met at student conferences in the 1960s. He was a student at the University College of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape, and I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, more than 500 miles away. We met at the annual conference of the Anglican Students Federation (ASF) held at Modderpoort in the Free State in July 1963. He made a sufficiently strong impression on me for me to propose him for the office of president of the ASF, but eventually he was elected as vice-president.

At a concert held during the conference he acted an impression of a witchdoctor (igqira) holding a consultation with a client, and diagnosing what ailed them.

Stephen Pandula Gawe, Julu 1963

He was fairly active in national student affairs generally, as after the ASF conference he went on to the national council meeting of the Student Christian Association (SCA) which was being held in Johannesburg, where I lived at that time. They were involved in a heavy constitutional wrangle. The SCA had four sections — Afrikaans, English, Black and Coloured. The Afrikaans section, which was numerically strongest and the best funded, wanted the SCA to split into four separate and independent organisations, in line with the current government policy of apartheid. Since the SCA was then the only ecumenical Christian student organisation in the country, Stephen and others were concerned that splitting it up like that would further divide Christian students along racial lines, since they were also being forced to attend separate universities.

We went to visit him during the SCA Council meeting, and when he had a free evening brought him home to have dinner at my place with a couple of other ASF members, and took him back to the Priory of the Community of the Resurrection in Sophiatown, where he was staying during the council meeting. That cemented our friendship, meeting outside of conferences and formal gatherings, and just chatti9ng about all sorts of things.

The following Sunday a group of us who had been at the ASF conference went in a group to the Anglican Church in Meadowlands, Soweto, where the Revd John Davies, the Anglican chaplain at Wits University was celebrating the Mass. It was the home parish of one of the students, Cyprian Moloi, who was translating a speech the rector of the parish gave about money, in Sesotho, but when the rector said, “Morena ye-ye-ye-ye” Cyprian collapsed into giggles, as did half the congregation, who were waiting for the translation. We took Stephen Gawe to the station afterwards, to get the train back to King William’s Town — a sad parting, for we would not see each other for another year. We had to use separate entrances to enter the station, but all met up again on the platform. The authorities could segregate the entrances, and there were separate black and white carriages on the trains, but they had not yet got around to providing separate trains running on “own lines”. If Verwoerd had not been assassinated a few years later they might well have done so.

Stephen Pandula Gawe, Modderpoort, July 1964.

We met again at the next ASF conference in July 1964, also at Modderpoort, which must have been the coldest place in South Africa and it was the coldest winter in years. Driving there from Pietermaritzburg we had watched the car temperature gauge dropping as we climbed Van Reenen’s Pass, and for the rest of the way the car heater was completely ineffective. There was snow lying around on the sides of the road that had not melted since it had fallen a fortnight earlier.

When everyone else had gone to bed Stephen Gawe and I stayed up talking and playing chess (at which he easily beat me every time). We discussed possible candidates for the election of office-bearers, which produced an interesting black-white split in the election of the vice president. Most of the black members voted for a white guy, Clive Whitford, and most of the whites voted for a black guy, Jerry Mosimane. At 4 am, having talked ourselves to a standstill, we said Mattins together and lay down to sleep beside the remains of the fire in the common  room.

Stephen Gawe had to leave early to attend the SCA Council meeting again, and we took him to Modderpoort station to catch a train at about 1:30 am. It was a steam train, and while it was standing in the station, and we were all wrapped in blankets, the escaping steam condensed on the smoke deflectors and turned straight to frost. As the train pulled out and we waved goodbye, I little suspected that I would not see Stephen Gawe in South Africa for another 35 years.

Six weeks after the ASF conference we had the news that Stephen Gawe and three other Fort Hare students had been arrested and were under 90-day detention. Eventually he was brought to trial, found guilty of being a member of the banned ANC, and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. In January 1966 I went to the UK to study for a Postgraduate Diploma in Theology at the University of Durham. When Stephen Gawe was released from prison he wrote to me to say that he to was coming to the UK to study, but he was leaving on an exit permit, which meant that he could not return to South Africa while the apartheid regime lasted.

Stephen Pandula Gawe, London, December 1966

In December 1966 he arrived in London and we got together again, as I was spending the Christmas vacation there. He was staying at the Franciscan Priory at Plaistow, while I was staying with the Sweet family in East Wickham, Kent, for the Christmas vac. Mervin Sweet had been the university chaplain when I was a student in Pietermaritzburg, and had moved to the UK a couple of years earlier.

We saw quite a bit of each other then, and we compared notes on the culture shock we had experienced on arriving in England.

We met again in June 1967, in Oxford, where he was studying, and we got together with a few other South African students there. I was staying with the Revd Tom Comber, who had been the first chaplain of the ASF when it started in 1960, and though he had not known Stephen Gawe then, they became friends and continued to keep in touch while Stephen was at Oxford, and afterwards as well.

In July 1967 Stephen phoned me, and said he was getting married to Tozie Mzamo, and wanted me to be best man at his wedding, which made me feel undeservedly honoured.

Wedding of Stephen Gawe and Tozie Mzamo, Oxford 1967

We continued to see each other occasionally, including once at a seminar for South African students in the UK, and discussing what those who returned to South Africa could do. It had a pretty wide range of South African students there, and I was rather surprised to find no mention of it in my SB file when I got a copy of it some 40 years later.

Steve Hayes and Stephen Pandula Gawe, Hatfield, Pretoria, July 2001

I returned to South Africa in July 1972, and we kept in touch by correspondence for a while after that, and then lost touch. The next contact I had with him was a phone call out of the blue in July 2001. He was in Pretoria, and had found me in the phone book. We met for dinner, and he gave me the sad news that Tozie had died. He was now in the diplomatic service, and was about to go to Denmark as South African ambassador there. I tried a few times to contact him by e-mail, but failed, and so we lost touch again.

But his daughter Nomtha, whom I had never met, got in touch, and we were able to meet her and her husband Ant Gray when they visited South Africa. She said that she too has having great difficulty in seeing her father, who was being kept incommunicado by his second wife, who seemed, to all accounts, to be the classic fairy-tale wicked stepmother. I had hoped, in a kind of reciprocal arrangement for being best man at his wedding, to invite him to our 40th wedding anniversary celebration, but no word came from behind the blank walls and windows of the fortress in which he was held. So great was our joy when we were invited to his 80th birthday party, though right up to the last minute there was some doubt about whether he would be allowed to attend.

So we went to Joburg for the party, which was suitably blessed by a traditional Highveld afternoon thunderstorm, with hail drumming on the metal roof of the garage. Pula! one might say, if anyone spoke Tswana. We met Stephen’s other daughter Vuyo, his grandchildren Jonas and Ruby, and several other relatives.

Stephen Gawe with daughters Nomtha (standing) and Vuyo. Observatory, Johannesburg, 30 Dec 2017

And getting together after all this time puts me in mind of the theme tune of the TV cop series New Tricks:

It’s all right, it’s OK
Doesn’t really matter if you’re old and grey

Stephen Gawe and Stephen Hayes, 55 years later. 30 Dec 2017

Some members of the extended family we had met before

The Gawe family

Also there was Stephen’s younger brother Ncencu (spelling?)

Vuyo and Ncencu Gawe

And an old school friend, Pinkie Nxumalo.

Syephen Gawe & Pinkie Nxumalo, with grandson Jonas in the background


Pinkie Nxumalo was regretting that people did not write down their stories, and said it was important that people should tell stories, which is one reason this post is so long, because I took her words seriously. I urged Stephen to write down some of his stories, but he feared there were too many gaps in his memory, and so they might not be accurate.

Pinkie herself had an interesting life. She trained as a doctor, went to the UK for further study, and spent some years there, and we gave her and her daughter Sibongile a lift home to Midrand. I hope she does get to write down her story.

But I’ve tried to tell a little of the story of Stephen Pandula Gawe as I knew him, and hope I get to see him again before his 81st birthday.

God grant you many blessed years!









7 Comments leave one →
  1. Valerie Bijl permalink
    31 December 2017 8:22 pm

    Thank you. Some where in those years we met Stephen. Aart was in a Card shop and they found themselves picking up Christmas Cards off the Floor. This was in Edinburgh 67/68 and he and Tozi became close friends. We are also S.Africans and we were still trying to decide stay or go back but also putting down shallow roots in Scotland. We managed to see the family over the years after they left Edinburgh. And the delight at having someone we knew to send a Christmas Card to The Ambassador in Denmark. And by one of those wonderful coincidences while visiting my elderly mother and my brother who was staying Carol ? and she was a collegue of Nqabomzi Gawe. It was the day before leaving and we talked and talked and I could have stayed a week more! Thank you for your really wonderful memories. We have learnt so much more. And also that you are there together is fantastic. Wonderful Nomtha and Vuyo. Val and Aart

  2. Katrina Svilans permalink
    1 January 2018 3:26 am

    Thank you for sharing this story. It will be a wonderful way to remember them when our memories fade!

    It also gives me joy to see snippets of the life of people from other cultures and countries. A reminder that love and friendship transcends all boundaries of time, space & culture.💛God Bless from Katrina in Australia.

  3. Howard Lancaster permalink
    1 January 2018 9:43 am

    Thanks for this. It was so good to hear about Stephen. I met him when I conducted a wedding at All Saints’ parish here in PE about ten years ago. A former parishioner of mine was marrying the son of a Methodist minister and both bride and groom worked in the Department of Foreign Affairs. Stephen was ambassador to Denmark at that stage. I knew of Stephen, whom I think I remember correctly was a cousin of James Gawe, a priest colleague in the Diocese of Grahamstown. James and I had attended a course at St George’s College in Jerusalem together and both of us went on to the UK afterwards, where James went to see Stephen. Some years later, James died in a supposed car ‘accident’, which we suspected had been ‘arranged’ by the security police and Stephen confirmed this when we spoke. It never came out in the TRC. Clive Whitford retired back to Grahamstown and he and Penny (nee Reynolds) are quite involved at the Cathedral. Clive’s brother, Neville, was ordained and retired to Port Elizabeth some years back but died soon afterwards. I was privileged to be asked by him to conduct his funeral. Another brother, Graham and his wife attend St Hugh’s, Newton Park, here in PE, where I grew up (with John Suggit as Rector) and where Sheila and I attend since my retirement. You mentioned the SCA. Eventually a different student movement was started to overcome the issues you mentioned. It was the University Christian Movement and Barney Pityana was the St Peter’s College rep and I was the equivalent from St Paul’s.

    • 1 January 2018 12:08 pm

      Thanks very much for those reminiscences, Howard. I knew several of the people you mention, especially Clive Whitford, who was headmaster of St George’s School in Windhoek when I was there. I knew Neville mainly for ASF conferences also. I knew James Gawe only by hearsay, but did meet another cousin, Sigqibo Dwane, who founded the Ethiopian Episcopal Church and was killed in a car crash a few years ago. And Stephen’s father Walker Stanley Gawe was also a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Grahamstown.

      I’ll send you more on the story of the disintegration of the SCA and founding of UCM, which I didn’t mention here because it happened when Stephen was in jail and so unable to influence events.

  4. Nozipho Dimakatso Gawe permalink
    6 August 2018 7:55 am

    Thank you very much for this wonderful information about our father.
    Though we never met but now is like I know all the Gawe family.
    God bless you and I would like to know more about the family as I am one of then.

  5. Mongezi Guma permalink
    10 August 2018 2:49 pm

    Very interesting reading. Amazing – the ‘story’ should begin with the father, who was at one time chaplain of the Cape ANC. I didn’t know that Phandula was still alive. MHSRIP. May his family be comforted and given strength at this difficult time.


  1. In Memoriam: Stephen Pandula Gawe (1938-2018) | Khanya

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