Hymn to my ancestors – how a Dutch Reformed evangelist turned a North West cattle post into a spiritual haven
While apartheid laws tore through other communities in the 1950s, Mongangane Wilfred Mofokeng created a thriving haven for people through his evangelical leadership of an NG Kerk in Gelukspan.
When his grandfather gave sermons, he was “capable of shaking mountains”, a church elder tells journalist and author Lesley Mofokeng. “Ntate Mofokeng pulled people towards God with the great and rare talent of a motivator.”
In this revealing book, Mofokeng investigates the life of his grandfather, Mongangane Wilfred Mofokeng, a prominent Dutch Reformed Church evangelist. As Black South Africans were being evicted in the 1950s from the cities to live in reserves and homelands, Mongangane set out to build a community at a dusty cattle post in North West. There he managed to establish a resilient community that mostly lived outside the repressions of the apartheid regime. The journey takes the author from Johannesburg’s Marabi-soaked townships of the 1930s to his childhood home of Gelukspan near Lichtenburg and then to rural Free State and the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. In what becomes a spiritual quest, he traces the inspirational footsteps of his ancestors and the legendary King Moshoeshoe.
Mofokeng also explores the politics and history of the Dutch Reformed Church’s Black constituency and uncovers why to this day it is called Kereke ya Fora – or “Church of the French” – and its hymns are sung across denominations and in social spaces outside the church.
Today I walked into a church my grandfather built in 1958. It was like 1982 all over again at my grandparents’ lively mission house. Sunday morning … breakfast on the table, then a hurried walk to Sunday School. Standing there, I was overwhelmed with emotion and memories. I was stepping back in time. The church is an imposing structure with the trademark NG Kerk steeple mounted by a cock that – at least to my eyes, when I was a child – looked like it reached up past the clouds to the blue sky. Back then, the wooden benches, wooden floor and the elegant chandelier gave it a dignified touch. The large champagne-coloured stained glass windows added an ethereal, other-worldly feel to it.
This building was, in my childhood, a majestic landmark, jutting out of the uninspiring platteland of Gelukspan in the Lichtenburg district in North West. I believed sincerely and without any doubt that it was indeed the house of God.
The last time I was here was in December 1984 for my grandparents’ farewell ceremony. A memory etched in my mind is that of my weeping grandmother, too emotional to contain the sadness of leaving a congregation she worked in for 32 years and what had become home not only to her, but to generations of her descendants.
The two of them, Mongangane and Mahadi, sat by the pulpit in front of the congregation one last time as the flock paid their respects and gave them modest farewell gifts. The whole affair seemed rushed to me. It did not fit the stature of my grandparents. I expected bigger crowds and even bigger dignitaries – important people that had worked with them for over three decades.
Here they were now, getting ready for the uncertainty of retirement, and the prospect seemed too much for my grandmother to bear. I wanted to reach out to her, to comfort her, but with church rules and protocol, I had to sit still in the Sunday School section and helplessly watch her pain.
Now, in 2019, 35 years after my grandparents’ retirement, and a few nights before Christmas, the church is empty as we wait outside and wander around the premises.
My two children, Mahali and Chapatso, are with me on this momentous trip retracing our family roots. So is my cousin Mpho, whom everyone calls Prof, and his wife, Nqobile, and their three girls. We can peep through windows since the stained glass has been replaced by regular glass. The wooden benches and wooden flooring are gone.
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A friendly woman, identifying herself only as Mrs Koko, keeper of the church keys, emerges to fling open the doors and to welcome us.
She immediately recognises us as the grandchildren of Mofokeng and her face lights up. She opens up her arms to hug us and wastes no time telling us how great our grandfather was and about his contribution in making the lives of the people in Gelukspan better. I point out to her that his name does not appear on the church stone. The White dominee’s name – TI Ferreira – is there. Mrs Koko agrees that Mongangane Mofokeng’s name ought to be there too. But my grandfather’s name is not immortalised on any stone. There is nothing that formally acknowledges his physical, mental and spiritual work in the church, the hospital, the schools and the community of Gelukspan. We walk into the church and nostalgia is a shock like a slap across the face.
Music and church hymns are an important part of my own life and my relationship with spirituality. When I was young, the mellifluous voices of the choir of youngsters living with disabilities from Tlamelang Special School filled this space. The choir was something of a legend in school music competitions under the baton of Mistress Dorothy Morapedi, picking up all the silverware and leaving their competitors devastated. I remember so well their renditions of Ke Na Le Molisa (I Have a Shepherd), Bophelo ke Wena Fela (You, Alone, Give Us Life), Jesu Motswalle Ya Nkileng (What a Friend We Have in Jesus) and Ha Le Mpotsa Tshepo Ya Ka (If You Ask Me Where My Hope Comes From), but also the popular choruses they sang for us. Now, today, all I can hear is the echo of our own voices reverberating throughout the crumbling structure as we peer and peek into all the nooks and corners of the over 60-year-old building. Mrs Koko calls to us from the konsistorie (the backroom of the church reserved for the minister and the church council). She shows us the exact utensils our grandfather used for selallo (holy communion).
The wooden tot dispenser, the tithing bowl, the baptismal stand. They are still in use, she says, and they hold a sentimental place in the hearts of those who witnessed the great work of Mongangane.
What she is demonstrating flushes out another memory: standing here in the same konsistorie as a curious six-year-old, watching my grandfather count the stock for holy communion. I would beg him to share the communion wine with me. ‘Just a taste,’ I would implore. Ever the disciplinarian, he would flatly refuse and reprimand me, ‘He-e, o ngwana, ha se dintho tsa hao tse’ (‘No, you’re a child, this is not for you’), but he would offer me two cubes of the communion bread to shush me. Such were the privileges of being brought up by a preacher man. He always locked away the communion wine before we left for home. I promised myself that one day I would devise a plan to steal the key and help myself to copious amounts of this red drink that seems to be loved by the older members of the congregation. That scheme never came to pass.
The wooden flooring has been replaced by tiles and the wooden benches have made way for black plastic chairs. The ceiling is peeling, and it is cracking as though it’s about to give in but, by faith, is holding on for dear life. The pulpit, remarkably, has remained intact. The iconic, but faded, Modimo o Lerato (God is Love) church lesela (cloth) still hangs there. It used to be a deep, strong colour, but it has had one too many washes and has become more orange than blood-of-lamb red. The gold tassels have all disintegrated. Not a single strand has survived the years. We gather around in the well on the church near the pulpit, and Mrs Koko says a prayer, thanking God for bringing us together and wishing us well as we depart – this after Nqobile led the small congregation in the rendition of the popular hymn Re Ya Ho Boka Morena (We Praise You Lord).
We file out of the church feeling fulfilled. The small rituals, the words, the song, the prayer – it is as though we have just witnessed a powerful sermon. We had felt the presence of our grandfather’s spirit, despite the dilapidation and the silence.
We head towards the hospital complex. This place too, is an important part of Mongangane’s story in Gelukspan. We walk through the corridors – past the outpatient department, medical wards, TB wards, administration block – and out onto the cobbled walkway to the now-deserted nurses’ home.
The once-noisy handicrafts workshop with machines whirring and burring away is as silent as a haunted old house.
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The hall, which could seat over 500 people, and which had looked absolutely massive to my young eyes, is in a state of disrepair. There are no signs of its previous life anywhere. Today, the spiders in the cosy homes of their cobwebs here would laugh in my face if I told them about the beauty pageants that were held on that stage; the concerts, the music and dance competitions that electrified the place and whipped revellers into a frenzy.
Perhaps the most enduring memory of the hall is of the Good Friday services that were held there and the night vigils over the holy weekend. The hall would be filled to capacity in a Mecca-like – okay, make that Moria-like – gathering of the faithful from all the villages around Gelukspan, ferried by trucks, lorries, tractors and even horse- and donkey-drawn carts.
The services had become so popular that families and relatives would travel from as far as Johannesburg and Pretoria to take part. On Friday, beasts – usually a cow and a few sheep – would be slaughtered. Pots of ting (sour sorghum porridge), pap and samp would be on the braziers as excitement mounted.
The Saturday service was heralded by pomp and ceremony. A long procession of church elders and deacons draped in their manele (coats with tails) would file into the hall and fill up the stage. The spectacle was not unlike a university graduation ceremony. It had real gravitas. The last to walk in would be my grandfather and the resident minister. After the opening sermon, my grandmother and Mejuffrou, as she was generally known, would take over the programme with the clothing ceremony.
My grandmother and Mejuffrou Ferreira, wife of the Afrikaans minister who served with my grandparents in the 50s and 60s, would undertake the ceremony of clothing the new members of the church from the ministries of Mokgatlo wa Bacha ba BaKreste (MBB) for the young, and Christelike Vroue Vereeniging (CVV) for the older women.
How it worked was that new members came dressed in black long-sleeve collarless jackets, skirts, stockings and shoes. Then my grandmother and Mejuffrou would place the white circular collar on their shoulders and hold it in place with a branded pin. Then they would place the black woollen beret on the women’s heads.
I gleaned from writing by the Late Reverend Dr Mary-Anne Plaatjies-van Huffel, moderator of the General Synod, that the symbolism of the uniform is as follows: the beret, jacket, skirt, shoes and stockings are black to indicate the sinful nature of human beings that can only be washed by the blood of Jesus Christ.
The white collar is a symbol of Jesus having washed our sins away. The five buttons on the jacket symbolise the five areas where Jesus was stabbed while on the cross. These are his hands, feet, side, back and head. The two pockets of the jacket indicate that Christian women should be peacemakers and keep their swords in their sheaths, just as Jesus instructed Peter when Jesus was captured.
The beret is worn because the Bible instructs women to pray with a hat on.
The women are encouraged to shun make-up and jewellery when wearing church uniform. This is to allow their beauty to come from within and for them to be known for their good deeds. The uniform is a symbol of simplicity, minimalism, plainness and a devotion to Jesus. It is meant to break boundaries between rich and poor members, those who can afford expensive clothes and jewellery and those who cannot.
The uniform is optional. Women are not obliged to be robed, and to be robed one has to undergo a year-long trial.
No fewer than 50 new members would receive the new uniform every Good Friday weekend. DM
Lesley Mofokeng is a former journalist, author and media specialist based in Johannesburg. He has worked for the Sunday Times, City Press and Sowetan and is a popular culture commentator on radio stations such as Metro FM, YFM, Motsweding FM, Kaya FM as well as several TV shows. Mofokeng’s first book was the bestselling biography Bitch! Please. I’m Khanyi Mbau (2012) and he has authored and edited several other biographies, a recipe book and a collection of essays. He obtained his BA Communication (Honours) from North West University and holds a Master of Arts degree from the University of the Witwatersrand.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.