Obit – Sipo Mzimela: A gentle, fire-breathing priest

2013-02-11 10:50

Sipo Elijah Mzimela (1935-2013)

In his 1996 book Portraits of Power, author Mark Gevisser describes Rev. Dr. Sipo Mzimela as a “fire-breathing priest”.

That certainly was one aspect of my uncle’s personality, and even as post-Apartheid’s first Minister of Correctional Services from 1994-1998, he did approach his job with the fervour of a pastor. But the fire was tempered by an internal form of water, of gentleness, and of a wicked sense of humour punctuated by roars of joyous laughter.

Sipo Elijah Mzimela was born June 19, 1935 in Durban, to Allison & Maria Mzimela. He had three sisters, Miriam, Josephine and Brigid.

The entire family was raised in the Anglican Church and as a child he always wanted to be a priest.

Born with an unyielding sense of optimism and hope, he became disillusioned with the church’s response to apartheid and instead became a teacher, joined the African National Congress and got involved in political protest against apartheid, eventually being forced to flee South Africa and going into exile in several other African countries, Czechoslovakia and Germany.

While living in Germany, he married his first wife, Esther, and they had two daughters, Nomusa and Lindiwe.

Eventually he moved to the US to study for his M.Div. at the General Theological Seminary. After being ordained a priest in 1976, he also earned a Ph.D in Ethics at New York University.

My uncle had a beautiful singing voice, and he even cut a record, co-produced with Abdullah Ibrahim, titled Liberation: Freedom Songs in 1978.

He served at churches in New York and New Jersey and then the Episcopal Church sent him to teach at St. Paul’s Theological College in Kenya.

When he came back to the States in 1986, he founded the South Africa Education Fund to help educate South African students and he served as an associate priest at St. Bartholomew’s in Atlanta.

In 1989, while living in Atlanta, he also married his second wife, Gail DeCosta, and became stepfather to Julia.

He continued his anti-apartheid work in the States, first for the ANC and in the early 1990s, much to the family’s surprise, suddenly joined the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

In 1990, after Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the political parties unbanned, Mzimela returned to South Africa after 29 years in exile, participated in the drafting of the first constitution, and after the elections, he was appointed a parliamentarian and Minister of Correctional Services in the South African government of national unity under Nelson Mandela.

It was under Sipo’s direction that Robben Island, the primary political prison in South Africa, was closed.

He also advocated for and instituted juvenile correctional facilities to protect incarcerated children from the adult inmates.

Gevisser in his book described Mzimela as “the man who is without doubt the finest orator in the current Parliament.”

Indeed, Uncle Sipo loved the captive audience and stage that the House of Assembly provided. But it did not take long before a spectacular falling-out with IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi came to the fore within the IFP.

When asked about the rumour that the two did not even greet each other, Mzimela replied, “This is not true. You see what he wants is not for me to say hello to him...but rather to kneel down and bow for him. I refuse to do that to anybody else except God.”

After leaving the IFP in 1999, he continued in parliament briefly as a United Democratic Movement representative until he officially retired from politics in 2001.

Retirement seriously mellowed my uncle. He moved back to the suburbs of Atlanta where he served as an associate priest at St Bartholomew’s Church, and also returned to academia where he taught in the Religious Studies Department at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta.

He even opened a fair trade craft shop in Atlanta called Pambili, which provided him with an excuse to return to South Africa every year.

Uncle Sipo faced a lifelong struggle with diabetes, which led to the amputation of his leg in 2000, and numerous health challenges. After a recent five-month battle with illness, Sipo Elijah Mzimela, 77, died on February, 2, 2013 at Odyssey Hospice in Decatur (Atlanta), Georgia.

He is survived by his wife, Gail, sisters, Josephine and Brigid, daughters, Nomusa and Lindiwe, step-daughter, Julia, grand-daughter, Kanyisile, seven grandsons, nieces, nephews, and many other relatives and friends.

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