More than a mission history

2011-04-28 00:00

STANDING on the crest of eThafeni, one of the highest points overlooking the uMko­mazi river valley, the Reverend M. J. “Riens” de Haan of the Reformed Mission Enkumane indicated the area which, along with the people it is home to, forms the subject of his book Mission on the Margin.

It’s an awe-inspiring view. Substitute the uMkomazi for the uMzimkulu and the first paragraph of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country comes to one’s aid in trying to describe it: “Below you is the valley of the [uMkomazi­], on its journey from the Drakensberg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill; and beyond and behind them, the mountains of Ingeli and East Griqualand.”

Add the homesteads huddled on the hillsides, the sound of the wind through the grass, and the low roar of the winding river like the constant sound of the sea.

The Reformed Mission Enkumane was launched in 1960, an initiative of the Free Reformed Church in Kampen in the Netherlands. The first missionary, Reverend Johan Vonkeman, arrived in South Africa in 1958 and chose the Trust Farm Groothoek in the centre of eNkumane as a mission area. Vonkeman held the first service at eNkumane on Christmas Day 1959 in a local homestead. Over time the mission expanded, a church and a clinic were built on the slopes of eThafeni, as well as accommodation and facilities for those attending church-run courses.

Vonkeman retired in 1989 and De Haan was approached in the Netherlands as a possible successor. He and his wife Idith visited the mission the same year and agreed to settle there permanently in 1991.

At the time De Haan already had a masters in clinical psychology and a masters in theology and Bible translation at the Free University of Amsterdam. With South Africa beckoning he also began classes in isiZulu. “By the time I arrived in 1991 I had some rudimentary isiZulu. It was enough to start a conversation and then try and cope with whatever came next.”

Twenty years on —- with two sons, Jonatan and Daniel, and a daughter Jael — the De Haans have become an established presence at eNkumane. On Sundays De Haan, together with Pastor Moment Funeka, operates a four-week rotation system that sees them preaching at the various churches and places of worship associated with the mission.

While on one level De Haan’s book is a history of the mission and the area it serves, it also is a more personal inquiry. “In 2001 I got this feeling, that having spent ten years here I wanted to describe what we were doing. To come to an understanding of what it is we were, and are, doing.”

De Haan had made extensive notes during the violence experienced at eNkumane in the 1990s. “All during that time there was a constant stream of information coming in on everything. The question was what to do with it.”

The answer proved to be a PhD. The late Professor Steve de Gruchy, head of the School of Religion and Theology and De Haan’s doctoral supervisor, advised De Haan that if he was to write about the Reformed Mission Enkumane project he needed to provide a perspective by comparing it to the other missions in the area. De Haan followed De Gruchy’s advice and duly obtained his PhD which he then rewrote for its book incarnation, Mission on the Margin.

As well as his own mission De Haan’s book provides detailed histories of the three other missions in the area — the Methodist Indaleni mission, the Anglican Springvale mission, and St Bernard’s Roman Catholic mission — all with their roots in the nineteenth century. But Mission on the Margin is far more than a mission history.

De Haan also provides a comprehensive history of the people of the area — the Africans and the white settlers — drawing on the many interviews he conducted with local people as well as extensive archival research.

De Haan acknowledges a debt to the James Stuart Archive, that huge body of transcribed interviews made in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by James Stuart, a Natal civil servant and expert on Zulu history and culture.

Stuart’s recorded interviews provided De Haan with the names of people who had lived in the area and enabled him to unlock information from their descendants. “During several interviews when I mentioned certain people I was asked: ‘How do you know those names?’ Interviewing became a two-way process, I would give people information about their ancestors and they would share information with me.”

“One interview led to another as people said you must talk to so-and-so,” says De Haan. Such recommendations led him to the home of Essa Moosa in Richmond. The Moosa family had run what was known as the Inkooman Shop from the early 1900s until it was closed down under the Group Areas Act in the 1950s. De Haan also researched and interviewed the descendants of the white settler families — the Nicholsons and the Cockburns among others — and the chapter From Farm to Trust Farm chronicles another trajectory of dispossession.

The government took over the farms in the 1940s to create Trust Farm Groothoek, essentially a government-controlled extension of a Zulu location, created to settle farm labourers removed from nearby farms. “People were thrown together in Trust Farms,” says De Haan. “They came from different areas and they had no common history.”

“This area is a border area where white settlers, amaZulu, people on the Trust Farm, all rubbed shoulders. That’s also what led to the book — this challenge of living together on borders, borders of language, of culture, of academic background. That is a challenge. As a man of God I believe we can live together and love each other.”

The Reformed Mission Enkumane has about 200 people registered as members of its congregation.

The churchgoers are mainly women and children. Men seem either to be uninterested in religion, adhere to traditional African religions or are working elsewhere. A similar situation — and numbers of congregants — applies to the other missions in the area.

Looking back over the history of missionary endeavour in this part of Africa, De Haan says it must have come as a shock in the late nineteenth century when the missionaries realised that local people didn’t identify with European churches. “They didn’t expect the growth of African initiated churches, they didn’t expect that these so called Ethiopian churches would develop.”

“Churches are not monolithic,” says De Haan. “There are other churches but not in what might be called established form. This is a development seen all over the world where different forms pop up.”

Today there is ambivalence about the role of missionaries, there are questions concerning the role they played in colonial conquest and there are also changing perspectives within the churches. In the past matters were clear cut: missionaries were called by God to spread the Gospel, to proselytise actively in order to save souls.

For De Haan the missionary emphasis lies in being present rather than in proselytising. “The church fits into all nations,” he says. “It has to meet that challenge of being together. If you regard proselytisation as your measure of success, where’s the sense in it? If you see success in terms of expansion and numbers you are going to be disappointed. We have barely 200 congregants. Is that a failure?”

Such a question is one that Mission on the Margin is not afraid to ask. In fact De Haan raises many questions about the missionary endeavour without supplying neat answers. “I didn’t want to draw conclusions,” he says. “In this regard I see the book as a discussion tool. Here’s a description of what’s going on; what do you think?”

“Ultimately it’s about the challenge facing all humans beings, trying to live together before God — and that’s not a sure thing. It’s difficult. It can be filled with quarrels. But that challenge is a big motivation in this work.”


• Mission on the Margin — A Case Study on Reformed Mission Prospects in eNkumane, KwaZulu-Natal by M. J. de Haan is published by Cluster Publications.

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