Sister walks the walk

2008-09-22 00:00

It is a long way to travel from the pot-holed roads of Hammarsdale to the Christian Council of Norway in Oslo, Norway. The path from being a young girl in a traditional Zulu home to an international gender, HIV/Aids activist is just as long. That is the life journey that chief executive officer (CEO) of the Kwazulu-Natal Christian Council (KZNCC), the Reverend Phumzile Zondi-Mabizela, has travelled.

Zondi-Mabizela was born in 1964, the oldest of seven children. “My parents were factory workers and I was often left in charge of my younger siblings. My mother and grandmother were strong women, and were my first role models. I was very quiet and timid but I used to ask questions that annoyed my parents like why my brother did not have to wash dishes — we were brought up in traditional roles.

“I went to boarding school in Amanzimtoti when I was 14 and that’s where my eyes opened to politics and social justice. Hostel life introduced me to pupils from other provinces who were very assertive, almost aggressive, while our culture encouraged us to be compliant. This encouraged me to be a more independent thinker.

She traces the real start of her faith journey back to boarding school. She grew up in a religious home, but her family belonged to a church that was “very doctrine-driven and did not encourage us to analyse the Bible or think for ourselves”. At school she joined the Students Christian Movement which “opened my eyes to the possibility of reading the Bible in different ways and being able to shape my relationship with God myself.

“I matriculated in 1981 and was expecting to go to university. My parents had been saving for some time, but when the time came, I discovered that my father had used the money for something else, without consulting my mother.” This was a formative experience for Zondi-Mabizela as it made her realise “how dangerous it can be to rely on men sometimes. The experience encouraged me never to be dependent on a man but to be able to make my own decisions.”

With university out of the question, she got a job as a quality controller at Smith & Nephew in Durban. “This was also a formative experience for me because of the way gender roles shifted. I was 18 years old and responsible for checking the products produced by men on the factory floor. They respected me in my role in the workplace, but outside they still treated me in the same traditional way. Most of management was white and they didn’t see me as a young girl but as a worker with a responsible job.”

Zondi-Mabizela’s sense of a calling to ministry started slowly during this time. “People came to me with their problems and I slowly began to realise my calling.” This led her to enrol at a Bible college in 1986, but she was still “trained to interpret the Bible to support church doctrine and not to analyse scripture with an open mind”. However, she completed her studies, was ordained and sent to work in a congregation near Empangeni. Employment with different para-church organisations such as Youth Alive Ministries and Youth for Christ followed, during which she met the Reverend Renate Cochrane. A Moravian minister now based in Germany, Cochrane was a strong influence on the direction of her life from there.

“She encouraged me to study theology and helped me gather the resources I needed to do so. I enrolled at the University of Kwazulu-Natal (UKZN) to do a full-time bachelor of theology degree.”

While she studied, Zondi-Mabizela held three different part-time jobs to help support her two sons, who were at school: Mnqobi now 23, and Manqoba, now 18. Usually animated, she becomes solemn as she speaks about her experience of being a single mother. “My family and my son’s father rejected me when I fell pregnant the second time, so I was left homeless. I have known what it is to be ‘the other’. However, these experiences only made me stronger. People I worked with condemned me and judged me. They told me I would never amount to anything which just made me determined to prove them wrong.”

When she completed her studies in 1998 she became the programme co-ordinator for the Women and Gender Programme at the Institute for the Study of the Bible, School of Religion and Theology at UKZN, now called the Ujaama Centre. Her position involved her in work that she is clearly passionate about. “I was employed to create spaces for women to read the Bible and use it to challenge gender-based violence and other issues of gender inequality in the church and society in general. I also realised that HIV/Aids is an important issue that affects women the most.”

In 1999, Zondi-Mabizela was diagnosed as HIV-positive. “Being diagnosed positive made me stronger because of my relationship with God. I am living positively with it and helping others, especially women, who are living with HIV to read the Bible so that it is life-giving for them. This is important as I feel the church has preached a very negative message about HIV/Aids. I am often invited to share my story at national and international conferences. This gives me opportunities to empower others and also be encouraged by their stories.”

After leaving Ujaama, she spent one year in a congregation in Cape Town and then returned to Pietermaritzburg to do some work for the Norwegian Church Aid organisation. She took up the position of CEO of the KZNCC in 2006. It is an autonomous provincial office of the South African Council of Churches. “A male church leader encouraged me to apply. It was a pleasant surprise to find a male leader who could see potential in a woman.” Her position allows her to continue addressing the issues she is passionate about and to extend the work of the organisation. “I have identified some of the gaps in the work of the KZNCC. For example, the new group Sofia, Sisters of Faith in Action, is an attempt to challenge the male-dominated leadership of the church and elevate the role and leadership of women. Women tend to work quietly in the corners but we want to be in the mainstream and be recognised as leaders called by God. ”

Despite her strength of character and strong views on gender roles, Zondi-Mabizela has found a partner with whom she is compatible. She and Sbongiseni Mabizela married in 2001 and they have a six-year-old daughter, Sthandiwe.

She says she would “love to be remembered as someone who openly shared her humanity and weaknesses, yet also acknowledges her strengths. It is those things that may be seen as weaknesses that make me stronger. I want to be remembered for encouraging other women to explore and tap into their strengths too.”

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