Walking the fine path between God and Caesar

2012-09-12 00:00

THE morning of Sunday, September 2, 2012, will never be forgotten by people who knew and admired the Reverend Dr Khoza Mgojo’, because this was the morning that he died. For most of us, when we got the message, we could only exclaim, Uwile umuthi Omkhulu kwelakwazulu-Natal — a giant tree has fallen in KwaZulu-Natal.

Mgojo’ was known to many as a political pastor and a leader of great standing in the ecumenical movement, and founder of the Senior Citizens Organisation. To those in Christian circles, he will be remembered as a minister of the Methodist Church, the past president of the South African Council of Churches and a man who was honoured with the Order of Baobab for his contribution in the liberation of this country.

Khoza Elliot Mvuyise Mgojo’, of the Mbongwa clan, was born on April 4, 1932, at Ixopo, near Currie’s Brook. He was the son of Samuel and Rebecca Mgojo. Samuel was the son of Mgojo Mbongwa of the Amahlubi clan of Inkosi Langalibalele near Estcourt, whose father had migrated from Estcourt to Ixopo following the death of Langalibalele in 1889. Khoza Mgojo’s mother was Rebecca Dlamini, a daughter of Inkosi Fodo Dlamini of Enhlangwini. When Mgojo’ was eight, his father died and the family moved from Ixopo to Umzimkhulu, where Mgojo’ began his education at Emvukazi Primary School. He later briefly attended the Pholela Institution before transferring to Endaleni Mission, where he eventually received his teacher’s qualification. In 1953, Mgojo’ moved to Port Shepstone to teach at Gcilima Secondary School, where he taught for four years before moving to Durban in order to be closer to the university.

In Durban, Mgojo’ taught at Malikazi High School, where he also served as vice-principal, and worshipped at the local Methodist Church. He came under the influence of Enos Zwelabantu Sikhakhane (the founder of the Edendale Lay Ecumenical Centre), who supported him in his response to the call to the ministry.

Mgojo’ did a BA in theology at Fort Hare from 1961 to 1963. In 1965, after serving a number of Methodist congregations in the Transkei, he went to Chicago Theological Seminary and did a Masters in theology, graduating cum laude. When he returned in 1967, he was appointed as tutor at the Federal Theological Seminary for Southern Africa (Fedsem) in Alice. In 1970, Mgojo’ went to the U.S. to do a PhD in Biblical languages at Harvard University. He came back to South Africa in 1975 and took up his post at Fedsem, which was now located at Imbali in Pietermaritzburg.

As a pastor, Mgojo’ was a powerful preacher who had a deep love for the people. He took their concerns and aspirations very seriously. Being a pastor during apartheid meant that he needed to use his theological education to respond to the cries of the people, bearing the good news of the gospel.

Following the 1976 uprising, there was instability in the Methodist Church. Mgojo was one of the leaders who gathered in Bloemfontein to form the Black Methodist Consultation, which was created by black Methodists to lobby for the transformation of the church from being a white-led church to one that had a black leadership. The other aim was to locate the Methodist Church in the heart of the struggle against apartheid.

Mgojo’ became the first general secretary of the consultation, which was the first such church body formed within a major denomination in South Africa to lobby for transformation.

Another contribution he made to the Methodist Church — and it was a controversial one — was the introduction of bishops. Previously, leaders of the Methodist Church were referred to as chairpersons of the district or president of conference for Methodist leaders, and were to be treated with respect when dealing with government leaders. “I held the term ‘chairperson of district’ and ‘president of conference’ didn’t give them the aura they needed … Then I proposed that we change the titles to bishop, but these would go with no power, no change of robes, no ordination or consecration, etc.”

The move was opposed by some, including Reverend Peter Storey, who thought it would lead to difficulties around status and power. Mgojo’ admitted this is what subsequently happened. “Unfortunately, the fears held by the opponents of this proposal have been confirmed. We have heard that bishops now want their term to be increased, they want their robes to be different, they want to be ordained in this position and they want to keep the title even when they are no longer in the position. This is not what we agreed upon.”

Mgojo’ was also responsible for the unification of the two Methodist Church groups into the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and the united Methodist Church in 1988, after a decade of animosity and fighting. He was also appointed by then president Nelson Mandela as a commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

During the days of political violence in KwaZulu-Natal, Mgojo’ was among the church leaders who formed the Natal Church Leaders’ Group, the main goal of which was to bring peace in the province and he became the first chairperson of this group.

In my many interactions with Mgojo’, one aspect of his life always fascinated me. This was his views on the interaction between politics and religion. One minute he was clad in his clerical garb, preaching the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ, and the next I would see him in political meetings, leading marches and challenging those in power to deliver on their promises to the people.

In an interview, I once asked him: “What are you baba, a politician or a pastor?” He responded by saying “I am a pastor, whose ministry has political concerns and implications to those I have to minister.”

When I heard of his death, I went back to my notes from the many interviews I had with him. There I found the answer to my question. Mgojo’ was a public theologian with two Masters in divinity and a PhD from Harvard in theology and Biblical languages. His studies had enabled him to engage in critical reflection on classic and contemporary Christian doctrine, belief and practice, and to interpret political dynamics in the light of religious texts. Mgojo’s was a political approach to analytic Christian theological reflection. He held passionately to the intellectual tradition, which correctly posits that all theological construction is inscribed with a political agenda, irrespective of whether or not any theologian may be conscious of that fact.

Another significant contribution Mgojo’ made was the founding of an organisation that looks at the needs and aspirations of senior citizens. He argued that pensioners and other older people were neglected in South Africa; therefore they needed their own organisation to enable them to get the support from government.

One of the things Mgojo’ opposed was reference to senior citizens as “old people”. He argued that “old” refers to things that have lost value and are dispensable. He referred to himself and other pensioners as senior citizens, who still have value, were not dispensable and needed to be respected as important members of society.

Speaking at a memorial service for Mgojo’ in Edendale, a representative of the senior citizens said: “Dr Mgojo’ was our father. He spoke for us, and he fought this same government for not looking after us. During the people’s parliament in Ladysmith, he challenged the whole cabinet for having made promises to senior citizens that they have failed to keep. Now that he is gone, who will speak for us?”

To return to the subject of God and Caesar, Mgojo’ was respected by both the church and the political community. He was respected as a man of God and great leader of the Methodist Church. In political circles, he was respected for being an astute critic of the government, especially with regard to poor performance. Even national government ministers were wary of his critical eye, but his criticism was done through the movement rather than through the media. When asked why he never criticised the government through the media, he admitted that he did not trust the media. He said the media used to write bad things about him without checking the facts. “So I don’t criticise people through the media,” he said. “There are internal structures of the ANC and of government through which we must raise our voices. That I am prepared to do.”

So what was Mgojo’s life path? Was it for politics or for the church? Was he a servant of God or of Caesar? Mgojo’ was a servant of God, the God who is concerned about all of life. He was concerned about the God who is concerned about politics, justice, liberation and the way we treat our citizens, especially those who are more vulnerable, either because they are children, youth or so-called older members of society. He understood that for Caesar (government) to do his work properly, he needs the constructive engagement and critical solidarity of the servants of God. For him, religion without political concerns was pie in the sky and politics without religion was dangerous.


• R. Simangaliso Kumalo is director: research and postgraduate studies in the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.

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