Zethu- A leader in her own right

2018-02-15 06:00
The Reverend Dr Spiwo Xapile and his wife Zethu dared the status quo and opened theirf church in Gugulethu to Aids sufferers PHOTO: JL Zwane CHURCH

The Reverend Dr Spiwo Xapile and his wife Zethu dared the status quo and opened theirf church in Gugulethu to Aids sufferers PHOTO: JL Zwane CHURCH

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The other day when I sat down to have a conversation with the woman who has become known as the wife of the Presbyterian Minister Spiwo Xapile, she chastised me to banish the thought.

“I don’t and have never existed under Spiwo’s shadow... I have been a leader in my own right.. I have run the affairs of the church in the Southern Africa diocese, including Zimbabwe, Zambia and my home country.

So I figured that even if the call to minister was for her husband, for the flock at the Gugulethu based JL Zwane Presbyterian Church, it was a case of two for the calling of one.

Since they have a couple of months left before they bid the congregation goodbye- after a service of 20 years in the community of Gugulethu, mending the souls of the sometimes broken-hearted- I had to give her an ear, I thought.

At first, I had a feeling that she was reluctant to talk to me -people loath the media these days- because it took a while to secure this interview and when she finally relented, the first thing she said to me as we sat down for the ‘conversation’ was: “What do you want from me?”. I had to reassure her that it was more of a conversation than anything else.

She eventually settled down comfortably to let out that her maiden name was Zethu Mseleku.

That she was born to teacher parents in Pietermaritzburg, in KZN. That she was the sixth of seven siblings, of which only four are surviving. They had only one brother.

Her family was staunch Roman Catholic, and she was raised in the tradition of that church, which explains why his (Xapile’s) request for her hand in marriage was fraught with difficulties. First from her father, who rejected the emissaries who were sent- all the way from eMalungeni- to ask for permission to take his youngest daughter away.

That he(Xapile) was so smitten he personally called his future father-in-law to plead for his mercy, and reassure him of his love and committment to their relationship. She tells me Mr Mseleku senior was, in turn, so impressed by this young man’s guts and dully relented. But more challenges lay ahead. From the church.

Denominations have this law that if an outsider marries in, they have to convert to their religion and the Catholic Church was no exception. Save that Xapile was already an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church. This presented a hurdle of some sorts, as the Catholic priest would not marry their daughter to a different denomination.

However, Mr Mseleku came to their rescue and insisted that his daughter be married, church loyalty notwithstanding. In 1983 the nuptials were signed and all was well and good, thank you very much. Phew!

She insists that she fell in love with her beau the moment they set their eyes on each other, and shyly tells me: “It was love at first sight... I told my mother about him, and that is why he plucked up enough courage to speak directly to my father.”

She let her guard down and opened up to me, and I figure this probably explains why minister’s wives should not have these kinds of conversations with journalists. These are the kinds of juicy revelations we hunger after. There’s more!

I also note that she always refers to her husband in the first name, “Spiwo”, during the ‘conversation’, and ask if that’s how it rolls.

Her eyes open wide behind her spectacles- before letting out a soft laugh: “Oh no, we do have our “My dear Zethu and dear Spiwo moments.” I giggle in amusement.

Zethu Xapile was trained as a nurse, and when the call came through that they were needed to minister a disjointed church in Gugulethu, her background as a Catholic and a nurse came in handy.

It was in 1989. A person of not many words, she was quick to point out though, that she has never lived in the shadow of her husband. This is because she is more a doer than a talker. “I mean, when he was called, by extension, I was called too... We are partners in all of this.”

Drawing from her experience as a Catholic: “I had said to myself, no church can survive without a woman; so, no woman, no church.”

“There are no bishops in the Presbyterian Church and I had told myself also that I aim to leave a mark here, not because of marriage, but because I believe I was also called by G-d to come and work in this community and church.”

“I have done quite a lot of things in this community, as a leader, one must not just talk, but do... To get one’s hands dirty and show other women how its done.”

It is a historical fact that one of their major challenges- apart from a near haemorrhaging church, riven with infighting and factionalism- was the onset of HIV/Aids.

First, the church: “We started from scratch, because there was nothing to reference... We built from nothing to something.”

“We gathered a list of the elderly members who could no longer come to church through illness, and made it our mission to start home visits with a group of volunteers from the church.”

“Those first volunteers, without us realising, were the forerunners to a much bigger challenge looming on the horizon.

So that when the Aids epidemic broke out, we hit the ground running... I salute the first intake of volunteers for their gallant work, starting with the senior members and then the Aids sufferers. Its an indelible mark of selflessness and Ubuntu.

Those are the values we have strived for and implemented in the church.”

When the epidemic started ravaging lives, there was no remedy, let alone a cure for the sufferers to ease their plight.

“First, people came to church complaining about a strange phenomenon that seemed to “slim” them down, even though they were not on a diet programme.

Fear was written on their faces, as relatives were dying like flies and others were suffering from runny tummies, and known remedies were not working.

“I remember one instance, Spiwo was overseas on church business and inundated with people looking for solutions to their problems.

“I asked the elders to set aside 15 minutes of church time to allow people to talk about this challenge(of Aids).”

It seemed like the proverbial flood-gates had been opened and the church was filled to the brims.

“Older people didn’t know what they had let themselves into.”

The victims were their children and children’s children in the same vein.

Then they decided to open the church for conversations around these issues as a means to give them a promise of a better life and salvation. Instead of going to the clinics for help, sufferers and their relative opted for the church, if only because it offered the space to talk about the disease.

That is how the church gained the status of: Ikhaya lethu lokuphambukela: Our sanctuary of hope.

She credits the likes of medical doctors Sipamla and Matoti, including nurses the likes of Mpumi Mantangana and Nosisa Duma, for making their work all the more easier.

“They left the confines of the clinics and engrossed themselves in the communities ...The health facilities were caught between a rock and a hard place... The stigma was at its highest.

“It became comfortable not to talk about the disease.”

“The church became a place where people could talk about Aids without any fingers being pointed at anybody. Sufferers were one with us, and we were one with them.”

Mrs Xapile says, as their term comes to an end, she is content that she has been part and parcel of the church’s period of growth and glory.

As for leaving Cape Town. “Its not anytime soon. I am still involved in my work as a community worker, I will still be around.”

“The biggest personal achievement though, is being able to give hope to people who had despaired in life back in the days when Aids was ravaging communities.

“I’m very proud of myself and the people who helped us through those trying times.”

The Xapiles are parents to Hlalumi and Nonkululeko and doting grandparents to Reatlegile and Peloentle.

A Blessing and a Beautiful Heart, if you know your Sotho from your English.


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