Monday, October 21, 2013

Seth Jason Molefi Mokitimi

A tribute by P Grassow

1904 - 1971
Fifty years ago today the Conference of the Methodist Church of SA elected the Rev Seth Mokitimi as its president. This election did not come out of nowhere – Mokitimi had lost the vote for president the previous year by just one vote, and he had been on the ballot since 1957. Despite this, the election of Seth Mokitimi caused a huge stir. The Cape Times had this as its headline: “Bantu to lead Methodists” – noting that Mokitimi had risen from MoSotho herdboy to become the first black head of the Methodist Church.[1] Dr Verwoerd, the Prime Minister, was unhappy, as were many, many white Methodists – some of whom left the Methodist Church. At the same time many, many letter and telegrams of congratulations flooded in, including from the Gen Secretary of the World Council of Churches, and from the leadership of the African National Congress.  

So why was this so controversial?
An important component of this story is The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, Act No 49 of 1953 which formed part of the Apartheid system of racial segregation in South Africa. The Separate Amenities Act legislated that South Africans were to separate themselves according to race in all public spaces such as schools, hospitals, sports stadiums, public transport, and – it was thought – in churches. The Methodist Church struggled to answer this because it was caught between a natural desire to obey the law, and our Christian faith that brings us all together. For years the Methodist Church had held two District Synods, and two Connexional Conferences – one for Black members,  that met first and was chaired by a White minister – followed by a White Synod/Conference that reviewed the resolutions of the Black meeting. Most of the Methodist members had lived with this so long that they had become used to this system. But one man persistently brought a resolution to Conference, year after year, moving that there be one unified session. This man was the Rev Seth Mokitimi.

He was born at Quthing, Lesotho, in 1904. At the age of 11 he moved to the Orange Free State when his teacher father became a Methodist Minister. He completed his Grade 8 at the Ohlange Institute in Inanda and took an industrial course in shoemaking. He then went to Healdtown in the Eastern Cape where he finished his junior certificate and completed his teacher training. In 1927 he became a teacher at Healdtown, and a year later he married Grace Sello. In 1931 he candidated for the ministry of the Methodist Church, and went to Wesley House at Fort Hare, where he joined a group of theological students who formed a preaching band called “the Mighty Twenty Four”.
After his ordination Seth Mokitimi was called back to Healdtown by the Principal, the Rev Arthur Wellington, who was President of Conference that year and needed help.  He became the first black ordained minister at Healdtown, where he remained for the next 15 years (1937-1951). One of his most famous pupils was Nelson Mandela, who remembers him as ‘delightful’. In Long Walk to Freedom Mandela describes him as “a modern and enlightened fellow who understood our complaints”.[2] Mandela also writes of glimpsing a rising African determination to achieve greater dignity and rights when he witnessed his chaplain and housemaster, the Rev Seth Mokitimi, stand up successfully to the principal’s authority by defending the rights of the pupils.  

He became a delegate to four international conferences: the World Youth Conference, the International Missionary Council, the All Africa Church Conference, and the World Methodist Conference. Mokitimi represented the best of black African leadership at the time. He is described as “an important black spokesman for liberal, multiracial, ecumenical Christianity from the late 1930s to the 1960s”[3]  Mokitimi’s subsequent election as Methodist President was not only a tribute to his spiritual integrity, but it also became a moment when the Methodist Church publically rejected the ideology of Apartheid - something Mokitimi called “an idea born out of fear” and “unchristian”. [4]  

However, black leadership ran out of patience with the intransigence of the Apartheid  Government and in the same year that Mokitimi was elected President of the Methodist Church, Nelson Mandela was Accused Number One in the Pretoria Supreme Court, charged with nine others for planning to topple the government by military means. For the next eight years, while some black leaders developed the armed struggle against Apartheid,  Mokitimi chose to preach against segregation, and to work tirelessly to bring black and white people together. His health deteriorated, and Seth Mokitimi died on 25 November 1971. It is fitting to close with his words:
The “watchword” of a new South Africa “must no longer be White or Black, but Black and White, none regarding the other as a menace but each in his own way contributing towards the full harmony of our South African life”.[5]

[1] Cape Times 23 October 1963.
[2] N Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: the Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (London, Little brown and Company, 1994), 36-37.
[3] Deborah Gaitskell South Africa and beyond: Seth Mokitimi and the ‘Kingdom without Barriers’, 1939-1964.  Journal of South African Studies Vol 338, No 3, September 2012.
[4] S Mokitimi  ‘Race relations’, in Christian Council of South Africa (CCSA), Christian reconstruction in South Africa, A report of the Fort Hare Conference, July, 1942 (Lovedale, CCSA, 1942), 40.
[5] Mokitimi, 41.

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