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To this day, the story of Mongameli Mabona in exile, brings tears to some of his former students

Lekgantshi Console Tleane. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Lekgantshi Console Tleane. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Published Jun 26, 2022



January 23, 1970. The day will go down in history as a defining moment within and for the Roman Catholic Church. The Rand Daily Mail published a document entitled “Our Church has let us down!” Its signatories were five black Catholic priests – Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, David Moetapele, John Louwfant, Gobi Clement Mokoka, and Mongameli Anthony Mabona.

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The five priests authored their manifesto following frustrations that they endured within the church, including the fact that they had been presenting petitions since 1966 to the then white hierarchy for the church to change and reflect African aspirations. Their calls fell on deaf years. They had enough and were no longer prepared to be treated as “glorified altar boys”. The time to speak out had come. Hence, they wrote: “Ingane engakhali ifela embelekweni!”

The statement by the black Catholic priests must be understood within the context of a refusal by black people to continue “standing at the touch-lines to witness a game that they should be playing”, as Steve Biko would say. It was at that moment that Mongamelo Anthony Mabona raised his hand together with his brothers to express the pain, anger, and aspirations of his people. The story of his life is told in this book, simply titled Mongameli Mabona: His Life and Work, by Ernst Wolff.

The book is divided into two parts. Part one reflects on the world into which Mabona was born and the actual story of his life. Part two provides a broad overview of his thoughts, drawn from his writings and the interview that he gave to the writer. This review focuses only on part one, hoping that the reader may have an interest in exploring his thoughts.

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Mabona’s life, like that of black people in general, was shaped by the context into which he was born and grew up. It was also influenced by the experiences that he had in different social settings and within the Catholic Church. In many ways, his life is an intellectual history of the interface and at times contradictions between Black Consciousness and Christianity.

Born in 1929 in Qombolo, in the Eastern Cape, Mabona was initially raised by his uncle at his maternal grandmother’s house following his mother’s death when he was only a year old. His dad went to work in Cape Town for Dominican nuns. Starting school in Zigudu, Christianity became a major dimension of Mabona’s life. He learnt Latin from one of the Catholic missionary priests at the time. This would prove valuable in his later training for priesthood and postgraduate studies.

Identified for priestly vocation and sent to St Mary’s Minor Seminary in Ixopo, where the standard of education was far from satisfactory for Mabona, he managed to pass a state matriculation exam. His vocation was continued at the newly established blacks-only St Peter’s Major Seminary in Pevensey. KwaZulu-Natal.

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Despite the challenges that black seminarians faced, which were not unique for black people at the time, Mabona completed his studies and priestly formation and was ordained a priest in December 1954. His ordination came on the back of the pain he suffered after losing his father and brother two years earlier.

Apart from doing ministry among his people, the implementation of apartheid during his early years as a young priest shaped Mabona’s world view. The forced removals, expropriation of agricultural land, disruption of farming activities by black people, violence, and further deterioration of black life, all these made Mabona to be deeply concerned about the condition of life for black people.

Four years after his ordination Mabona was instructed to go to Rome to further his studies at the Pontifical Urbaniana University. It was in Rome that his brilliance came out. His stay culminated with him earning a doctorate in Canon Law, a field of study that only a few theologians are qualified in. The fact that he wrote his thesis in Latin set him further apart.

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Besides studying, Mabona interacted with black writers from the continent, as well as starting independent research, particularly in African Philosophy. The latter is now an established field that he can be credited to have contributed to it being an accepted canon.

While in Rome he attended the Second Congress of Black Writers and Artists held in that city in 1959. The organiser was the indefatigable Senegalese writer, Alioune Diop. It was at the conference, and even after, that Mabona interacted with some of the prominent African writers and artists – Léopold Senghor, Aimé Césaire, Jacques Rabemananjara, Léon-Gontran Damas and many more. His political consciousness was sharpened.

Apart from his studies, independent research, and interacting with fellow African writers while in Rome, Mabona contributed to some of the submissions made by African Catholics to the Second Council of the Vatican, the gathering of bishops from 1962 to 1965 which brought in most reforms that exist to this day within the Catholic Church.

Returning to South Africa in 1963, Mabona started first by teaching catechesis in the Eastern Cape, until he was invited to become a lecturer at St Peter’s Seminary in 1967. The seminary had already relocated to Hammanskraal, outside Pretoria. St Peter’s is known in the history of the liberation struggle to have been the preferred conference centre for the Black Consciousness Movement throughout the 1970s, up until the movement was banned in 1977.

It was while teaching at St Peter’s that Mabona would receive requests for political advice from black students, not only the seminarians themselves, but students from public universities. It is claimed that Steve Biko and Barney Pityana consulted with him before they led a breakaway from the white-dominated National Union of South African Students (Nusas) to form the South African Student Organisation.

The manifesto of black priests referred to earlier arose during the time when Mabona was involved with other elements of the struggle for liberation. This led to his eventual escape to exile (London), due largely to harassment by the apartheid police.

Being in exile did not, however, stop his activism. He maintained contact with the exiles from the Black Consciousness Movement, specially the short-lived Azanian People’s Liberation Front led by Bokwe Mafuna.

Studying for a second Master’s degree with the University of London’s School for Oriental and African Studies, he also served as an assistant priest in one of the city parishes. This, however, ended abruptly in 1975, and it is here that Wolff admits he could not find more information on how his tenure as a priest ended, and why he eventually left the priesthood.

What is known is that he began to do odd jobs as a hotel worker. It could be that Mabona opted not to divulge information about what is in fact a painful episode of his life.

The book does not cover speculation that some white bishops at the time influenced the parishes in Britain not to offer him tenure. Thus, besides his sharp brain, Mabona’s life remained one of struggle.

He got married and, from 1984 until 1994 when he retired, he worked as a porter in a Swiss hospital. He obtained his second doctorate (Anthropology) in 2004 from the University of Bern, Switzerland.

To this day, the story of Mabona in exile brings tears to some of his former students from St Peter’s. His intellectual contributions in the study of African Philosophy, Black Theology and Anthropology are enduring.

Mongameli Mabona: His Life and Work is published by Leuven University Press (Belgium). It can be purchased from online outlets. Free downloadable copies are available on the website of Leuven University Press.