Homepage
Home Read stories Africa maps The Project Resources Our Writers News
South Africa bishops

South African bishops, 1997
Enlarge

Mngoma, Themba Paul
1941 to 2005
Roman Catholic Church
South Africa

Mngoma was born on December 10, 1941 at Mariathal mission in Ixopo. He attended primary and secondary school in Mariathal and completed his matric in 1964. The following year, Mngoma went to Hammanskraal, Pretoria to study at St. Peter's Major seminary, as he recalled: "There [at St. Peter's] I studied philosophy for three years and then four years theology until I was ordained on July 4, 1971. The seminary was run by the Dominican priests and Magrath was the rector. That is why you saw me at his funeral (Oswin Magrath's). The training they gave us was alright." [1]

Before Mngoma's ordination he could have chosen to join the Franciscans Familiars of St. Joseph's (FFJ) a congregation founded by Bishop Adalbero Fleischer from Mariannhill diocese. However, he chose to be a diocesan priest:
Some were pressurized to the join the FFJs because they were a congregation founded by the bishop of Mariannhill. So his focus happened to be on the FFJs-in some instances the pressure was too much. But luckily we had some priests at the minor seminary and one of them was Fr. Henry Oscar who had been teaching there for a long time. We consulted with him when we were about to go to the major seminar about our options. I remember during my time, there was a priest who was an FFJ, Fr. Wenceslaus, he helped me financially because I didn't have much money. He said that he was going to help me because we were relatives and I didn't realize that he had ulterior motives--so when I was about to finish at the minor seminary he approached and asked whether I would like to become an FFJ. So he was helping with the view that later on I become an FFJ, me--I never thought of becoming an FFJ! [2]
After Mngoma's ordination he was assigned to several parishes:
My first assignment was Richeanau mission near Underberg I was an assistant parish priest then and I stayed there for only one year. I would have loved to stay longer but the situation was somewhat not conducive. The following year, I was transferred to St. Magdalene in 1973--even there I was still an assistant priest. I stayed at St. Magdalene from 1973 to mid 1975, then I was transferred to Umlazi G Section and there I was made the parish priest. [3]
As a priest he was involved in St. Peter's Old Boys Association (SPOBA) and attended several meetings while he was at the seminary and when he was working as a priest in Mariannhill diocese.

SPOBA was formally established in July 1966. But the desire to express the concerns of black clergy had existed before that. From July 4 to 7, 1966, a convention was held at Hammanskraal, with an attendance of thirty-one former students of St. Peter's Catholic Seminary. Mngoma also attended this convention that gave birth to the association that came to be known as SPOBA. [4] He recalls "Actually we had meetings for the old boys which was started by Magrath, known as SPOBA I was in the executive committee at one stage". [5]

A number of papers were presented at the meeting in 1966. The first one delivered by Fr. Oswin Magrath, rector of St. Peter's, was entitled "Unity of the Clergy in Southern Africa." Four years earlier, in the inaugural lecture of the scholastic year in February 1962, Magrath had expressed his concern that the training of black clergy in a separate institution should not put the unity of the church at risk:
The unity of the church, and its future, ... demands that [the African orientation of the seminary] should not go so far as to produce a clergy segregated (even by their own choice or inclination) from the rest of the clergy, nationalistic or even anti-white in spirit, and even perhaps tribally divided among themselves. This would be an unhappy result. On the contrary it should produce clergy who are truly catholic, ready to serve any members of the church, ready to work with any other clergy. [6]
In his 1966 paper, Magrath was still emphasizing that clergy should unite. [7] He referred to Vatican II and pleaded for an integrated clergy. He also appealed to black clergy, asking them to help white clergy evolve in the new situation. In his paper, he declared that Africans were meant to be leaders in their churches and encouraged them to be prepared to take up such roles. Other priests also gave papers. For instance, Fr. Anthony Mabona spoke on liturgy and Fr. Finbar Synnott on the second Vatican council (Vatican II). Officers for the association were elected: Smangaliso Mkhatshwa as chairman, David Moetapele as vice-chairperson, John Louwfant as secretary, Raphael Mosiea as vice-secretary, and Thlamelo Kolisang as treasurer.

Other meetings were held with student / political organizations during that time as Mngoma stressed:
There were also other meetings with organizations like Black Consciousness, Steve Biko and their colleagues. These are the people we used to meet and there was also a group dealing with black people's rights. In the final analysis South African Student Organization (SASO) gained momentum and that was Biko's thing. It started in Stutterheim where they went for a conference and were separated from whites and were only supposed to stay there for some hours with a permit. Then Biko started the SASO! [8]
The Black Consciousness Movement started flowing into SPOBA from about 1971 onwards. According to Clement Mokoka, SPOBA was "an organized platform to challenge and oppose the hierarchy's predilection to support the settler regime actively at the expense of the indigenous clergy, laity, and the oppressed and exploited community at large." [9] There was "a two stream church, namely, the quest for an autochthonous church represented by the black clergy and laity, on the one hand, and the struggle to establish the legitimacy as well as the superiority of Euro-Christians represented by the hierarchy on the other hand." [10] Along similar lines Mngoma recalled that impact of Black Consciousness:
You know, with Black Consciousness we were also talking about Black theology at that time. With Black theology, on the other hand, there was also Black Consciousness which particularly came from Steve Biko whom I knew very well and we associated very well as he used to come to visit us at St. Peter's. When he came to the seminary he used to tell our lecturers that they were not supposed to be there but overseas. It hurt but it was a fact. Then the idea came which said that "Black is beautiful" and it also gained momentum. In the seminary, the students saw this as a thing we could aspire to and I was the president of the Student Representative Council (SRC) for two consecutive terms and we used to invite Steve Biko. [11]
SPOBA started sending petitions to the hierarchy immediately after its inception in 1966. Several other petitions followed in 1968 and 1969. Their main theme was the "right to self-determination on the plea of mature manhood." [12] This theme had already been put to Joseph Gerard, the Oblate missionary, by the Zulu people when they said to him, "Let the white man leave us alone." [13] The same theme was identified by Archbishop Peter Butelezi in his summary of SPOBA's history: "SPOBA came in an era of strong Black Consciousness at the end of the 1960s, when there was a danger of forming a black church of all Christian groups." [14]

On the morning of January 23, 1970, The Rand Daily Mail published a manifesto entitled: "Our Church has let us down." The document was just the tip of the iceberg. Since the black clergy had received no response from their petitions to the bishops since 1966, by the end of 1969, they had no alternative but to express their concerns publicly through the printed media. The Manifesto aired their grievances, by saying that all avenues which the authors had tried before had been closed to them. They mentioned the petitions of 1966, 1968, and 1969. The five signatories to the Manifesto were Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, David Moetapele, John Louwfant, Clement Mokoka, and Anthony Mabona.

As Mngoma recounted: "This was the famous Manifesto by five priests and we all ascribed to the Manifesto because they were saying that "the church has let us down." The Manifesto was talking about not giving positions to the blacks and so on. We were part and parcel of the other meetings and we were trying to sort out some things--our contention was that they should recognize the potential of the African contribution. [15]

After Mngoma left the seminary he was still very active in SPOBA and continued to hold caucus meetings, as he remembered:
Oh yes, I was very active in SPOBA after my ordination because I was still president when I came out and was still a member of the SPOBA. We organized meetings in the Natal midlands which were good until we had elections at the meeting which was held at Lourdes in Umzimkulu diocese. I became so popular with the clergy in Umzimkulu so much that they would invite me if they had their own programs so that I can address them and I did this several times to motivate them as I was still young then. [16]
In Umlazi township, there were three churches. Mngoma was sent to the parish where Bishop Mansuet Biyase of Eshowe worked before he was appointed bishop in 1975. Mngoma also worked in this parish until he was made bishop in 1981. The former bishop of Mariannhill, Bishop Martin Elmar Schmid had died on June 18, 1980. For some time Rome looked for someone to replace Bishop Schmid as Mngoma stated:
There was a period when they were still looking for a bishop for this diocese. In the final analysis, it seems the finger was pointing at me and I was not aware. One time I was approached by the apostolic delegate Edward Idris Cassidy on a Sunday in Durban, I did not know what was happening then he said, "You look very smart, you know, and you have a nice green suit" and he continued to say, "Maybe you will soon wear a purple suit." So it did not click. Anyway, one day when I went to the bishop's house in Durban one of the fellows said to me, "You see you are the one who is going to be the next." I said, "You are kidding." I did not take interest in that until I was called by Cassidy, he did not give me a chance because I had thought that if I am called to this job I was going to refuse. [17]
During that time Mngoma was engrossed in his pastoral work at Umlazi and he enjoyed this very much. He had thought that if he was made bishop he would not be working among the people. Furthermore, Mngoma needed some more training in administration and Cassidy had already alluded to the fact that he was going to learn this as he went along. Given the circumstances, Cassidy presented the news to Mngoma when he said: "Fr. Mngoma, I just want to announce to you that Pope John Paul II has officially appointed you as bishop of Mariannhill." I almost fell down. I did not expect such a thing. Then he (Cassidy) offered me a cup of coffee I refused. I could not drink it as I was nervous because the news that the Pope has appointed you without any warning came as a shock to me." [18]

After the initial shock Mngoma discussed with Cassidy that he had made arrangements for his holiday to which he replied: "Oh no, your holiday will not be disturbed but we want you here on the date of the announcement." [19] Mngoma went to Johannesburg and stayed with Fr. Mvemve in Katlehong. The news of his appointment was announced in Mariannhill and people started looking for him as they did not know that he was on holiday, as he recalled:
The trouble started in Mariannhill as people did not know where I was. They tried to trace me: they phoned, they wrote to me--but they were guessing until someone who was acting vicar of the diocese traced me that I was in Katlehong. He sent me a telegram saying, "Hearty congratulations and come back soon and continue your holidays later." I stuck to the original plan I never went to Mariannhill until my holiday was officially over. When I came back there was a big "do" (celebration). I was tipped off by one of the parishioners because when I was going to Mariannhill I had to put on my clerical collar and I was a smart gentleman. She had told me to dress smartly as there were going to be a lot of people looking at me at the airport when I arrived. [20]
Upon Mngoma's arrival at the airport he was surprised to see the number of people who were waiting for his arrival as he said:
There were a number of people. I couldn't believe it--my parishioners and other media came to see me. They thought that I was a big man [but I was ] only a short man coming without a suitcase. Then there were also journalists each interviewing me about my plans for the diocese. We managed to get home so late because traffic was too much from the airport to Umlazi. At the parish they had arranged a nice reception and the hall was nicely decorated saying: "Welcome son of the soil!" Then we had a "do" (celebration) and then people disappeared. The person who was acting as vicar came and said that he would come to collect so that he could take me to Mariannhill. [21]
Mngoma was appointed bishop on March 14, 1981, and was ordained bishop of Marianhill on May 23, 1981 in the Mariannhill Sport ground and he took canonical possession of the diocese on May 25, 1981. He was the first African Bishop of Mariannhill Diocese. [22] As Mngoma highlighted the fact that Rome had always appointed white bishops in the Catholic church in South Africa but "it is interesting that my appointment came very timely after a few black bishops were appointed we felt that the situation was coming right but all of sudden they appointed a white bishop of Umtata." [23]

Once Mngoma was appointed he worked tirelessly to recruit new local priests for his diocese, as he stated: "Let me give you the example of my diocese: all I wanted to do was to establish the local church. I have been here for over seventeen years in this diocese and I have ordained a number of priests particularly diocesan priests." [24] The effort undertaken by the bishops has since yielded results. He expands:
When I took over there were about eight diocesan clergy so I had to work hard to increase the numbers. In 1982, during the centenary celebration of Mariannhill I wrote a pastoral letter asking for a centenary gift from each family and I highlighted this. After my ordination quite a lot of young people came and they went to seminary and they became diocesan priests. As it is now I think we have over thirty local priests and I am ordaining almost every year. So the church is becoming more and more local and indigenous which should be ideal because that is what we are striving for. [25]
However, this has not been easy sailing as some bishops within the Catholic Bishops' conference still believed that the church was missionary in its way of operating and they belonged to the "old school" as Mngoma put it. He has continued to pursue this program of recruiting priests and sending them for further training overseas, as he says: "I have trained some priests--some are back from overseas and one of them is the rector of St John Vianney. He studied scripture and obtained his doctorate degree. It is very expensive to train these young men since we do not have money from overseas and we only get our funding by fundraising from the parishioners within our diocese." [26]

In February 7, 2005, Mngoma retired because of poor health. He died on June 15, 2005 at the age of sixty-three. [27]

Mngoma was the first African bishop of Mariannhill Diocese which is closely aligned to the Congregation of Mariannhill Missionaries. In the beginning it was challenging working within the diocese but later the Mariannhill priests were very supportive, as Mngoma stated: "They had a change of heart, they were very cooperative. You had your problematic guys but, in general, they are very cooperative and they have learned to accept a black bishop and I think my successor will work well because I have paved the way for him."

George Sombe Mukuka


Notes:

1. Paul Themba Mngoma, interview by author, January 13, 1999, Bishop's House, Mariannhill, tape recording.
2. Paul Themba Mngoma, interview by author, January 13, 1999, Bishop's House, Mariannhill, tape recording.
3. Paul Themba Mngoma, interview by author, January 13, 1999, Bishop's House, Mariannhill, tape recording.
4. Gobi Clement Mokoka, "Black Experience in Black Theology. A Study of the RCC Missionary Endeavor in South Africa and the Search for Justice" (Ph.D. diss., Nijmegen Catholic University, October 1984), 53.
5. Paul Themba Mngoma, interview by author, January 13, 1999, Bishop's House, Mariannhill, tape recording.
6. Oswin Magrath, "St. Peter's Seminary at the Service of the Catholic Church in Southern Africa. Inaugural Lecture for the Scholastic Year 1962," typewritten document, 4 pages, Southern African Dominican Archives (SADA).
7. Oswin Magrath, "St. Peter's Seminary at the Service of the Catholic Church in Southern Africa. Inaugural Lecture for the Scholastic Year 1962," typewritten document, 4 pages, Southern African Dominican Archives (SADA).
8. Paul Themba Mngoma, interview by author, January 13, 1999, Bishop's House, Mariannhill, tape recording.
9. Gobi Clement Mokoka, "Black Experience in Black Theology. A Study of the RCC Missionary Endeavor in South Africa and the Search for Justice" (Ph.D. diss., Nijmegen Catholic University, October 1984), 53.
10. Gobi Clement Mokoka, "Black Experience in Black Theology. A Study of the RCC Missionary Endeavor in South Africa and the Search for Justice" (Ph.D. diss., Nijmegen Catholic University, October 1984), 53.
11. Paul Themba Mngoma, interview by author, January 13, 1999, Bishop's House, Mariannhill, tape recording.
12. Gobi Clement Mokoka, "Black Experience in Black Theology. A Study of the RCC Missionary Endeavor in South Africa and the Search for Justice" (Ph.D. diss., Nijmegen Catholic University, October 1984), 54.
13. Gobi Clement Mokoka, "Black Experience in Black Theology. A Study of the RCC Missionary Endeavor in South Africa and the Search for Justice" (Ph.D. diss., Nijmegen Catholic University, October 1984), 46.
14. Archbishop Peter Buthelezi, interview by author, July 8, 1996, Bloemfontein, tape recording.
15. Paul Themba Mngoma, interview by author, January 13, 1999, Bishop's House, Mariannhill, tape recording.
16. Paul Themba Mngoma, interview by author, January 13, 1999, Bishop's House, Mariannhill, tape recording.
17. Paul Themba Mngoma, interview by author, January 13, 1999, Bishop's House, Mariannhill, tape recording.
18. Paul Themba Mngoma, interview by author, January 13, 1999, Bishop's House, Mariannhill, tape recording.
19. Paul Themba Mngoma, interview by author, January 13, 1999, Bishop's House, Mariannhill, tape recording.
20. Paul Themba Mngoma, interview by author, January 13, 1999, Bishop's House, Mariannhill, tape recording.
21. Paul Themba Mngoma, interview by author, January 13, 1999, Bishop's House, Mariannhill, tape recording.
22. "St Francis College, Mariannhill." http://www.stfranciscollegemariannhill.co.za/site/awdep.asp?depnum=19894 (accessed April 29, 2009).
23. Paul Themba Mngoma, interview by author, January 13, 1999, Bishop's House, Mariannhill, tape recording.
24. Paul Themba Mngoma, interview by author, January 13, 1999, Bishop's House, Mariannhill, tape recording.
25. Paul Themba Mngoma, interview by author, January 13, 1999, Bishop's House, Mariannhill, tape recording.
26. Paul Themba Mngoma, interview by author, January 13, 1999, Bishop's House, Mariannhill, tape recording.
27. Southern Cross (February 2005).

Bibliography:

Magrath, Oswin "St. Peter's Seminary at the Service of the Catholic Church in Southern Africa. Inaugural Lecture for the Scholastic Year 1962," typewritten document, 4 pages. Springs: Southern African Dominican Archives (SADA).
Mngoma, Paul Themba. Interview by author, January 13, 1999, Bishop's House, Mariannhill. Tape recording.
Mokoka,Gobi Clement. "Black Experience in Black Theology. A Study of the RCC Missionary Endeavor in South Africa and the Search for Justice." Ph.D. diss., Nijmegen Catholic University, October 1984.
"St. Francis College, Mariannhill". Http://www.stfranciscollegemariannhill.co.za/site/awdep.asp?depnum=19894 (accessed April 29, 2009).
Southern Cross (February, 2005).

This article, received in 2009, was written by Dr. George Sombe Mukuka, a faculty research manager at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, and 2008-2009 DACB Project Luke Fellow.