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Priscilla Mokone
b. 1906
Lutheran Church
South Africa

Mokone was born on April 1, 1906 in Zebediela in the present Limpopo Province. Though a Methodist minister's daughter, she was raised by Bernice Kekana, a princess of the Moletlane Ndebeles. Due to her father's work, she moved around with her parents. From Zebediela the family moved to the present-day Northwest Province and lived at Makapanstad in Ga-Mosetlhe, Klerksdorp, and Mafikeng.

When Mokone was training to be a teacher at Kilnerton Institute near Pretoria she fell in love with one of the teachers, Nun Mokone of Botshabelo, whom she eventually married. Nun was born a Mokone in Botshabelo near Lichtenburg. Following an old practice still current among the Batswana, a Lutheran missionary named Johannes Schnell who could not have children had been given two boys to raise as his own.[2] Nun, one of the boys, had dedicated himself both to church and school, becoming a teacher and later an inspector of schools. [3]

At this time Mokone's parents were working in the Methodist Church at 14 Brown Street in Pretoria. She finished her training course and went to Johannesburg where she further trained as a kindergarten teacher at St. Thomas Catholic School in Johannesburg.

Born in a trained minister's home, raised by royalty, trained in one of the best institutions in the land and being married to a teacher-these things surely made life a little easier for Mokone than for an average young woman of her time. Nevertheless they did not protect her from the many challenges and obstacles in her work later on. Mokone lived at a time when men discriminated against women and the Apartheid Government of South Africa oppressed black people in general. She was a black woman surrounded by poverty.

The Painful Birth of a Lutheran School in Sophiatown

While working at Mary Magdelene School on Ray Street in Sophiatown--an Anglican institution--Mokone witnessed the suffering of small children there who were expelled for not being Anglican. As a result she resigned from Mary Magdalene's and forfeited her salary for two months.

She then started sewing and selling women's garments. Amazingly, the profits made from selling clothes enabled her to build three classrooms. There are three possible explanations for this. Either the style of clothing was popular with clients at the time or perhaps, as a teacher's wife she was able to bank on her popularity. It is also possible that she did not have to use the money for her household and could save it all to buy the plot at 69 Morrison Street. She hired Eva Moa, the daughter of a Hermannsburg Mission Society pastor to be the second teacher and the Lutheran School was in business. Both Lutherans and non-Lutherans received an education from this school of humble beginnings.

This chapter in Mokone's life shows her rebellion against denominationalism. She selflessly strived to give all children the opportunity to prepare for their future. If she had chosen to accept the denominational mentality she would have kept her job and maintained the status quo but Mokone was driven by strong passion for the advancement of black children.

The Manje Women's League

The establishment of the Lutheran Women's League was not easy. The Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (LCSA) was constituted only in 1967. Until then the church was a mission field of the mission of the Evangelical Lutheran Free Churches, under the leadership of the German missionaries. As they knew nothing about manyano, a Methodist women's organisation, the missionaries, especially Johannes Schnell (Mokone's father-in-law) and the mission superintendent Christoph Johanness of Salem in present-day Mpumalanga Province, stood opposed to its establishment.

As a former methodist Mokone could easily identify with umanyano. While in Sophiatown, she noticed that men in her Lutheran church were doing everything whereas the women in the Methodist and the African Methodist Episcopal churches were organized into a league and were doing tremendous work in the community. Schnell questioned Mokone for a long time to try and understand her intention with the league. She answered, "You have children in your house to send to do different chores. You presently have in Botshabelo Evangelist Lucas Lefete and Pastor Phogojane working with you. The Women's League will be there for you to send around. Women will do visits to the sick and give you reports on the conditions of the people visited." Mokone's humility made her regard the Women's League as "the children of pastors" who could be sent anywhere, especially to visit the sick.

A special service was held in Roodeport near Ventersdorp in 1989 to honor Mokone and others for their contribution to the formation of the LCSA Women's League. In his speech, missionary Manfred Nietzke recounted how missionaries had resisted the formation of the league. He also told how Mokone and the other women wanted the league "Manje!" Superintendent Johannes, who was alternating with Schnell to visit Sophiatown, finally blessed the formation of the league. Today (2007) the league is the most visible presence of the LCSA with its black and white uniforms both for the younger and older women. Mokone remembers Johannes insisting that the four-cornered cape be worn over the shoulders as part of the uniform to represent the four cardinal points and serve as a reminder that the league should not be parochial. The league's major activity in the church after fundraising continues to be visiting the sick, the dying, and the bereaved.

As many urban Lutheran woman had time on their hands Mokone saw this as another reason to push for the establishment of the league in the LCSA. The importance of the league should not be underestimated because Mokone's determination led to the creation of a formidable force that brought the church to the people in need. The people flocking to Sophiatown and other Johannesburg townships in search of jobs and better life could thus be helped and women in church uniforms were undoubtedly dedicated to help. Mokone and others knew that this could not wait but that the time was "Now, Manje!" as Nietkze remembered.

Swimming upstream against tradition

In a 2002 interview between Friedrick Dierks and Ntsimane held in Bleckmar Germany, Dierks described the difficulties he encountered when he tried to introduce western medical care among the Batloung of Botshabelo. Dierks remembered that he had to ask Mokone to help him. Nun Mokone was a teacher at the Bethel Lutheran College in Bodenstein near Botshabelo and Mokone was principal of a school in Botshabelo.

Mokone remembers that women in Botshabelo faced many challenges. When they were ill or experienced difficult deliveries they had to be taken to Lichtenburg. Some gave birth in taxis due to the distance between Botshabelo and Lichtenburg. Besides, taxis were beyond the financial reach of most people of Botshabelo. To remedy the situation, Mokone and the women of Botshabelo collected tickies [4]which were later used to finance the clinic building project. Women were mobilized to form bricks by hands until the building was completed in 1969.

The struggle came when women refused to use contraceptives provided and promoted by missionary Dierks, successor of Schnell. It was taboo for a man to speak about matters of sexuality with women. Mokone took it upon herself to speak to them and, according to Dierks, encouraged the young teachers at her school to use the clinic.

The Batswana tradition is to give birth at home with one's mother or close relative serving as midwife. The fear, according to Mokone, was that midwives from other families would bewitch the newborn baby or its mother. At that time a young nurse, Mathilda Sefanyetso, born Lekgetho in Botshabelo, was responsible for the clinic. Mokone talked to the women both in church and in her school, convincing them of the importance of antenatal clinic visits to maximize the chances of the safe delivery.

When the village was forcefully removed to Ramatlabama in 1977, the people of Botshabelo had fully accepted western medicine and regarded the clinic as their own. Reason prevailed and the fear of witchcraft was minimized thanks to Mokone's efforts.

The Church Rises in the Face of Despair

Those who have been forced off of their land know what it is like to live in an army tent or in a tin house. One needed faith to be able to survive in a new place, especially in Ramatlabama which is near Mafikeng. In that hopeless situation men gathered at Mokone Bottle Store to quench their thirst, and to deal with their situation. Temperatures in Ramatlabama area are often high, reaching 40 degrees Celsius. Mokone enlisted these men in making bricks for the church building. A man who made a minimum of 100 bricks qualified for a drink at the bottle store. In this manner, so many bricks were made that the surplus was sold by the elders to supplement their own income. Unfortunately, the missionary at the time only bought a small roof, which forced the builders to make the church smaller to accomodate the size of the roof. The church building stands till today (2007) in Ikopeleng, Ramatlabama, although Mokone has moved back to Botshabelo where her family has been farming the land since 2003.

In this project Mokone selflessly dedicated herself and her resources to uplifting her community and to glorifying God. In Ramatlabama her husband had already passed away and she was doing it with the help of her eight children.

Analysis

Like most African people, Mokone suffered poverty and deprivation under the white minority government in her time and this was an early preparation for the important projects she undertook. Unlike Thoko Mpumlwana [5] who saw her upbringing in a manse in a negative way, Mokone saw hers as a privilege. The many different people visiting the manse, the many different circuits a Methodist minister is called to--all taught Mokone to appreciate diversity. The time Mokone spent in the house of Princess Bernice Kekana in Zebediela prepared her to mix with people in high places.

Mokone's strength in challenging discrimination can also be attributed to her level of education. She acquired a high level of education at a time when it was difficult for blacks to go to college, let alone black women. Schools were not abundant in South Africa in the 1940s and preference for education was given to men. Education and the respect that comes with it prepared Mokone to establish a school and teach the use of western medicine to her people.

Mokone's marriage to Nun Mokone had a double advantage. Financially, Mokone was already established, given his employment in Kilnerton Institute and his German parenthood. Mokone did not relegate his wife to a woman who tilled the soil and raised babies. He stood by her side, for example, when she left her post at the Anglican School in Sophiatown. The Mokones were middle class blacks.

One cannot undermine the spiritual strength manifest in the passion with which Mokone undertook her church and community work. Having been raised in the manse and marrying someone raised in a manse stood Mokone in good stead. The love of God's church and people probably served as propellers in her quest to help her community. In her struggle she marched on with immense hope and indestructible commitment.

In conclusion, Mama Priscilla's struggle was not unique. Black Women in South Africa, especially during the 1940s -1960s were involved in struggles on many fronts. Black women were discriminated against by white men and white women, and sometimes also by white children they helped to raise. In most cases a black woman was not in any way superior to her children in the eyes of her husband. In the church, women had no say beyond singing and doing menial jobs like cleaning the church and cooking for church guests. Women who had an opportunity to acquire education were not listened to in androcentric society, lest they feel equal to men. Whites and white-trained men had the prerogative of deciding how women could express their faith in God. This was demonstrated by the hurdles Mokone had to clear before the establishment of the Lutheran Women's League was finally blessed.

Despite the long history of Christianity, women in the 1960s still feared witchcraft as we saw in the case of Botshabelo. Mokone came to Botshabelo at the right time and helped her people understand the advantages of the resources at their disposal.

Who was Priscilla Mokone and how did she manage? She was a strong and calculating woman of God. She was not as articulate as she was pragmatic. Where she saw gaps left by the socio-political powers at the time, she moved in to mobilize into action the church and her community. Call her what you want. I think she can appropriately be called woman of God.

Radikobo Ntsimane


Notes:

1. Most of the information used in this article was gathered during an interview with Mama Priscilla in her home in Botshabelo on October 25, 2003. Due to her old age, I avoided using a tape recording device that might have required me to be too close for comfort. Even though she is nearly one hundred years old, Mokone's memory is remarkably sharp.
2. This is practiced among other African nations as well, even when the receptor family has its biological offspring. Nelson Mandela is an example. See his autobiography, No Easy Walk to Freedom (Harare, Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe Pub. House, c1965).
3. Nun Mokone wrote a series of Setswana Readers used in Primary School in the 1970s called Montsamaisa Bosigo.
4. Three tickies made a penny and ten pennies made a shilling and ten shillings made a pound in the former Union of South Africa currency.
5. "My Perspective on Women and their Role in Church and Society" in Women Hold up Half the Sky, eds. D. Ackerman et als. 1991, p.369-372.



This article, used with permission, was adapted from a paper presented by Radikobo Ntsimane at the conference of the Church History Society of Southern Africa, January 2004. Dr. Philippe Denis, professor of the History of Christianity at the University of KwaZulu-Natal is the DACB liaison coordinator and writing supervisor in the region.