Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.

Sebidi, Lebamang John

Catholic Church
South Africa

John Lebamang Sebidi was born in Potchefstroom in 1939. His parents originally came from Mafeteng in Lesotho. In the early 1930s, his parents worked on the farms and moved from one farm to another until they settled in Potchefstroom, Western Transvaal (present-day Western Gauteng). Sebidi went to a Catholic high school and completed his studies in 1959. He joined the Handmaids of Christ the Priest (SCP)–a secular local religious congregation started by a Canadian priest, Fr. André Blaise OMI, that operates mostly in Lesotho and the Pretoria archdiocese. Sebidi studied philosophy at St. Peter’s Major Seminary in Hammanskraal at the beginning of the 1960s and theology at St. Augustine’s Major Seminary in Roma, Lesotho.

After completing his studies, he started teaching at St. Pius X Minor Seminary at Franklin in Transkei (present-day Eastern Cape). As he recalls: “Then immediately, when I started working, I was teaching in what we call the minor seminary; a free high school for students who want to go into the priesthood, Roman Catholic priesthood, taking ordinary school subjects but with special emphasis on the priesthood. This was from 1970 to 1972. I was principal and I was also teaching.” [1]

In early 1972, Sebidi went to study moral theology at the Alphonsianum, an institute run by the Redemptorists Priests [2] and attached to the Lateran University in Rome, Italy. He completed his masters degree in 1975. He wanted to proceed with his doctoral studies when he was recalled in the same year by Bishop Stephen Naidoo, chairperson of the seminary commission of the South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), to become rector of St. Peter’s Seminary. St. Peter’s Seminary was opened in 1923 in Ixopo to train black clergymen. It was then known as St. Mary’s Seminary and was divided into a minor seminary and a major seminary. In 1946, the major seminary was separated from the minor seminary [3]. The first rector had been Fr. Laurence Schleissinger CMM (1947-1957), who was followed by two Dominican friars: Oswin Magrath (1957-1971) and Dominic Scholten (1971 to April 30, 1975). On December 1, 1975, Sebidi became the first black rector of St. Peter’s Seminary.

When the seminary moved to a new location at Pevensey and changed its name to St. Peter’s seminary [4], it first started using the buildings of the defunct Reichanau Agricultural School, founded in 1928. In 1947, Bishop Adalbero Fleisher CMM from the Vicariate Apostolic of Mariannhill (present-day Diocese of Mariannhill) handed over the seminary to the SACBC [5]. The decision to establish two seminaries, one for whites and one for blacks was taken in the same year at the plenary session of the SACBC. With the initiative of the apostolic delegate, the most Reverend Martin Lucas SVD, a new seminary was to be established at St. John Vianney in Pretoria for whites and the other, St. Peter’s, was to be taken from the Vicariate Apostolic of Mariannhill. We must point out that: “At the time of the decision no-one queried the establishment of the two seminaries for that time the practice of racial segregation was accepted as normal even within the churches.” [6] Archbishop Peter Fanyana Butelezi put it succinctly: “The question of black and white happened to be the de facto situation.” [7]

Upon his arrival at the seminary, Sebidi found that the students were aware of the political situation. As he recalled: “I think the students in general were affected by the Black Consciousness Movement. But whether Black Consciousness manifested itself in practical programs or activities I would not be sure. I think it is thanks to people like myself, Buti Thlagale, Elias Monyai who somehow, almost unconsciously because of our anger, found ourselves pulling the seminary to be involved with Black Consciousness and Black Theology.” [8]

In the Christian churches in South Africa from 1966 onwards a change was beginning to occur through the philosophy of Black Consciousness and Black Theology. The former is defined by Allan Boesak as: “The awareness of black people that their humanity is constituted by their blackness. It means that black people are no longer ashamed that they are black, that they have a black history and a black culture distinct from the history and culture of white people. It means that blacks are determined to be judged no longer by and adhere no longer to white values. It is an attitude, a way of life.” [9] Along the same lines Black Theology is defined by Basil Moore as: “Black people interpreting the Gospel in the light of black experience and interpreting black experience in the light of the Gospel.” [10] Black Consciousness and Black Theology are closely connected and intertwined.

Against this background Sebidi served his first term as rector of St. Peter’s Seminary from 1975 to 1977. As Sebidi noted: “When I got to the seminary the appointment coincided with the emergence of the Black Consciousness Movement and the 1976 events.” [11] These were the Soweto uprising or Soweto riots which were a series of clashes in Soweto, Johannesburg on June 16, 1976 between black youths and the South African authorities. The riots grew out of protests against the policies of the National Party government and its apartheid regime.

The question to pose is why Sebidi was chosen among all the black clergy in South Africa. There are probably other people who could have taken up this post as rector of St. Peter’s. There were other prominent black priests as well. The reason why Sebidi thought he was chosen was probably because he gave an impression of somebody who is very soft, curbs easily and can be manipulated by liberals. As he explains: “I think that was the main reason why they picked me. Because the impression I give people is of someone who is not going to cause problems, a very reasonable man who listens–that is why the liberals sought my aid.” [12]

The liberals in the church thought they could manipulate him. On the other hand, Archbishop Buti Tlhagale pointed out that the appointment “was a very sensitive issue… you had a sensitivity within the church itself, that had been shown through protest…. The bishops became very sensitive about that. But at the same time there was this protest in society generally, so both fed on each other.” [13]

One aspect of the protest was that St. Peter’s Old Boys Association (SPOBA), an association of former students of St. Peter’s Seminary, at this time had been pushing for a black rector. [14] But Sebidi had great doubts as to whether SPOBA had anything to do with his appointment because he had studied at St. Augustine Seminary and was not well known in the SPOBA circles. They did not know what he stood for. [15] As Archbishop Butelezi pointed out: “Sebidi had not worked in the context of peers in a seminary. When he left St. Pius Minor Seminary he was working with lay teachers. Now he comes to the seminary where he comes as a new man with a staff of qualified professors. So the context is different.” [16] Sebidi’s reception at the seminary from both the lecturers and students was not terribly enthusiastic, as he says: “The students did not quite know me…. I should be fair–it was not anti as well. They were still going to study who I was. The white liberals were very suspicious about the whole affair but pretending to be really happy.” [17]

Sebidi was later to be drawn into the process of amalgamating the black and white seminaries in South Africa. The commissions for amalgamating the two institutes had started as early as 1972. Thus, bearing in mind that plans for a new Catholic theological seminary or institute were about to be implemented, the SACBC plenary session of 1976 agreed to set up the institute, racially integrated both in the academic and residential spheres. It resolved that the first steps to take in testing the venture was to have students from the two seminaries share some classes. The session also agreed that the two seminary communities live together in 1976 in one seminary community and that in 1977 both staff and students live together in one seminary in preparation for the realization of the proposed institute. Archbishop George Daniel of Pretoria was elected as director. [18] “Everything was set for the amalgamation and it was left to the SACBC administrative board to see to the implementation of the plan.” [19]

A special meeting on April 8, 1976, was called of rectors of the seminaries with the director of the Catholic institute and the chairperson of the commission in Pretoria at Archbishop George Daniel’s house, to initiate the implementation of the resolutions of the SACBC plenary session on amalgamation. From May 3 to 5, at the SACBC Board meeting, the above recommendations were discussed. The two rectors were invited and were in complete agreement with the resolutions finally passed by the board which were that: The seminary be situated at St. Peter’s; the bishops were to be responsible for staffing; contracts with staff members were to be re-negotiated; that both staffs should resign by the end of 1976 and that both student bodies were supposed to re-apply, with the exception of deacons.

Bishop Stephen Naidoo was appointed chancellor and John Sebidi rector with Fr. Doyle (who was the rector at St. John Vianney) as vice rector and administrator. A committee was to be set up to draw a constitution to indicate, inter alia, functions of various office bearers to be submitted to the August board meeting and then to the SACBC plenary session. This committee consisted of Bishop Naidoo, Bishop Murphy, Archbishop Daniel, Archbishop Hurley, and the two rectors who were given powers to co-opt. The two seminaries were to function as they were until the end of the year.

After the May 3 to 5 SACBC meeting it was then decided to notify all the parties involved by telegram. “On May 6, the day after the board meeting, Bishop Naidoo informed the staffs and students of both seminaries of the board’s decision which was apparently welcomed with great joy and enthusiasm, especially by the staff and students of St. Peter’s, Hammanskraal. The bishops were, therefore, quite unprepared for the bombshell that exploded at the end of May, shattering all their plans for amalgamation.” [20]

This came in a form of a boycott over food at St. Peter’s and led to the closure of the seminary. On May 28, 1976, there was a student boycott over food in the absence of the rector. In the Southern Cross, a Catholic newspaper, an article read “Lectures at St. Peter’s were suspended following unrest. The thirty-four students went on strike because of food complaints and boycotted lectures. This came at a time when arrangements for amalgamation with St. John Vianney were advanced.” The report went on to say that black opinion on the move to amalgamate the two seminaries had been mostly been negative. [21]

Some members of SPOBA, a fraternal organization of black priests, pointed out the scanty representation of black staff members–for instance, there were only two black lecturers at St. Peter’s, so the proposed new seminary would have a white look. Hence, they were against the whole process because, for SPOBA, it was not yet time to amalgamate. The problems manifested on May 28, had wider causes–for instance, an internal cause could be seen at St. Peter’s with the appointment of a black rector–Fr. John Sebidi! Externally, the political situation in the country also had an influence on the seminary.

Soweto and its Sequel[22]

The South African government led by B. J. Vorster (Balthazar Johannes Vorster, better known as John Vorster, was prime minister of South Africa from 1966 to 1978) continued to pursue the grand plan of apartheid. People were still being taken back to the homelands. Every black South African was supposed to be a member of a homeland. Insofar as Bantu education was concerned in 1974 a decision was taken to have two languages as mediums of instruction Afrikaans and English, instead of English. This was unacceptable to a great number of pupils and parents. Any applications for exception were rejected.

Soon the situation in Soweto became tense. The South African Student Movement (SASM) was based in Soweto. SASM was a branch of South Africa Student organization (SASO) [23] that dealt with issues at high school level. SASO was mainly concerned with tertiary institutions of learning. SASM was already addressing issues of overcrowding in schools. Direct confrontations with principals of certain schools led to SASM’s call for a boycott. Demonstrations for June 16 were planned and an action committee was formed by the Soweto Student Representative Council (SRC).

On June 16, 1976, about 6,000 students marched from Naledi School in Soweto. When they reached Vilakazi street they confronted the police. Hector Petersen was the first to be killed after the police panicked. Petersen and two others killed were seen as martyrs of the new era. Unrest and destruction spread to the other townships. Amidst other reasons like oppression, language issue and the homeland system, Black Consciousness was the backbone of this uprising. On October 19, 1977, the minister of justice, James Thomas Kruger “banned all movements associated with Black Consciousness, to whom blame for the events was ascribed.” [24] This included organizations like SASO, Black Peoples Convention (BPC), SASM, the Soweto SRC and Black Community Programs (BCP). Black Consciousness was heavily blamed by the government, as Davenport puts it tersely: “The range of banning was itself an indication of the extent to which black self-awareness had proliferated since the banning of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan African Congress (PAC) in 1960.” [25] Reiterating the same point after investigating the incident, the Cillie Commission said that language was the major factor but also other grievances. The commission headed by Judge Cille covered the violence of June 1976 up to February 1977.

When Sebidi became rector in November 1975, he did not encounter many problems at the seminary. But in 1976 he got involved in Black Consciousness and Black Theology. This meant that he was constantly out of the seminary: “1976 becomes a major upheaval and I immediately got embroiled in the meetings and I think because of that I gave the white lecturers a stick to hit me with, that I was hardly around, was busy organizing political meetings and neglecting my duties at the seminary. I think that was the main thing they were communicating to my employers–the SACBC.” [26]

When the strike occurred at the seminary, the rector had been away for about a week. Interestingly, Sebidi did not have major problems with the students but the staff were perturbed. For example, some students some staff members felt should be suspended were not. [27] The incident, according to Sebidi, transpired as follows:

One or two students were caught jumping the fence to go outside, which was illegal. The white lecturers decided that these students must go–if they don’t go, they said, we don’t lecture–that was the main thing. I refused to chase the students away. The lecturers went on strike. I think this is when the bishops came in. They sent a delegation to come and break the deadlock. They met me and Elias Monyai. This is when I wrote a memorandum as a response to what the lecturers were saying, doing and wanted me to do. That is where I wrote that I would rather lose the lecturers and keep the students. At that point the bishops began to see my point and I finally lost the lecturers and I got new people to come in; Albert Nolan, Buti Tlhagale, Finbar Synnot. [28]

A committee of six bishops wanted to placate the strained situation between the rector and the white staff on June 15 and 16. This did not achieve anything as the rector was already choosing potential black lecturers for positions at the seminary. When the “meeting broke up on the afternoon of June 16, we heard of the shootings in Soweto.” [29] All the issues and disagreements about St. Peter’s were drawn into the rage and antagonism that then swept the country, so that the seminary’s happenings could not be dealt with on their own merits or demerits. Some of the anger people wanted to direct at the government was let out against the bishops and staff. A similar conflict occurred at St. Paul’s a month or so later, with the minor seminarians driving the staff, the De La Salle brothers, into their rooms and beating on the doors. [30]

With the Soweto uprising the churches had to re-define their role in society. One of way of doing this was through the Permanent Black Priest Solidarity Group (PBPSG), which started as a Roman Catholic Church (RCC) caucus but rapidly spread in Soweto to include other churches. [31]

The Permanent Black Priest Solidarity Group (PBPSG)

When the lectures at the seminary were suspended, food was used as an excuse. There were other problems between the white lecturers and the rector. Also, some SPOBA members realized that the rector was fighting a big battle so they decided to assist. As Sebidi recalls, after the “food issue” was used to close the seminary, an inquiry was made and this “was the spark which started the PBPSG (Permanent Black Priest Solidarity Group), because the black priests realized that I was alone and I had huge pressure on me.” [32] SPOBA, started on July 6, 1966, was changed (except in Natal) into the PBPSG in 1976 with a strong Black Consciousness flow from 1970 onwards. [33]

The PBPSG became a pressure group within the churches in South Africa, but it did not have the great support from priests that SPOBA had had. Other people who were involved in the PBPSG were Anglicans like Fr. Geoff Moselane and Fr. Drake Tsankeng. As Fr. Peter Lenkoe, an Anglican priest in Soweto, stated: “You had RCC and Presbyterian Church of South Africa (PCSA) who were prominent in the PBPSG. This was a way in which the churches were saying we are not immune from what is happening in society. There was a lot of pain in 1976. The church had to say, we are part of that. We cannot just be content with burying people without sharing their pain and stories and their lives. The church was saying that we are pledging our solidarity to the people.” [34]

The PBPSG first started as a Catholic black caucus group in Soweto, but this did not last long because other churches felt that PBPSG was expressing what they felt they should be doing–that is to be in solidarity with the people. In the end, many churches were involved. The PBPSG was a small but very powerful group, putting pressure on the church to such an extent that most of the improvements today were brought about by the PBPSG. The group was feared by the church authority primarily for two reasons: “Firstly, the Black Consciousness people supported us, so although we did not have the majority of the black priests behind us we had the Black Consciousness Movement behind us, which was a big movement–we were theologically leaders of Black Consciousness. Secondly, we occupied a high moral ground because the concerns we expressed were in agreement with the gospels.” [35] It was a small group basically because some priests were afraid to join as they were indoctrinated into obedience by the training received. The PBPSG was also formed in response to the external political situation. Many people were banned and there was a feeling of anger towards white people, this is seen in the incidents which happened on and after June 16, 1976.

On June 23, to address the crisis at the seminar a smaller meeting was held and the rector, who didn’t want to dismiss the students, was supported by two members of PBPSG. Here, Elias Monyai was present and, according to Bernard Connor, he was the agent provocateur. This was confirmed by Sebidi when he said that during this meeting Bishop Naidoo called him aside and said: “‘Why don’t you let this guy (Monyai) go, and not to come to the meeting because this guy seems to have so much influence on you?’ So I (Sebidi) said, ‘I can’t let him go, he is witnessing the meeting.’ [36] I think that confirms what Connor said about an agent provocateur.” [37] The bishops and some staff members thought that Monyai was pushing the rector to be revolutionary. They thought that without Monyai, the situation could have been peaceful. [38]

On July 9, 1976, the administrative board of SACBC and the seminary commission met in Bloemfontein and afterwards released a press statement that said that because of staff problems, which included some resignations, it was not going to be possible to reopen the seminary in August: the amalgamation process of 1977 was to be halted; suggestions were to be made on what was to be done with the seminarians in the meantime; and that a consultation would be made with relevant bodies including the seminary commission, the priests’ council, black priests and laity; and that after these consultations the seminary was to explore ways of finding staff as soon as possible. But the PBPSG responded aggressively to this press release: “On July 20, 1976, the Permanent Black Priests’ Solidarity Group addressed a letter to the bishops and the seminary commission expressing their shock and their rejection of the decision of the meeting of July 9, and informing them that the PBPSG was calling a meeting in Regina Mundi on August 8 to discuss all the problems of the church and particularly the problems of the only black seminary for training Catholic priests in South Africa.” [39]

The meeting took place as planned and a memorandum called “Black People’s Memorandum” (dated August 8, 1976) was drawn up. Twelve members were elected as a delegation to represent the black people at the consultation which was to be held on August 23 and 24 at Hammanskraal. Before this, on August 18, the PBPSG met again and insisted that they wanted to attend the meeting on August 23. A black parents’ delegation had to meet the bishops and they also threatened to publish everything in the press if the issues were not solved. The commission for seminaries, priests, and religious prepared themselves for this consultation. Nine elected members were requested by the bishops to meet them.

On August 23, a large group of black priests assembled at Hammanskraal and decided that all should attend the consultation, not just the nine elected members requested by the bishops. The delegation of black lay people should also be allowed to attend the whole consultation. [40] But only four lay people managed to attend as the other members could not leave Soweto because there was a bus boycott. [41]

The laity also formed part of the pressure group, as Sebidi says: “They were part of us when we went to talk to the bishops, they would be involved in some demonstrations; pressure groups were formed as support groups of PBPSG. The whites were angry, some people called me a communist, even my grandmother because this is what her parish priest said.” [42]

Those who managed to attend the meeting presented the black people’s memorandum at Hammanskraal and insisted on four points: that St. Peter’s seminary re-open in August, that Sebidi be maintained as rector, that black priests be released at once to staff the seminary, and that only the rector had the right to dismiss students. [43]

Initially, the black priests began rather aggressively, but later this “developed into a friendly dialogue when it was realized that communications had broken down, somewhere, and that the bishops had never received the memorandum of the black priests which they were accused of having consistently ignored.” [44] Prior to this meeting, the PBPSG had been sending unsigned letters to Archbishop Naidoo, the chairman of the seminary commission. Since these letters were not signed the archbishop did not show them to or discuss them with anybody. [45]

After all these efforts the press release of August 27, issued after the board meeting, stated that St. Peter’s was to remain temporarily closed. We should note that at this meeting the following groups were consulted: Additional bishops; members of the South African Council of Priests (SACOP); Council of Catholic Laity; a delegation from a group of priests calling themselves PBPSG and delegates from a meeting of black Christians held at Regina Mundi on August 8, 1976. The last two groups’ memorandums were considered in “the present tragic situation of racial tension and forceful expression of legitimate black grievances and aspirations.” [46] This goes to illustrate that the bishops were beginning to take the black priests and laity seriously.

With all these events, the process of amalgamation was further thwarted. The bishop’s board decided that the amalgamation was to be postponed and that the problem of getting suitable staff further ruled out the re-opening. However they appointed Bishop Mansuet Biyase of Eshowe as the new chancellor. The chancellor and staff were to look for new staff and find a good spiritual director. Also, steps were to be taken so that blacks were trained as future staff. [47]

Sebidi was asked to read these statements. It was also suggested that he spend time at St. Augustine’s Seminary in Roma, Lesotho to gain some experience. Since he did not have much experience it is plausible that the turmoil resulted from his inexperience and possibly incompetency. On the other hand, maybe the turmoil occurred because Black Consciousness philosophy had really taken root at the seminary.

The reasons for closing the seminary in 1976 can be plausibly explained in several ways. First, in this post-Vatican II period, people were not certain about the priesthood, celibacy, prayer, mass attendance. A new era had dawned and people did not know how to react to new situations. The period was bringing a crisis which could be seen in the turmoil which occurred at St. Peter’s. Secondly, there were the normal issues of young people growing up and dealing with discipline and authority. This had been a recurring problem. For instance, in 1971 Monsignor Peter Butelezi came from Umzimkulu to St. Peter’s seminary to help sort out some internal problems. Thirdly, this was the apartheid era–the seminarians were all black and the staff were nearly all white. At this time of Black Consciousness, [48] the students had become aware of the situation and saw the need for improvement–for instance, they wanted more black lecturers at the seminary. Black Consciousness affirmed the fact that Africans should develop by themselves and not with the white colleagues because they were surely enforcing their own paradigms of being superior to the blacks. If the seminaries were to be combined in 1977, how were African seminarians going to fare with the whites? This was a predicament, taking into consideration Black Consciousness which gave black seminarians the desire to develop on their own before coming together with white seminarians. Furthermore, staff membership was mostly white with a sprinkling of a few black members.

St. Peter’s Closes Indefinitely

An extraordinary plenary session from September 28 to 30, 1976 approved the recommendation of the August meeting. The constitution and statutes of St. Peter’s were amended. New members of staff were appointed. The full time lecturers were Fr. J. Sebidi SCP, Fr. E. Mailula OMI, Fr. A. Nxumalo OMI, and Fr. B. Tlahgale OMI. Part time staff members included Fr. P. Kolisang, Fr.A. Nolan OP, Fr. F. Synnott OP, Fr. S Whyte OFM, and Fr. N. Carroll OFM. On February 6, 1977, St. Peter’s had opened with a full staff and approximately twenty students. Fr. Nxumalo was vice rector and Fr. Mailula bursar and administrator. Seven black priests were proposed to study overseas in view of eventually teaching at the seminary.

Sebidi re-organized the teaching system by bringing in more black lecturers. For instance, he asked Fr. Buti Tlhagale to give a course on Black Theology. [49] According to Tlhagale the students were already “aware” but the course was introduced because at that time “there was quite a stir in the air. Either BT or African Philosophy or African Theology was welcomed because there was a desire to learn about our own situation and about our own condition. It did not inform the students about anything new experientially but it formalized their knowledge and began to present things in new conceptual forms which they had not had before. They began to reflect on their experience, something they had not done before. In other words, as opposed to classical theology, they began to look at different theological concepts to articulate their own theological experience.” [50]

In the same month the bishops issued a statement in favor of Black Consciousness. At their plenary in February 1977, they came out in favor of collaboration with the Black Consciousness Movement–inspired by Steve Biko, the young black leader who died later that year in police detention. As the year progressed, however, people were divided in their understanding of the situation at the seminary. For instance, the bishops thought that the seminary was being highly politicized as illustrated by an incident that took place on October 19, 1977 when Sebidi and Tlhagale organized a march to John Vorster Square with other priests to protest the detention and banning of Black Consciousness leaders and organizations. The bishops did not like this state of affairs. The priests were arrested and released on bail. They went for trial and were consequently fined R60 for marching illegally. This hit the last nail in the coffin for the bishops, as Sebidi says: “I think this was the last straw for the bishops. There I was leading a march against the government. They felt that this was not good for their students. This was the only way, you see, the SACBC would turn away from closing the seminary directly because they would be afraid of the Black Consciousness backlash. So what they did was for each individual bishop to withdraw his students. For instance, the bishop of Pietersburg, he was very angry with me. He withdrew his students and sent them to St. John Vianney or to Lesotho.” [51]

Sebidi also alleged that the bishops were saying that St. Peter’s had become a “revolutionary center.” For the bishops, the students were not taught proper theology, but radical black theology! In the end, when St. Peter’s ended up having no students, the bishops told the rector that as there were no registered students, they were running at a loss and therefore had to close the seminary. As Sebidi later explained: “It was a calculated move to close the seminary. That is why I had to leave by default, because I had no students I could not continue to be rector of St. Peter’s.” [52]

For Tlhagale, the closing of the seminary was just an excuse. “It is one of those situation where there are complaints that are being made and then you have an excuse which appears to be legitimate for closing down the seminary–saying there are very few students so we close down the seminary.” [53] At a meeting of the administrative board held November 1-3, 1977, the chairman of the commission for seminaries, priests, and religious reported that very recently he learned from two reliable sources that things were not going well at St. Peter’s: “The bishops decided to have an investigation made and asked that a report be made to a special board meeting on December 13th and 14th.” [54] On December 21, 1977, Scholten, [55] secretary general of the SACBC, released a press statement saying that the seminary was to be closed indefinitely. [56] It read as follows: “The Administrative Board of the Southern African Catholic bishops conference expresses gratitude and appreciation to the rector of St. Peter’s Seminary for his devoted services during 1977. At the same time, the board is compelled to take note, with regret, of the fact that seminarian enrollment is likely to be so low in the immediate future that it no longer appears justifiable to keep the seminary in operation.” [57]

The tension was between the bishops (most of whom were white) and the black African priests who supported the philosophy of Black Consciousness despite the fact that the bishops’ conference had taken the lead on racial issues. The bishops were calling for a majority rule in a country where the blacks were the majority–as seen in statements by the bishop in 1948 (Bishop Hennemann of Cape Town), in 1952 by Bishop Hurley, in 1957 by the SACBC, and some later pastoral letters in 1972 and 1977. [58] The African Catholic clergy, gathered within the Black Priest Solidarity Group, accused the bishops of having gone back on these declarations. They said that the closing of St. Peter’s seminary was a political decision because of its pro-Black Consciousness tendencies. [59]

St. Peter’s seminary was not to reopen the following year as events in the political arena were rapidly developing–for better and for worse. With the Soweto uprising, unrest ,and Steve Biko’s death in detention, the government acted in two ways–first by banning and suppressing the Black Consciousness Movement and the newspapers which supported it. For instance, Donald Woods of the East London Daily Despatch was banned and had to leave the country. Law and Order Minister James Kruger was responsible for enforcing these measures. Because of the threat of these repressive measures, it was difficult for the organizations to develop nationally and many people left the country. Secondly, since the incident had received widespread publicity on television, some National Party politicians were forced to think that it was time to recognize black trade unions and to scrap job reservation laws that earmarked the elite jobs and professions for whites. Without these events, the government would probably have stuck to their guns. The 50/50 language requirement was dropped, and a little effort was made to improve the black schooling system. [60]

However, the anti-apartheid movement had increased its momentum and confidence at home and abroad. AZAPO (Azanian People’s Organisation, formed in 1978), the Teachers’ Action Committee, and the Black Parents’ Association were formed. AZAPO, though it leaned towards the Pan African Congress (PAC), was very much based on the Black Consciousness Movement.

Consequently, a new era was coming into force. Outside South Africa in the U.S., there was a call for disinvestment (i.e. not putting money in South Africa) and divestment (i.e. getting rid of U.S. firms and assets in South Africa). The Soweto upheaval was a turning point in the history of South Africa. In 1978, John Vorster retired–one of the contributing factors being the Soweto uprising–and P.W. Botha came to power. He tried to improve relations with African nations and black unions were legalized. An attempt was made to give apartheid a “human face” especially in urban industry. The government was not very successful, as was seen in the uprising which came in 1984 onwards.

Sebidi, who had resigned his post on December 15, 1977, had to find a new position. He had two alternatives–either to go back to his congregation or to the Diocese of Klerksdorp under Bishop Verstraete. He was not comfortable with either choice, as he says: “I was confused, I was angry, there were all sorts of things when the seminary was closed. So I decided to go to my base at Regina Mundi with my colleagues Buti Tlhagale, Stan Ndebele, and other priests.” [61] In 1978, he got a job with Theological Education by Extension College (TEEC) as a course writer in moral theology.

In 1979, he decided to get married. Sebidi has never believed in being a card carrying member of any organization. Because of his neutrality he was able to chair political meetings at Regina Mundi from 1978 to 1980. As he says: “I was the unofficial mediator between (Azanian Peoples’ Organisation) AZAPO and United Democratic Front (UDF). In 1985 I managed to set up a big meeting at Regina Mundi where UDF and AZAPO came to shake hands. Archbishop Tutu was there. This was the last big political venture I performed. In 1986, I concentrated on educational matters because I got two degrees from Wits University in education” [62] (Bachelor of Education, B.Ed and a Masters of Education, M.Ed).

After Sebidi’s marriage, the PBPSG suffered a lot and almost stopped functioning. But already the seeds of ecumenism had been sown, especially on October 24, 1977 when the Catholic priests had led the march with the other churches to John Vorster Square. They made a long statement. [63] The other churches came to recognize that the PBPSG was a pressure group that worked for their interests as well. In the 1980s, the PBPSG became the Ministers’ United For Christian Co-responsibility (MUCCOR). Sebidi became the first president and Frank Chikane the vice president. [64] MUCCOR “was a shift from the PBPSG to say that the role and responsibility is not only to pledge solidarity with people, but we have a responsibility to other members of society. This was a movement that grew out of the PBPSG, after the burials of 1976. It was saying that priests should not only come together at a time when there is suffering, death and when people are being buried, but the priests have an ongoing responsibility within society. Therefore, they got involved in social upliftment projects within the community, so it was a transition from the PBPSG to MUCCOR. Almost a continuum.” [65] Today it is not as influential as it was because times have changed. There is a new South Africa that has changing roles with different players in the political arena.

Amalgamation of the Two Seminaries

The seminary re-opened as a multiracial institute in 1981. In the sermon of the opening mass the chairman for seminarians for SACBC, Archbishop George Daniel of Pretoria said: “We are all baptized in the one spirit and are all made one.” He continued to say that the seminary was re-opened so that, “You may love one another in unity. So that this country maybe united to make it more like the kingdom of God.” At the opening there were twenty-eight students from all over South Africa. [66] Of these, twenty students managed to finish their first year. [67]

After graduating from Wits University, Sebidi became the executive director for the Trust for Education Advancement in South South (TEASA) in the late 1980s. In 1999, after looking at the general education systems in South Africa he said that the township schools were not run properly and that there was a serious lack of discipline among the learners and their teachers. This resulted in minimal improvement in the matric pass rate in Gauteng. [68]

He continued to be active in the South African education system by presenting papers at conferences and workshops, such as the EASA Kenton Conference in 2006 entitled “Education beyond boundaries” where Sebidi presented a paper entitled: “The Dynamics of Culture.”

Sebidi had a huge impact on the training of black Catholic priests in the church and the South African political situation as well. He was the first black rector of a black seminary and continued to fight apartheid during the time when most political organizations were banned. He continued to fight for the upliftment of black people by working in education sector until he retired in 2006. He now lives in Johannesburg (2009).

George Sombe Mukuka


  1. Lebamang, John Sebidi, interview by Gail Gerhart, July 3, 1989, Johannesburg, tape recording.

  2. The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, commonly called Redemptorists and indicated by the Latin acronym “CSSR,” is a religious community of Catholic priests and brothers founded by Saint Alphonsus Liguori in Naples in 1732 to preach to the destitute.

  3. For the history of St. Peter’s, on the beginning of the seminary in Mariathal, Ixopo and Reichenau see the following: a) Thomas Respondeck, “Die Erziehung sum Priestertum in der Mariannhill Mission” Zeitschrift fur Missionwisseenschaft (1950), p. 34; b) Damian Magrath, “ The English Vicariate in South Africa,” Dominican Topics (VII, IV, May 1967), 4, and c) Sr. Mary Adelgisa Hermann, *History of the Congregation of the Missionaries of Mariannhill in the Province of Mariannhill, South Africa *(Mariannhill, 1983), 94-97.

  4. The place was located at “Pevensey which was at the foot of the Sani Pass in Natal,” See “The Sermon at the Jubilee of Fr. Joseph Sonaba” (on July 10, 1989), by Oswin Magrath [SADA, Springs].

  5. Background to the closing of St. Peter’s Seminary, Hammanskraal 1977 (May 7, 1979: Pretoria: Buti Tlhagale Private Archive).

  6. Background to the closing of St. Peter’s Seminary, Hammanskraal 1977 (May 7, 1979:Pretoria: Buti Tlhagale Private Archive).

  7. Archbishop Peter, interview by author, July, 8 1996, Bloemfontein, tape recording.

  8. Lebamang John Sebidi, interview by author, December 7, 1995, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, tape recording.

  9. Allan Boesak, Farewell to Innocence (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1976), 9.

  10. Basil Moore, “Black Theology Revisited,” Bulletin for Contextual Theology in South Africa and Africa, Vol. 1 (1994),7.

  11. Lebamang, John Sebidi, interview by Gail Gerhart, July 3, 1989, Johannesburg, tape recording.

  12. Lebamang, John Sebidi, interview by author, December 7, 1995, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, tape recording.

  13. Archbishop Buti Tlhagale was the secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Southern Africa when the interview was conducted at Khanya house in Pretoria, December 8, 1995.

  14. See The Southern Cross, (November 2, 1975), “Black Rector For St. Peter’s”: The article mentions that: “The rectorship of St. Peter has been a contentious issue since 1971, when priests of SPOBA openly criticized the bishops for not appointing a black rector for the seminary.” Their argument stated that although the Catholic Church is predominately black all key position were filled by whites.

  15. Lebamang, John Sebidi, interview by author, December 7, 1995, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, tape recording.

  16. Archbishop Peter Butelezi, same interview.

  17. Lebamang, John Sebidi, interview by author, December 7, 1995, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, tape recording.

  18. “Background to the closing of St. Peter’s Seminary in December 1977,” (Pretoia: Buti Tlhagale Private Archives–BTPA), 4.

  19. “Background to the closing of St. Peter’s Seminary in December 1977,” (Pretoria: Buti Tlhagale Private Archives–BTPA), 4.

  20. “Background to the closing of St. Peter’s Seminary in December 1977,” ( Pretoria: BTPA,), 4.

  21. Southern Cross (June 27, 1976).

  22. See T. R. H., Davenport, South Africa: A Modern History (New York: Tonawanda,1989),389-394, and John Pampallis, Foundations of a New South Africa London: Maskew Miller, 1991), 246-263.

  23. SASO was formed under the leadership of Steve Bantu Biko in 1968 and banned in 1977.

  24. Davenport, South Africa: A Modern History, 392.

  25. Davenport, South Africa: A Modern History, 392.

  26. Lebamang John Sebidi, interview by author, December 7, 1995, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, tape recording.

  27. “I (Sebidi) was told by Black priests that Remy Hoekman led the staff boycott. He had some mixed feelings about Africans after bad experiences in Congo (Zaire) during liberation there as I found when he visited eswatini (1976)”. (Southern African Dominican Archives [SADA], Springs).

  28. Lebamang John Sebidi, interview by author, December 7, 1995, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, tape recording; Nolan and Synnott were a very progressive Dominicans. So was Tlhagale, who was an Oblate.

  29. Lebamang John Sebidi, interview by author, December 7, 1995, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, tape recording.

  30. Bernard Connor on St. Peter’s Seminary, September 24, 1993 (Springs, SADA), The Christian Brothers, or De La Salle Brothers were a religious congregation founded by St. John Baptist de la Salle. (1651-1719). They mainly teach children at schools.

  31. Peter Lenkoe, interview by author, June 19,1996, tape recording.

  32. Lebamang John Sebidi, interview by author, December 7, 1995, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, tape recording.

  33. Gobi Clement Mokoka, “Black Experience in Black theology. A study of the RCC Missionary Endeavour in South Africa and the search for justice”( PhD dissertation, Nijmegen Catholic University, October, 1984), 53.

  34. Peter Lenkoe, same interview.

  35. Lebamang John Sebidi, interview by author, December 7, 1995, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, tape recording.

  36. Lebamang John Sebidi, interview by author, December 7, 1995, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, tape recording.

  37. Lebamang John Sebidi, interview by author, December 7, 1995, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, tape recording.

  38. According to Magrath, Sebidi and Monyai were both sons of catechists of Fr. Nicholas Humphreys OP from Potchefstroom, and members of Fr. Blais’ institute of Christ the Priest. After ordination they were both living in exemplary poverty at Makapanstad, a Tswana chiefdom north of the Seminary. Sebidi is still an “activist” and referred to as a Catholic priest though married. Both Archbishop Hurley and Bishop Verstraete of Klerksdorp tried to get him settled. Monyai is teaching at Gaborone University. (Cedara: Oswin Magrath private archive).

  39. “Background to the closing of St. Peter’s Seminary in December 1977,” (Pretoria: BTPA, 1977), 7.

  40. “Background to the closing of St. Peter’s Seminary in December 1977,” (Pretoria: BTPA, 1977), 7.

  41. Archibishop Peter Butelezi, same interview.

  42. Lebamang John Sebidi, interview by author, December 7, 1995, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, tape recording.

  43. “Background to the closing of St. Peter’s Seminary in 1977” (BTPA, Pretoria).

  44. “Background to the closing of St. Peter’s Seminary in 1977” (BTPA, Pretoria).

  45. Archbishop Peter Butelezi, same interview.

  46. “Background to the closing of St. Peter’s Seminary in 1977,” ( Pretoria: BTPA, 1977)

  47. Southern Cross (September 5, 1976).

  48. See Bernard Connor on St. Peter’s, September 14, 1993 (Springs: SADA).

  49. See Bernard Connor on St. Peter’s, September 14, 1993 (Springs: SADA).

  50. Buti Thlagale, interview by author, December 8, 1995, Khanya House, Pretoria, tape recording.

  51. Lebamang John Sebidi, interview by author, December 7, 1995, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, tape recording.

  52. Lebamang John Sebidi, interview by author, December 7, 1995, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, tape recording.

  53. Tlhagale, same interview.

  54. “Background to the closing of St. Peter’s Seminary in 1977,” (Pretoria: BTPA, 1977).

  55. Dominic Scholten was Sebidi predecessor and according to Sebidi he was very anti whatever he was doing. But he was a good administrator and he controlled the bishops because he knew how to make money. “So that is why they relied on him and listened to him. He was very strong and powerful. He was not our friend. Somehow he contributed to the closing of the seminary.” (see Lebamang John Sebidi, interview by author, December 7, 1995, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, tape recording).

  56. “Background to the closing of st. Peter’s Seminary in 1977,” (Pretoria: BTPA, 1977).

  57. “Background to the closing of st. Peter’s Seminary in 1977,” (Pretoria: BTPA, 1977).

  58. See John De Gruchy, The Church struggle in South Africa (Cape Town: David Philips, 2005), 97-100.

  59. The Oblate World (April 1978).

  60. The Oblate World (April 1978); In 1976 the government introduced the compulsory use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction from Grade 7– then Standard 5. Circuit inspectors and principals received the directive: “It has been decided that for the sake of uniformity English and Afrikaans will be used as media of instruction in our schools on a 50-50 basis.” This meant that math and social studies were to be taught in Afrikaans, while general science and practical subjects such as housecraft and woodwork would be taught in English.

  61. Lebamang John Sebidi, interview by author, December 7, 1995, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, tape recording.

  62. Lebamang John Sebidi, interview by author, December 7, 1995, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, tape recording.

  63. See De Gruchy, The Church Struggle in South Africa, p.179-80.

  64. See De Gruchy, The Church Struggle in South Africa, p.179-80.

  65. Peter Lenkoe, same interview.

  66. See “South Africans Study Together for Priesthood,” Southern Cross (March 8, 1981).

  67. “South Africans Study Together for Priesthood,” Southern Cross (March 8, 1981) and “A Year to Give Seminarians their Bearing,” Southern Cross (December 20, 1981).

  68. See;_id=13&art;_id= ct1999122823520499T521616 (accessed February 1, 2009).


Oral Interviews

Butelezi, Peter. Interview by author, July, 8 1996, Bloemfontein. Tape recording.

Lenkoe, Peter. Interview by author, June 19, 1996. Tape recording.

Sebidi, Lebamang John. Interview by Gail Gerhart, July 3, 1989, Johannesburg. Tape recording.

Sebidi, Lebamang John. Interview by author, December 7, 1995, Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Tape recording.

Tlhagale, Buti. Interview by author, December 8, 1995, Pretoria. Tape recording.

Archival materials

Bernard Connor. “St. Peter’s Seminary, September 24, 1993” [Southern African Dominican Archives (SADA), Springs].

Oswin Magrath. “The Sermon at the Jubilee of Fr. Joseph Sonaba” (on July 10, 1989) [Southern African Dominican Archives (SADA), Springs].

Buti Tlhagale. “Background to the closing of St. Peter’s Seminary, Hammanskraal 1977, May 7, 1979” [Buti Tlhagale Private Archive (BTPA), Pretoria].


Boesak, Allan. Farewell to Innocence. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1976.

Davenport, T. R. H. South Africa: A Modern History. New York: Tonawanda, 1989.

De Gruchy, John. The Church Struggle in South Africa. Cape Town: David Philips, 2005.

Hermann, Adelgisa M. History of the Congregation of the Missionaries of Mariannhill in the Province of Mariannhill, South Africa. Mariannhill: Mariannhill Press, 1983.

Moore, Basil, “Black Theology Revisited,” Bulletin for Contextual Theology in South Africa and Africa, Vol.1 (1994):7.

Pampallis, John.* Foundations of a New South Africa*. London: Maskew Miller, 1991.

Newspaper / magazine

The Southern Cross, (November 2, 1975).

Southern Cross (March 8, 1981).

*Southern Cross *(March 8, 1981).

Southern Cross (December 20, 1981).

Southern Cross (June 27,1976).

The Oblate World (April 1978).

This article, received in 2008, 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.