Isaac Dlamini, of Manzini, Swaziland, was a well-known and beloved leader among the African Indigenous (“Zionist”) Churches of southern Africa. His unexpected death on October 13, 2002 after undergoing heart surgery in Pretoria, South Africa, sent “tremors through the indigenous churches in Swaziland,” said Martha Thomsen, a Mennonite missionary serving in Swaziland with Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).
Isaac was born on March 8, 1948, in eBangweni, Nhlangano, Swaziland, the only son of his mother and the second son of his father, Josiah Dlamini. He was not brought up in a Christian home. During his teenage years he was afflicted with much sickness, a fact that made his family think that the spirits were calling him. At one point, one of his lungs was removed and the doctors gave him five years to live.
Since his grandmother had been a sangoma (diviner), his family sent him to be trained as a diviner as well. It was during his training that he had a dream in which he was told, “Go and preach and you will be healed!” He did not understand the dream but felt strong enough about it that he left the training he was in.
Shortly after returning to his home in southern Swaziland, a blind evangelist came to stay with a neighbor and Isaac went over to hear him. The evangelist discerned that Isaac had many demons and asked whether Isaac would come to his home so he could pray for him more and see him released. His father agreed, so Isaac went to the evangelist’s home. About a month later, the evangelist pronounced him free of demons and sent him home. A few weeks later, Isaac gave his life to the Lord when an invitation was given in an evangelical tent meeting near his home.
Isaac was very conscious that God had not just called him to serve him, but to share the gospel with the “white gowned Zionists.” After his conversion he joined a Zionist church near his home. When he began to testify and share what he was learning from his Bible study, the leaders of the church felt threatened and tried to keep him from being so open. So Isaac left this church and joined the Pentecost East Star Jerusalem Church in Sabbath. Here he found the freedom to share his faith and to teach the Word of God. He continued in this church until his death.
Eager to study the Bible, Isaac sought to attend Bible school but when he applied to study at a Bible School in Swaziland he was told he couldn’t attend unless he left the Zionist church. But Isaac believed that God had called him to minister among the “white gowned Zionists,” and therefore he couldn’t leave his church. Having been rejected at the Bible school, Isaac took three years of Bible correspondence courses from the All Africa School of Theology in South Africa where he was able to complete the ministers’ course.
In 1992, Isaac also received a certificate of ecumenical studies in recognition of his participation in the African Bible Guides. This was an experimental training program held at Selly Oak College in Birmingham, England.
Isaac was ordained as a minister in his church in 1981 and as president of his church in 1989. His bishop, who lived in South Africa, was very supportive of him. Then, in 2001, he was ordained a bishop in his church for Swaziland. All of these ordinations were performed by the Archbishop Zephaniah S. Malinga of Pimville, Soweto, in South Africa.
In 1968, Isaac married Elizabeth Mhlanga from Nhlangano. He supported his family financially by opening a shop in Manzini, Swaziland, where he worked as a watch repairman, a work he continued until his death. His training with a Swedish watch maker helped him begin his trade. Isaac and Elizabeth are the parents of six children, four daughters – Thobile, Lungile, Samu, and Thuli and twin boys, Sicelo and Sifiso. Elizabeth was a bit introverted and timid earlier in their marriage, but with Isaac’s encouragement she has become an active leader in their church and also organizes and teaches many of the wives of the ministers of the League (Zionist churches).
When Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) workers Harold and Christine Wenger first entered Swaziland in 1975, Isaac invited them to work with him in the founding of Faith Bible School to train leaders for the Zionist churches in Swaziland. He was concerned that many of the Zionist Churches were becoming syncretistic and straying from biblical truth. When Isaac and Harold began Faith Bible School (FBS) on May 30, 1976, their first class,–a study of Genesis,–was held at Salesian High School in Manzini. Until his death, Isaac faithfully taught Bible classes with humor and careful attention to the text, making the text relevant to the African setting.
Beginning in 1983, Isaac worked closely with EMM workers Darrel and Sherill Hostetter in further developing FBS, introducing youth camps and marriage enrichment seminars. He became increasingly involved in premarital counseling, as well as in nurturing couples toward Christian intimacy. It became his love to encourage Christian couples in their marriages. He also served on a government committee on AIDS to educate the people and seek ways to stem the epidemic in Swaziland.
Isaac firmly believed in FBS and its ministry, nurturing it during difficult years and through the tragic death of Elijah Simelane, the chairperson of FBS in 1999. Due to poor health and a lack of finances, Isaac was unable to fulfill the many dreams he had for FBS and for the marriage enrichment team. “But his dreams remain alive in others who will by God’s grace carry them out,” said Martha Thomsen.
Thirty young adult leaders from Faith Bible School (FBS) told Hostetter they were committed to carrying on with youth ministries, the marriage enrichment seminars, and with Bible teaching. FBS has also developed a health team that is working with assistance from the MCC to equip churches to become more effective ministers of compassion to HIV(AIDS) victims and their families. The traveling team uses skits, songs, and stories to minister throughout Swaziland.
Hostetter said this ministry is especially important now in Swaziland where the rate of HIV infection is one of the highest in the world. As of January 2003, the Mail Guardian newspaper has stated that AIDS in Swaziland is growing at the rate of 38.1%. Hostetter commented,
Isaac has been a tremendous gift to the larger church. He was truly a servant leader, not a chief or king as would have been typical in Swaziland. He never sought after any of the positions he held, but was chosen by his people because of his servant’s heart and integrity of life. Through his life spent for others, many have come to understand more clearly the heart of his Savior and Lord Jesus Christ.
In the early 1990s, he was elected overwhelmingly as president of the League of African Churches, a group that brought together over 100 Zionist churches from Swaziland and South Africa into a loosely structured organization. He was the first elected president of this confederation and served for 10 years until his death, even though the constitution had stated that the president serve only a five year term. Isaac used this as an opportunity to teach and train Zionist leaders in biblical truths. Also, for many years, King Mswati III of Swaziland considered Isaac to be his spiritual counselor and called on him regularly for prayer.
Isaac also served as a mentor to the Hostetters and other EMM and MCC workers in Swaziland. For 11 years, Hostetter spent much time with Isaac, attending Bible classes and all-night worship services. Although Isaac’s health had given him problems for many years, he rarely let it get him down. Hostetter said,
Sometimes at the typical all-night services he felt very ill but as soon as he was given the opportunity to preach or teach he’d come back to life. Again and again I saw God move mightily through his ministry when he was feeling the worst. I often teased him when he was ill that he just needs an opportunity to preach and he will soon be feeling much better.
Susan Godshall who served as representative to Africa for EMM over the time of Isaac’s death reflected on his legacy and the more than 26 years of Mennonite-Zionist partnership in southern Africa. When they first met in 1997 he told her, “When EMM missionaries first came to teach Bible among the Zionists, the ‘missionary’ churches (evangelical churches started by western missionaries) considered us and other Zionist churches to be non-Christian.” Then he added with a characteristic laugh, “Now I get more invitations to preach and teach in ‘missionary’ churches than I can possibly accept. Thanks for believing in us and working with us - when others looked down on us.”
A month after his death friends and church members took part in a traditional all-night Swazi Christian “comfort” service to encourage the family of the deceased. During his life, Isaac encouraged Christian “comfort” services as an alternative to the traditional African cleansing ritual in which water is sprinkled to purify clothes and home from the bad luck and evil associated with death.
Isaac was heralded by church leaders as a pastor for pastors. “While we may have attended different churches, Bishop Isaac Dlamini was a pastor to all of us,” said Harold Wenger, outgoing MCC country representative for Mozambique and first EMM missionary to work with Isaac.
In another tribute to Isaac, Hostetter shared a first-person account of the ways in which Isaac had mentored him during the 11 years they worked together.
Isaac was the primary Bible teacher at the Zionist Faith Bible School and I had been asked to come and teach Bible with him. After the first month, I began accompanying him on visits to churches. And although he wasn’t my official language helper, he was a great teacher. He told me, “I won’t translate for you. You prepare a short speech in siSwati.”
He knew what vocabulary I was familiar with and used that to reinforce my learning when he talked to me in siSwati. He knew what I needed to do to get a good grasp of the language, and didn’t pamper me.
Isaac was a watch repairman by profession, and his door was always open to me and countless others. I often stopped by. Not only did he mentor me for my role of Bible teaching and counseling, but he had good advice about other things - like how to handle conflicts on our EMM/MCC mission team.
When we didn’t know how to handle the constant stream of people asking us for help, he said, “Send them to me.” Isaac could discern who was truly needy. Sometimes then we’d give money through him and the church to assist those in need.
Isaac was deeply concerned about our well being, particularly in the first three years when we were getting oriented to language and culture. He advised us not to accept invitations from Zionist churches without someone from Faith Bible School accompanying us. He knew we did not yet have the necessary discernment.
As I watched him minister I was mentored in effective methods of teaching Bible in the Swazi setting. He’d read Scripture, then ask relevant questions. He’d have stories or parables that connected with the people.
Then when I was frustrated by how slowly things were changing, Isaac would say, “Don’t expect things to change in one to three years. They will change. But it may take ten years. People don’t seem to hear now, but later they’ll come around. Allow God to use what is to point toward what should be.”
He’d keep encouraging me. He never discounted my ideas, but urged me to have patience. When I noticed, for example, that some people prayed to God and others to their ancestors in the same worship service, Isaac helped me understand how Zionists think and act.
He showed me that relationships with people are more important than what is preached and shared formally. Later when I became more proficient in the language I began visiting Zionist pastors in their homes all over Swaziland. These visits were more powerful than anything I taught in a formal way.
Isaac also modeled love for those who disagree with you. One time when we arrived at a denominational school for a Zionist conference the school leader informed us that we couldn’t sing, pray, or preach without the permission of the denominational leader. We had reserved the grounds through the proper channels, but this denomination considered the Zionists to be a false cult.
I was angry. It made me feel dirty and rejected. And our people were arriving from all over Swaziland to attend the conference.
But instead of being angry Isaac suggested, “If this church leader won’t allow us to have our teaching session tonight, why don’t we ask him to come and speak to us instead?” He showed respect for this brother in Christ even though the acceptance was not mutual! I was deeply moved by his example of love for “enemy.”
Isaac constantly modeled servanthood. He never sought position or recognition–something that was especially striking in a culture where titles and positions are very important. When Isaac became leader of the league of Zionist churches after the former leader was removed for poaching rhino, Isaac visited him in prison and the two became close friends rather than rivals.
While Isaac was always available to me, he mentored me most intensely during our first three year term–when I needed it most. Then like a wise mentor and parent, he knew when I was ready to try my own wings.
Darrel Hostetter, a missionary with Eastern Mennonite Missions and a co-worker, interview by author, November 2002.
Elizabeth Dlamini, Isaac’s wife, interview by D. Hostetter, November 2002.
Martha Thompson, a missionary with Mennonite Central Committee and Eastern Mennonite Missions in Swaziland, e-mail letter to Susan Godshall, representative to Africa for EMM, November 2002.
Missionary Messenger, various articles from March 1977 to March 1992 (EMM monthly journal).
“The Story of EMBMC’s Relationship with the Zionists in Swaziland, Southern Africa,” collection of documents, EMM Resource Room.
This article, received in 2003, was written by Jewel Showalter, staff writer at Eastern Mennonite Missions in Salunga, PA, with assistance from Martha Thomsen and Darrel Hostetter.
Encyclopaedia Britannica (complete article): Zionist Church