Film and Book Reviews

Honest account of a faithful church leader in post-Apartheid South Africa

BookFaith and Courage: Praying With Mandela, by Thabo Makgoba (Foreword by Graca Machel), (SPCK, 2019)

By Richard Prideaux

April 30 2020
What priest or Christian leader has never had pastoral counselling that blew up in their face or ministry initiatives that were so disastrous they wanted to quit? If this is you, then here is a book to give you faith and courage!  

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba is the Primate of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, the youngest person to be elected to this position. He is also chair of the International Design Group for the Lambeth Conference, deferred until 2021 due to coronavirus. This is the story of a poor young black lad whose ancestors were royalty living in the beautifully forested escarpment of south-east Africa. It was one of the last cultures to be hunted down and colonised by British rulers with the help of 8000 Swazi allies.

His childhood was far from royal, growing up in poverty with his twin sister in the overcrowded, poor, unkempt and downtrodden township of Alexandra. His home amounted to two rooms, which together with another house and other backyard rooms, housed around 20 families in total with four outside “bucket” toilets for them all.   His father who was a pastor of the Zion Christian Church, had at least four other wives and families and was therefore often absent from home. It was a torrid childhood. Apartheid ruled, pass laws were strict, street gangs dominated, life was cheap and dead bodies were often found on the street. Yet his father was ambitious for his tall young son who clearly had a mind to study. Somehow, often travelling two hours each way to better schools Thabo gained a strong secondary education and did well enough to gain entry to the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, where he studied science, education and psychology.

It seems from the start that Thabo was destined for leadership and his drive for excellence was allied with a passion to see justice and fairness achieved for the poor and dispossessed. At university, he became involved with the Anglican Students Federation and as a committee member, he became an underground member of the African National Congress, gradually overcoming his terror of “whites”. He also joined the Release Mandela Campaign and became a “player” in Anglican synods, attracting attention. Almost inevitably, he was targeted for ordination and eventually added theology to his list of studies.

The book charts with exceptional honesty the triumphs and failures of his career, including his work as teacher, psychologist, pastor, academic, college dean, parish priest, bishop and archbishop. His forceful personality often got him into scrapes with the harsh pass laws, with colleagues and opponents and eventually with high ranking movers and shakers in the church, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu. At the same time, we learn of his marriage and family and of the tragic death of his twin sister.  

One cannot but be amazed by Thabo’s courage in facing all these tough challenges, whether political, the draining psychological counselling of drug addicts, the horrific violence against women, the trauma of spinally injured mine workers, and the bitter and physically dangerous infighting between overly zealous church members that sometimes ended with guns! Challenged by his mentors for being a minister without mentioning Christ, it is sometimes difficult in the first half of the book to see a priest at work rather than a social worker.

This all changes when Mandela’s third wife Graça Machel approached Thabo to support Mandela spiritually in the last five years of his life. Mandela’s importance to South Africa and its peoples was so overwhelming that it was difficult for anyone to be close to him. Thabo manages to break through this wall and a friendship and spiritual bond developed between him, Graça and Mandela. The prayers Thabo records become a powerful statement of the faith and courage needed to live in the new hard world of a post-apartheid South Africa, especially in the period of the corrupt government of President Zuma. The book forces Western Christians especially to face up to the deep hurts caused by the often brutal European colonisation of the rest of the world.

 Thabo Makgoba is not the perfect priest and he is not without selfish ambition. He has successes and failures. Some things he is good at become so huge and burdensome he has to give them up. It is in fact the honest story of a faithful priest who simply saw needs and tried to help. Powerful indeed is his call for Anglicans to maintain unity in the midst of their current deep divisions.

Richard Prideaux is a chaplain at Newhaven College and a Gippsland Diocesan lay reader.