Saints in South Africa: Their Good Hope Is in Christ


Jesse Haven stood on the slopes of Lion’s Head overlooking southern Africa’s Cape Town—already a historic city on that twenty-third day of May in 1853—and forecast: “Many of the honest in heart will rejoice in the everlasting gospel.” President Haven and his companions, William Holmes Walker and Leonard I. Smith, were there to organize The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Cape of Good Hope and dedicate the land to missionary work. His words have held true during the ensuing one hundred and thirty-three years that the Church has been in South Africa.

Harsh conditions and opposition resulted in slow progress in the early days. Emigration of converts to larger Latter-day Saint communities kept the LDS population of southern Africa small for most of a century. But at present, there are about twelve thousand members, organized in four stakes and two missions; geographically, they are spread over an area measuring some 2,400 kilometers (about 1,491 miles) across (Durban, South Africa, to Windhoek, Namibia) and 2,600 kilometers (about 1,615 miles) from north to south (Hararo, Zimbabwe, to Cape Town).

Being spread among millions of fellow South Africans makes that comparatively small number of Saints appreciate the gospel and motivates them to be “defenders of the faith,” observes Johann P. Brummer, Sandton South Africa Stake president. “My overriding impression of the Church in South Africa today is that it is changing the lives of members, most of whom are converts.”

“Because of the distance involved, we have often felt isolated from Church headquarters and have looked forward eagerly to visits of its representatives,” says Debbie Vial, Relief Society Cultural Refinement teacher in the Pinetown Ward, Durban South Africa Stake.

Indeed, Durban is as far from Salt Lake City as any other spot on earth where the Church is organized.

From the time President Haven arrived as South Africa’s first mission president, a full century passed before a General Authority, President David O. McKay, came to South Africa in 1954. He was followed by other leaders: Elder Ezra Taft Benson in 1972, when he was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and President Spencer W. Kimball in 1973, when he was President of that quorum. President Kimball rededicated the land while he was in Johannesburg, which by then had become South African headquarters for the Church.

These visits gave encouragement to members and helped speed Church growth, resulting in the first South African area conference in 1978 at Johannesburg. President Kimball, by then Church President, attended, along with several other Church leaders; it was the first time more than one General Authority had stood on South African soil at the same time. Families countrywide prepared months ahead to share in the pilgrimage to this special meeting.

“As the Church has grown,” says Louis P. Hefer, regional representative in the Johannesburg South Africa Region and temple recorder in Johannesburg, “we have seen our own [South African] missionaries being called in greater numbers, and returned missionaries are now serving in stake and Relief Society presidencies, as bishops and counselors, and generally strengthening the Church.”

From the start, the Church in South Africa has been characterized by staunch families who have upheld gospel teachings in difficult times, as when missionaries were withdrawn during the Frontier and South African Wars (1856–61, 1865–1904), and both World Wars.

Frank Fourie, first counselor in the Cape Town South Africa Stake presidency, belongs to one of several such families who have been members for more than fifty years. Recalling his late mother Johanna’s conversion, he says: “Mother had several gospel queries which our minister could not explain. She warned him: ‘If I find a church that does have the answers, I will have to join it!’

“In 1934, LDS missionaries knocked at our door, were invited in, and answered every question. Mother and we children were baptized in the Old Hall at Mowbray, now demolished. Looking up at a picture of the Salt Lake Temple on the wall, she vowed she would go there one day. It was during the Depression, so her dream seemed unlikely, but it came true in later years.” Johanna served as a Primary president for many years. “I have a copy of Cumorah’s Southern Messenger [an LDS publication of an earlier era] describing her eightieth birthday party while still in this calling,” President Fourie says.

Another faithful family is that of Edwina Swartzberg, first counselor in the Sandton South Africa Stake Relief Society, a third-generation Latter-day Saint. Her explanations about LDS temples to her future husband, Isaac, who was reared in an Orthodox Jewish home, assisted in his conversion. He had puzzled why the Lord, who, scripturally, always spoke to his people in temples, no longer had one on Earth. He recognized, too, prophecies of Christ in the Old Testament, especially in Psalm 22, and things fell into place for him. [Ps. 22] The Swartzbergs were later sealed in the Salt Lake Temple. They live in Pretoria.

Gospel principles are central to family life for South African Saints. Barbara and Wilfred (Bill) Wrench of Sandton First Ward, members for thirty-five years, comment that they can begin to understand “the joy our Heavenly Father feels when we see our children and grandchildren participating in Church activities. Their testimony helps ours grow.” Their sons Ian and Michael are first and second counselor, respectively, in the Sandton South Africa Stake presidency.

“We greatly rejoice in the decision we made twenty-five years ago to serve the Lord,” acknowledges Evereld Matthews, wife of Brother Lyle Matthews of the Hillcrest Branch, Durban South Africa Stake. “Only with the guidance of our Heavenly Father could we so successfully have reared our family of six, who have been such a joy and example to us.” Four of their daughters were sealed to their husbands in the temple, and the fifth served a mission, as did their son.

In South Africa, all Church auxiliary programs are in operation and well-attended. Donald E. Harper, area director for the Church Educational System, comments: “Seminary and institute, started in 1974, involves 70 percent of our young people. The youth are really dedicated, rising at 5:00 A.M. to attend class between 6:00 and 7:00 A.M., then going straight to school starting at about 8:00 A.M., five days a week.” There are also evening classes.

But there are no Church-run schools or colleges. Some students travel to the United States to enroll at Ricks College or Brigham Young University. Debbie Bragge, an immigrant from Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), is studying psychology at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, “a small town with no chapel. To attend Church,” she says, “I have one-and-a-half-hour drive to Port Elizabeth or East London. To me, apart from taking sacrament, church offers me a chance to make friends and share ideas with like-minded friends. I can’t do that at present.

“I miss being part of the main spiritual stream, yet my testimony—a new one that I have reached while on my own—has grown. I owe a lot to my Church upbringing, having learned to study happily and have self-esteem. I know I have been blessed and protected and have begun to share the gospel with others.”

Though it is significantly smaller than Canada, the United States, or Australia, South Africa has a certain feeling of space, of grandeur and majesty about it. Gazing out to sea off the Cape of Good Hope, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet, one may feel a sense of kinship with sea captains whose names and feats are recorded in history. Inland, on the Great Karoo plateau, one may see a nearly unbroken horizon in any direction. In the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in the northwest, or in the Kruger National Park in the northeast, one finds the kind of wildlife for which Africa is famous. Historic Cape Town, the nation’s mother city and legislative capital, and vibrant Johannesburg, “city of gold,” celebrating its centenary this year, rank with the great cities of the world.

Today’s cosmopolitan state of South Africa grew from simple beginnings.

Portuguese navigator Bartholomew Diaz made landfall at Mossel Bay, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of present-day Cape Town, in 1488. Two hundred years later, the Dutch East India Company established a refreshment station at the Cape for its trading fleet. Successive waves of colonists, chiefly from France, Germany, and Britain, helped develop the land.

Operations of the Dutch East India Company brought many Dutch to South Africa. Their descendants, along with the descendants of German and French immigrants, are the majority of today’s Afrikaners, speaking their own language—Afrikaans. They make up about 60 percent of South Africa’s white population. The other 40 percent are mainly English-speaking descendants of people who emigrated from Great Britain before and during the period of British rule that followed Dutch control together with more recent immigrants. Both official languages, English and Afrikaans, are spoken by all South Africans.

Of course, the majority of South Africans—about 70 percent of the population—are black, descendants of native tribes who have family roots in Africa stretching back thousands of years. There are also large groups of “Coloured People”—those of mixed racial heritage—and “Asians,” largely descendants of people brought from India to work sugar plantations in Natal a little over a century ago. LDS missionaries have had success among all these groups. The Cape Malays, a separate group, are Muslims. There are many Jews, Greeks, and Portuguese, too.

“The extension of the priesthood to all worthy males has opened up great vistas of missionary work among Blacks,” says Brother Hefer. Blacks meet mostly among themselves. Soweto Branch is totally run by Blacks, and there are three other Black congregations in local townships still temporarily under white supervision. There are also Black and Indian branches in Durban, and several small units in Ciskei.

“We were part of the pioneering of Soweto branch,” recalls James van Zyl of Johannesburg, whose wife Maureen served with him in a missionary role. “This was the most rewarding experience in our twenty-four years of Church membership. First to be baptized was Moses Mahlango, who had formed his own Book of Mormon group, to whom he preached its principles while awaiting baptism and priesthood.”

Fluent in seven languages, Soweto Branch Relief Society president Julia Mavimbela accompanies missionaries, translating lessons. People are her life, and where she sees a need, she fills it—supplying and planting trees in otherwise shadeless school playgrounds and public places, for example.

A former school principal with special kindergarten training, this grandmother owns a restaurant, bakery, butchery, and herb shop. She testifies humbly: “I do not doubt that the Lord has been preparing me for his gospel, and I cannot express the joy I feel from it. I have a very strong testimony that the gospel and Church are true and that they teach people to be happy.” A widow, she took the opportunity to be sealed to her husband in the Johannesburg Temple after its dedication.

Sister Mavimbela serves on the multiracial executive board of Women for Peace and is a member or founder of many women’s organizations. “Sometimes when I knock on a door, I am afraid, but I tell myself that the Lord has guided me to that particular house and will therefore protect me.”

In another area, Malcolm Bowes-Taylor, ward mission leader in Durban First Ward, Durban South Africa Stake, recalls his mission among the Zulus of kwaMashu, whose language he speaks. “Most of our teaching was done in humble homes by the light of a single candle. The gospel is readily accepted by these teachable people of simple, powerful faith.” Missionaries working among the Zulus find that many are “searching for knowledge” of God, comments Chappie Winstanley, representative for the Johannesburg South Africa Region.

Weekly attendance at a branch in kwaMashu, a large township established in kwaZulu homeland by the government for about 500,000 Zulus, is “in the hundreds,” he says. Elder Sipho Nkomo, the first Zulu missionary, was called to London, England, to preach the gospel.

In South Africa, the old social patterns and attitudes set by history over nearly three and a half centuries are changing. Sandton South Africa Stake president Johann Brummer says: “At present, South Africa is in the throes of drastic change, and is in a melting pot situation similar to that experienced by America at the beginning of this century. We are undergoing a realignment of cultures, and drastic change is happening quickly. It is hard to accommodate it at such a pace, and it amounts to ‘culture shock.’”

But, he says, despite these difficulties, “The Church simply promotes among its members, both black and white, the concept of peace and goodwill.” Isaac Swartzberg, Church legal advisor and area director of public communications, comments: “Traditional barriers are melting away. No discrimination exists in the Church.”

Members of Johannesburg and Sandton stakes are entrusted with the task of servicing the temple, and for many it has become part of their lives—they attend regularly, and are very serious about their commitment. A heightened spiritual awareness is evident among them. Others are learning more about the value of the temple as they serve.

Sister Sylvia J. Milne, a convert of twenty-nine years and now clerical supervisor in the temple under the direction of the temple recorder, shares thoughts that represent the feelings of many who serve with her: “It is a great privilege to be a servant in the Lord’s house. A lovely spirit of helpful comradeship is evident among those concerned with the work for the dead.”

Sound foundations for genealogical research have been laid over the years. Workshops and classes are held regularly in the wards under priesthood direction, and primary sources are examined and collected. The first Branch Genealogical Library was organized in Johannesburg in 1976 under then branch librarian Sylvia J. Milne, who also headed the first Name Extraction Program in South Africa. More genealogical branch libraries have followed in Durban, Cape Town, and Harare.

Brother Barend Bester, of Benoni Ward, Johannesburg South Africa Stake, is Genealogical Services Center manager in Johannesburg. He and the center’s staff have streamlined routines for submitting and processing entry forms for temple ordinances. “There is a great upsurge of interest in genealogical work. People telephone daily asking about the new system and about research aids. Members who have had work in their files for years are now submitting it. There is great joy, often tears, when they realize that obstacles have been removed and their ancestral work may be done,” he says.

With the new temple in their midst as a tangible witness of the Lord’s love for them, South African Saints may look to the future with quiet hearts, remembering Jesse Haven’s assessment of his mission in December 1855 as he left South Africa: “I feel that the Lord has blessed us. The foundation of a good work has been laid in this land and a seed has been sown,” It is a seed well-rooted now, matured, and bearing precious fruit.

[photos] Clockwise from left: The Johannesburg South Africa Temple; a view of Capetown (photo courtesy of the South African Tourism Board); members of the Sandton South Africa Stake at stake conference; Malcolm and Pauline Bassett and their children, members of the Capetown First Ward; librarian Sylvia J. Milne at a microfilm reader in the Johannesburg branch genealogical library. Opposite page: (From left) Una Verabuthroo, Paravathy Hira, and Bobby Hira, Church members from Pretoria.

[photo] Top to bottom: Members of the Barbara and Bill Wrench family celebrate a birthday; farmland in a valley of the Drakensberg mountain range, near the southeastern coast of South Africa (photo courtesy of the South African Tourism Board); the Sandton South Africa Stake Center; the Elias Vis family, Church members from Bloemfontein.

Marjorie E. Woods, a free-lance writer, is a stake assistant librarian for the branch genealogical library, Johannesburg. She is a member of the Sandton First Ward, Sandton South Africa Stake.