Julia Mavimbela: Sowing Seeds in Soweto


Hanging prominently on a wall of Julia Mavimbela’s house in South Africa is a photograph of a white man with white hair. The picture is a curiosity to visitors who know Julia as a nationally recognized leader and champion of rights for the disadvantaged, especially black women and children.

When visitors ask why the picture hangs there, Sister Mavimbela smiles. The picture, she explains, is of the late President Spencer W. Kimball. And then she bears her testimony, often beginning with the words: “In the struggle for peace and justice, we must know who our friends are. This man, Spencer W. Kimball, was our friend. He was the Lord’s prophet, your prophet and mine.” Then she explains the 1978 revelation on priesthood and its significance for all black people.

Such discussions have led to the baptisms of many of Julia’s friends and acquaintances in Soweto, a township at the edge of Johannesburg. She serves as president of the Relief Society in the Soweto Branch and serves her community in many ways.

Sister Mavimbela is a missionary to all she meets. Not long ago, neighborhood children had gathered at her home as the missionaries showed some Church films. She spontaneously finished the evening by teaching more than fifty children the entire first verse of “I Am a Child of God.” None spoke English regularly at home, but many were learning it in school. After a few minutes of instruction from this gifted woman, the little impromptu choir sang robustly. When they concluded singing, Julia asked them in Zulu, “How many of you will go to your homes right now and teach this song to your families?” Every hand shot up. Then she told them when and where the Church meetings were and invited them to bring their families and come and sing again.

Born 20 December 1917, Julia Nqubeni was the youngest of five children. Her parents were schoolteachers; her father died when she was four. In school, she was required to learn both English and Afrikaans, in addition to her native Zulu tongue. As Julia acquired knowledge of the seven languages she now speaks, she became acutely aware of the immensity of the illiteracy problem among her countrymen—a problem she has worked tirelessly to eliminate.

At the Kilnerton Training Institute, taught by whites in high Afrikaans, Julia was offered a position assisting the matron of the school while pursuing her own degree in child and man psychology. The matron subsequently became ill, and Julia virtually ran the institution of more than three hundred young women. In 1940, having obtained her credentials, Julia became one of the first black female school principals in South Africa.

At seventy-two years of age, Julia is still teaching and serving with the vigor of a woman much younger. Her hair is graying, her face etched with fine lines from her smile and from years of working outdoors. Her hands are creased with knowledge of the soil and the handles of tools. Her way is simple, her voice soft and sincere.

At times, she is eloquent, as she was in her speech at the 1975 regional conference of the National Council of African Women, now called National Women of South Africa: “I give thanks to God that He has made me a woman. I give thanks to my Creator that He has made me Black, that he has fashioned me as I am, with hands, heart, head to serve my people.

“It can, it should be a glorious thing to be a woman. It is important for women to be aware of their common lot. It is important for women to stand together and rise together to meet our common enemies—illiteracy, poverty, crime, disease, and stupid, unjust laws that have made women feel so helpless as to be hopeless.”

In 1976, during political unrest throughout South Africa, Julia, a widow with five children, sold the store she had run since her husband’s death to focus more on her children’s needs. “In addition to negotiating with national and community leaders, I began organic gardening with four- to ten-year-olds, since many of their parents were out of work in the political disorder. Children began showing their parents gardening skills, which led to many new family gardens.

“Most families did not have enough ground for even a tiny garden. So we arranged to clean up a rodent-infested piece of ground. The owners would have been subject to a fine for failing to keep the property clean, so instead of making us pay to garden the spot, they allowed my little group of families to clear it and plant there. This was the beginning of family gardens.

“As others watched us struggle with the overgrowth of stubborn weeds, they too became involved, and I moved from corner to corner of Soweto replacing the useless and the ugly with the beneficial and beautiful.”

Besides growing vegetables to eat, Julia insisted there be flowers: “Where there was a blood stain, a beautiful flower must grow.”

Her gardening, work with health organizations, and efforts with women’s groups saw Julia repeatedly elected president of the National Women of South Africa. Women for Peace is an organization Julia founded to sponsor activities and playgrounds and to protect the rights of citizens before the law—particularly the rights of young people.

Of her many honors and associations, none has meant more to Julia than her first meeting with the missionaries in October 1981. At that time, it was still unusual for whites and blacks to interact. Within two months, however, she was baptized. Two of her daughters and several of her grandchildren have since joined the Church.

Sister Mavimbela sings in the Johannesburg stake choirs and continues to lead the Soweto Branch Relief Society. She has been sealed in the Johannesburg temple to her husband, John, and she attends there regularly.

The gospel, human rights, literacy, and self-sufficiency are the causes that define her life and fill her days. When asked how she came to be so concerned about other people, so eager to share, she says it must have begun when she was a young girl. Julia remembers a game she played with her little friends as they ate their lunch. “We played house, with that rock over there being the kitchen, this rock being the living room, and another rock over there being another room. Then we would each lay out the meager items in our lunches in the different ‘rooms’ and would ask each other, ‘What do you have there in the kitchen?’ and ‘What do you have there in the living room?’ and we would share our lunches in this playful way. I believe that was the beginning of my loving to share.”

[photo] Photo by Craig Dimond