Julia Mavimbela of Soweto, South Africa, is a Zulu of imposing personal stature. Her weathered hands show the years of labor she has spent in service to others. Her face radiates the peace and beauty she has cultivated most of her life. She has accomplished much in her 77 years, and her successes have gained her international attention.
Yet like all true stories, hers is also filled with struggle. Poverty, prejudice, and the death of loved ones brought her much sorrow. But her trials also refined her serenity and eventually led her to an amazing discovery—the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Julia Nompi Nqubeni was born 20 December 1917, the youngest of five children. Her father, a school teacher, died when she was four. Her mother struggled to make a living as a school teacher and washer woman. In spite of poverty and other major obstacles, Julia pursued an education and began a teaching career. She eventually became one of the first black women in South Africa to become a school principal.
Her marriage to John Mavimbela was happy and provided both with opportunities for personal growth. “We felt that if we could work together, there would be progress,” she says. “So I gave up my teaching and went to help my husband run a little butcher and grocery shop. My husband was a very special man, one out of one hundred. He gave me a salary, and the money was my own. When I was with my friends, he would go to the kitchen and wash up the dishes. When there was a baby, he would help me wash the diapers.” The two were very much in love.
John had two children from a previous marriage, so Julia built a loving relationship with her husband’s former wife and raised the two children as her own. Her first child died at birth. She later had six children.
In 1955, when Julia was two months pregnant with her last child, her husband was tragically killed in a head-on automobile collision. He was on a business trip, with a large amount of cash, when a drunken white driver crashed into his car. After the police investigated the accident, she asked for her husband’s belongings. They gave her only a small portion of the money she knew he had been carrying and ruled that her husband was at fault for the accident, even though the other driver was on the wrong side of the road. Julia became very bitter.
Some time later, Julia found enlightenment in the scriptures. “I was touched by what the Lord said: ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ I began to feel that I should never throw a stone at other people and that I should have forgiveness. But I was not yet in a church that could really help me forgive.”
A Life of Service
As early as 1945 Julia had become involved in community service. Long before she heard of the Church’s homemaking meetings, she started a women’s club called Homemakers that encouraged women to teach each other different homemaking skills. She later started another club to encourage thrift. After John’s death, she began focusing even more of her energy into helping others.
Some of her greatest contributions to her community began in 1976, when riots erupted in Soweto. It was a dangerous time to be out and about in the community, but Julia was concerned about the hatred expressed by the youth. “I knew what it was like to feel isolated because of your own confusion. So I started a project in Soweto to bring young people into doing things, trying to find a message in what they did.”
Her project was to involve the youth in organic gardening—a passion she had developed a decade earlier while using natural foods to help her daughter heal from a congenital heart defect. As most families did not have enough ground for even a tiny garden, she arranged to clean up a rodent-infested plot of land. “As others watched us struggle with the overgrowth of stubborn weeds,” Julia recalls, “they too became involved, and we moved from corner to corner of Soweto replacing the useless and the ugly with the beneficial and beautiful.”
Part of the beauty Julia planted was in the hearts of the young. “When I was planting with them, I would say, ‘Now look, boys and girls, as we see this soil down here, it is solid and hard; but if we push down a spade or a fork, we will crack it and come out with lumps. And then if we break those lumps and throw in a seed, the seed will grow.
“This message is my message to young people. They should have it in their hearts. Let us dig the soil of bitterness, throw in a seed, show love, and see what fruits it can give. Love will not come without forgiving others. Where there has been a blood stain, a beautiful flower must grow.” Her efforts helped repair not only the physical damage but also the moral damage caused by the riots.
In the same year as these terrible riots, Julia began working with women’s groups. Feeling an urgent need for all races to unite in solving the present and future problems, she helped found Women for Peace, an organization devoted to protecting her people and helping her nation avoid civil war. She currently serves on the organization’s national executive committee. She has also repeatedly been elected the president of the National Council of African Women.
Julia has often served as a liaison between her community and the South African government in safeguarding her neighbors’ rights. Recently, she became concerned about pensioners who failed to receive their pension checks, sometimes for many months. Taking the subject on the air during a radio talk show she was invited to, Julia rallied community support and brought the issue to the attention of the new government.
Another work that she loves is literacy. For more than a decade, Julia, who is fluent in seven languages, has worked to establish more than 780 branches of an organization committed to eliminating illiteracy among the women of South Africa.
A Place of Peace and Beauty
Julia is an eloquent exponent of the causes she champions. But with all of her achievements and associations, none has meant as much to her as meeting two missionaries in October 1981.
One day Julia was asked to help lead a project to repair a library destroyed in one of the Soweto riots. Her first reaction was to refuse. What? she asked herself. Do they think I’m Cinderella? If we rebuild that building, they’ll just burn it down again. But as she thought about the request, her heart softened. She went down to the site to see what she could do to help. There, she was shocked to see two young white men working in the dust and heat. Seeing white men in Soweto was rare, but seeing them do manual labor for blacks was sheer fantasy. Curious, Julia approached them. They identified themselves as missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and invited her to hear their message.
Accepting their invitation was not easy. Her home was in disarray—but more important, it would be very dangerous to have white people in her home. It could mean trouble for them as well as for the family hosting them. “But something bent in me,” Julia says, “and I couldn’t turn them away. I asked them to give me three days to clean up my cobwebs.”
At their first meeting, she was polite but not impressed. On their second visit, however, they saw a picture of Julia’s wedding and asked about her husband. When she told them he was dead, they explained that baptism could be performed for him. At that moment, “Something opened in my mind,” Julia recalls. “‘Take baptism for him?’ I asked. ‘In what way?’” They explained how.
“I said to them, ‘Look here, elders. You have shocked me. I am a black, and we are not allowed to speak about the dead in other churches. Now you come and tell me about my dead. You’ve got a different message. Come again.’ Their words had touched a very delicate place in my heart.
“So they returned, and I listened to them. I said to myself that there could be no better, truer church, for I had always had much love for my parents. I could never understand why I was taught to forget about them and not mention them. I guess there was a fear that people would go back to ancestor worship.
“I was also deeply impressed by the First Vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith—how he talked directly with God. Reading the Book of Mormon changed my whole life. That was what really brought me to my knees. I started to realize that we are but one family.”
Julia was baptized on 28 November 1981, less than two months after meeting the missionaries. Of her baptism, she says: “When the door opened and I walked into the waters of baptism, I could really feel the cleansing power. I felt real joy.”
Ever since her conversion, she has been an active member missionary, encouraging neighbors to attend church with her and handing out copies of the Book of Mormon to government leaders. Two of Julia’s daughters and several of her grandchildren have joined the Church.
One of Julia’s favorite missionary tools is gardening. She uses her love of the earth to expose her neighbors to the Lord’s love. Recently, she helped a grandmother with no pension who was trying to rear her grandchildren. One of the boys had finished school and, failing to find employment, was bored and getting into mischief. Julia donated some vegetable seeds to the family and taught them how to plant, weed, and tend a garden. As the garden grew stronger, so did the family relationships. And now one of the girls is attending sacrament meeting, where she is discovering the abundant fruits of the gospel.
Julia has been both branch and stake Relief Society president, has taught the Gospel Doctrine class, and now serves as the Church public affairs director in Soweto. She is also active in the youth programs in her branch. But the most satisfying moments of her life come every Saturday morning as she serves in the house of the Lord.
In September 1985, Julia received her endowment in the Johannesburg South Africa Temple. “When I first came into the temple,” she remembers, “I felt that I belonged. Before I joined the Church, when I would read the word Israel, I would throw the book aside and say, ‘It is for the whites. It is not for us. We are not chosen.’ Today, I know I belong to a royal family if I live righteously. I am an Israelite. When I was doing my ordinances in the temple, I captured the feeling that we are all on earth as one.
“Being sealed to my husband and my parents was one of the most touching experiences of my life. I feel that my parents are grateful that I have done their temple work for them. The Holy Spirit witnessed this to me.”
Julia continues to serve in the temple as often as she can. Within those walls she finds in joyful abundance the peace and love, the beauty and oneness of spirit she has cultivated in one corner or another of the Lord’s vineyard all of her life. *
Some information for this article was supplied by Giles H. Florence Jr., R. Val Johnson, and C. I. Rex Van Coller.