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Church declared solution to social ills in South Africa


Charles Mahlangu
Charles Mahlangu, Principal, Evangelical Seminary of Southern Africa.

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Yvonne Snider-Nighswander, Annette le Roux & Ken Chisa
Yvonne Snider-Nighswander, Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, with ESSA librarians Annette le Roux and Ken Chisa.

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Dolores Mahlangu
Dolores Mahlangu believes North American Mennonites have something to learn form ESSA students.

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Robert Dlamini
ESSA student Robert Dlamini canvassed door-to-door to help raise money for his tuition at ESSA.

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February 1, 2008
- by Dan Dyck

Pietermaritzburg, South Africa — In 1994, many South Africans were making plans to leave the country, fearing a violent political upheaval in the aftermath of the country’s first democratic elections. That this did not happen, says Dr. Charles Mahlangu, remains a miracle.

Though South Africa has made democratic progress, Mahlangu says the outlook for much of African continent is bleak. He contends that only the church can reverse it.

Dr. Mahlangu is the principle of the Evangelical Seminary of Southern Africa (ESSA) – and a graduate of Canadian Mennonite Bible College (now Canadian Mennonite University).

His years of ministry experience in Swaziland and Southern Africa considerably extend his doctoral credentials. Mahlangu passionately relates the story of a medical doctor – not a religious man – reporting to politicians that the only hope in dealing with the HIV/AIDS crisis on a national level is to address the character of the people.

“Our government acknowledges that we don’t have a future without the church coming up with some kind of solution – and this is the most liberal country in the continent!” declares Mahlangu.

“But this government has said that it is the church that will come up with the solution. And they are right! And I think [Mennonite] Canadians know that. [They] would say, ‘well, we could have told them decades ago, that it is the church that has these social-spiritual solutions.’”
Whether Canadian church goers would agree with Mahlangu is debatable – but his passion for the church’s role in society is refreshing.

While the evangelical zeal of church planters and Western mission enterprise has been explosive, there has been a price to pay, says Mahlangu. “Numerically it looks fantastic… [but] the churches remain perpetually untaught. [A significant] number of churches that have been planted are led by people with absolutely abysmal biblical-theological training.

“We are weeping in South Africa because when we look at the catastrophic breakdown of marriages and families – we have very little to give to churches, to these people who have embraced the faith. There is a huge disconnect. When you embrace the faith [here], it has nothing to do with your moral and ethical choices.”

Mahlangu recalls a powerful Bishop from the African Independent Church he met at a symposium in 2006. The Bishop oversaw a ministry with thousands of members and with radio and TV broadcasts. With ESSA brochures in hand, Mahlangu delivered a 15 minute sales pitch trying to convince the Bishop to send his pastors to ESSA for theological training. Finally the Bishop said, “You don’t get it Mahlangu, this is for me, I have never had any theological education!”

That theological education is beneficial is widely accepted. But a long history of racial divide meant that Bible and theology training was unattainable by many non-whites. Mahlangu describes the average white Protestant church in South Africa as “planets away” from their black, coloured, and Indian counterparts. “We are still playing catch up,” he says. “My one or two white students are at a different level of theological, cultural, evangelical upbringing than their counterparts because there has been a history of un-availability of theological education [for non-whites].”

Mahlangu is not only on an evangelical mission; he’s also on a mission of normalization. With so many untrained pastors and church leaders, he proclaims at every opportunity that it must become normal for Africans to achieve three or four years of theological and biblical training. And schools must provide the best theological education. It must become the norm, he says, that “If you are called to the ministry, you are going to get the best of theological education and we assume that if God has given you high academic proficiency, we assume that you are going to go on and do your honours and masters degree… What has been normal for centuries in other continents, in Africa now has to be normal.”

More than money, Mahlangu says he needs trained and qualified teachers and professors. Years of African independence messages requiring foreigners to possess a deep understanding of local language and culture to qualify for employment as an illusion, he says, even outright deceit.

“It doesn’t matter that you can’t speak Zulu, it doesn’t matter that you don’t understand the SA context, you have what is desperately needed in this country, in this church, and has been needed for ages… That someone from Ontario who is Mennonite or Baptist could not possibly fit into a SA context because they have never been through our history, therefore the theological transmission is not going to be effective, that’s rubbish. We will never attain a level of excellence without having the best come in and co-labour with us because there is a tremendous hunger.”

And so Mahlangu continues his labours to find and convince partners to join ESSA in its non-denominational ministry. “The opportunities are great – probably greater than ever, and in South Africa the greatest, in a country that has been perceived to be the most progressive, theologically we probably are the one that needs [the most] help and direction and partnering because we are positioned to play a major role [on the continent].”

Dr. Dan Nighswander and Yvonne Snider-Nighswander are Mennonite Church Witness workers in Pietermaritzburg. Dan has taught some classes in New Testament, while Yvonne uses her background in library sciences to volunteer part time in the ESSA library. Through their presence, Mahlangu has found refreshed inspiration for his work.

He says Mennonites in particular could fill a strategic gap. “In this continent that is ravaged with blood and abuse and decaying sexual morality, they [Mennonites] have the edge. I wish this could be printed in red: The Mennonites have the edge of intrinsically speaking from their heart when they stand for their background of pacifism.”

“Because what country in the world does not scream out and cry out when they ask what is going to be done to reverse the curses? And people who can champion that cause are people who need to be shaken up in South America and Southern Manitoba and different parts of North America. They have a great deal to contribute, not only in George Bush’s world, but here there is a great deal to contribute because they are not debating; they are coming in to say that this is what Jesus Christ stood for. This is one place, like many parts of the world, where they would be natural candidates for speaking for peace. Our president in SA is known throughout the world for being the most prolific leader who stands for peace but he is not a pacifist. In our theology we are a little bit uncomfortable there, we don’t know where we are.

“Mennonites have that contribution to make to the church of Jesus Christ worldwide. They do not have to be apologetic. In my continent, they have the edge over many other faiths and many other backgrounds, because they don’t have to apologize. They have been brought up in what we are desperately seeking and praying for – for peace.”

Mahlangu also has an edge, having studied at Mennonite schools in North America, and being married to Dolores Hiebert Mahlangu, who was raised Mennonite in Steinbach, Manitoba. Dolores works at ESSA in public relations and fundraising. When asked what she thinks the African church can offer North America in the spirit of mutuality, tears well up.

“What I see on campus is utter reliance on God that we have to have. North America can benefit from seeing the students here who have just given up the last shred of security. They thought when their church said ‘we will support you’ they thought it meant more than prayer support.”

Student Robert Dlamini is human evidence. He was abandoned by his family at the age of five and came to faith in his early adult years. To realize his dream of attending ESSA, he would canvass from door to door to raise tuition money. Eventually ESSA was able to offer him a bursary, which combined with his meagre collections enabled him to study.

It is difficult to remain objective and not get caught up in the Mahlangus’ passion. I ask if there is one final message Charles would like to send to the people of Mennonite Church Canada.

“C-o-m-e,” he slowly spells out one letter at a time. “I’m representing the church of Jesus Christ, and I am saying you have resources, and you don’t even know what kind of resources you have, and I know that you have resources because you trained me. Well I’m here, and I am telling my students, ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet.’ This is nothing compared to what is in store potentially. And you guys [in North America] have those resources. And I am not talking about you sending Canadian and American dollars. I’m taking about you coming and partnering with us in producing the next generation of leaders.”

To listen to an interview with the Mahlangu’s on the radio program Church Matters, visit


Dr. Harold le Roux & Dr. Dan Nighswander
Dr. Harold le Roux, Academic Dean at ESSA, and Dr. Dan Nighswander, Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

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Yvonne Snider-Nighswander, Annette le Roux & Ken Chisa
Student Samuel Machaka says ESSA has taught him that God is bigger than denominational boxes.

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Sidebar: Balancing the evangelical and ecumenical

Dr. Harold le Roux has been ESSA’s Academic Dean, since 1987. In a school with a student body that represents about a dozen African countries including Kenya, Rawanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, he agrees with Mahlangu on the contribution Mennonites can make to the church in Africa. But he also brings another perspective.

“Mennonites are not really well known in this country. We read about them in text books. We know the evangelical position well, and we know an ecumenical position well, but Mennonites seem to somehow float between those two, and we think that is a very healthy position to have. It challenges us, it confirms our thinking, and it’s very stimulating to have that process taking place,” says le Roux.

Fourth year ESSA student Samuel Machaka from Zimbabwe illustrates le Roux’s comment. “Coming from a Pentecostal background, we tend to be rather exclusive at times. Coming to ESSA has helped me to really have a different point of view. I am now somebody who has a better appreciation for different traditions – the Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans… this was helpful for me and my ministry that there is unity in diversity. God is bigger than those boxes. I have also learned that there are different ways of relating to people and communicating with God. As a Pentecostal one would like to pray and shout; I have learned to be still before the Lord. This has helped me get closer to God.”