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Who are Mennonites in South Africa?


Karen Suderman and daughter Samantha

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May 12, 2011
-Karen Suderman

Pietermaritzburg, SOUTH  AFRICA. — It’s often difficult to describe the fact that we work for Mennonite Church Canada as many in South Africa do not know who the Mennonites are. So when people ask, we either have to give a brief description of our work with the Anabaptist Network in South Africa (ANiSA) or a longer version that describes the 500 year history from which we come. A recent encounter helps describe what we do:

We were in Soweto, out for lunch with Mpho Putu, the pastor of a church in the same township. He and Andrew were deeply engrossed in conversation. I participated in the conversation as I could but I had a greater preoccupation—our infant daughter, Samantha. She hadn’t slept well the night before and was having a particularly fussy day.

I had tried bouncing her, feeding her, cuddling her and walking with her in my arms and was beginning to run out of patience. I decided to put into practice something wonderful that I’ve learned as a mother here, carrying Samantha on my back. There are two things that we’ve observed about carrying babies in such a way: babies on their mother’s backs rarely if ever are fussy or unhappy, and it is even more rare to see a white woman carrying her child on her back.

I walked around with Samantha on my back in the hope that she would fall asleep. Slowly I felt her little body relaxing against mine. I made my way back to my seat.

Just before I reached our table, a gentleman with a huge smile on his face came up to me. He thrust his hand out to mine and said with enthusiasm;  “Hello! I love the way you’re carrying your baby! This is beautiful!!” He went on, “I’m wondering if I might be able to take your picture.”

I agreed to having the picture taken, as he kept repeating, “This is beautiful, this is beautiful”.

The man thanked me, then tickled Samantha’s cheeks and asked her name. When I told him, he responded excitedly, “We must give her a Zulu name!”

Smiling, I told him Samantha’s Zulu and Xhosa names.

Again, he repeated, “This is beautiful.” He then looked at me in the eye and asked, “Where were people like you during Apartheid? We need people like you.” He smiled, shook my hand again and was gone.

The encounter was brief and wonderful.

Creating spaces

This is what we do here in South Africa. We create spaces and we live out spaces for something different to happen, spaces where people can come together to converse, commune, and learn to know one another despite race or socioeconomic standing. Bringing people together in such a way is significant in South Africa. Despite the fact that Apartheid officially ended 17 years ago, separation and division are still strong.

We are currently on an extensive tour around South Africa and for the last three weeks we stayed in Johannesburg. On April 30th an ANiSA Theological Forum presented the topic “Discipleship Amidst Empire”. The forum brought together 20 people ranging from Dutch Reform Afrikaners, to Brethren in Christ pastors, to a pastor from an independent church in Soweto.

Somehow, the space created that evening was immediately safe, which is rare. All members of the group felt free to ask questions and talk together, more than likely with a level of honesty that neither had experienced before. Small but amazing things happen when spaces like these are created. People from different backgrounds, races, and socioeconomic standing begin to recognize each other as children of God, creating the opportunity for new types of relationships to be built. People seized such opportunities that evening.

As ANiSA develops we are excited to see how we can continue to create these nurturing spaces. In our quest to explore, embrace, and embody a radical lifestyle centered around God’s reconciling vision for the world and from drawing on the collective wisdom found within the Anabaptist movement, ANiSA seeks to walk with, support, and grow communities of peace, justice, and reconciliation within South Africa.

Karen and Andrew Suderman are Mennonite Church Canada workers in South Africa, and are grateful for that the financial support they receive that enables them to carry out this ministry of reconciliation.