WHEN I was growing up in South Africa, the conversations that I heard and participated in, both in and outside the Church, surrounding “mission” or “missionaries” generally took a harsh tone. Many people associated these words with white people from European countries, who came to Africa to tell them to leave their heathen ways and believe in a God that the people had never heard of before.
These people were observed as displaying dominance, and were accused of land grabs, unfair treatment of the local people, and even stock theft.
Later, having read documents from UK archives about the intentions of the missionaries who set sail to “distant lands” with a mandate to “bring Christianity to the heathen”, I have found little or no respect afforded to those whom they sought to convert. For missionaries in this early period, Africans were not fully human. As a consequence, the early missionaries confidently prohibited polygamy, initiation rites, ancestor worship, and other indigenous practices.
Yet an enlightened 19th-century ethnographer, Mary Kingsley (1862-1900), wrote that it was wrong “to regard the African minds as so many jugs, which [had] only to be emptied of the stuff that [was] in them and refilled with the particular form of doctrine they, the missionaries, [were] engaged in teaching”.
BEFORE European missionaries arrived in the continent, inhabitants had their own religious beliefs. For example, the Khoisan religion was inherently related to practical everyday needs: rain and healing, the protection of crops, the control of animals, and daily survival. The Khoi people acknowledged Tsui/Goab as their supreme God, who was in constant struggle with Guanab, the god of evil. The ancestors provided a link between the Khoisan and the Tsui/Goab.
In How the Traditional World-view Persists in the Christianity of the Sotho-Tswana, the Methodist theologian Gabriel Setiloane recalls asking a mature member of the Church: “What do you see as unique in what the missionaries have brought to us?” The answer was: “To tell the truth, Moruti [priest], the missionaries have not taught us anything new about God and God’s workings with the man [sic] and the world. All they have taught us, the only thing they have introduced, is thlabologo [“civilisation”], in a form of material progress according to the West.”
In apartheid South Africa, indigenous religion was widely practised, although in secret. The reason for secrecy was that missionaries across the denominations were aggressively opposed to traditional African practice, which they considered barbaric and based on superstition.
In the post-apartheid period, there has been an increase in the practice of African indigenous religion in South Africa, and it now occupies an important place in public life.
USPG/Leah GordonThe Revd Dr Vincentia Kgabe speaks at the USPG conference, “Rethinking Mission”, held in Southwark Cathedral in 2017
THE religion of the missionaries dominated, because colonialism dominated. The Anglican missionary bishop Stephen Neill wrote in 1966: “It is now widely taken for granted that, whatever may have been the beneficent intentions of the missionaries, they were, in fact, the tools of governments, and that mission can be classed as one of the instruments of Western infiltration and control.”
David Livingstone, who worked first for the London Missionary Society, once remarked: “I go back to Africa to try to make an open path for commerce and Christianity.”
The mixture of religion, commerce, and governance which was personified by the first missionaries was one of the factors that enabled colonialism to thrive. This remains a live topic for Africans. “The missionary was undoubtedly the forerunner or frontrunner of subsequent infiltration of the colonialist who was eager to carve an empire in Africa for the purpose of exploiting African resources for his own good,” Aaron Maboyi, a Zimbabwean politician, wrote in a recent piece for the Zimbabwean Chronicle.
NONE the less, missionary societies and missionaries have contributed to sub-Saharan African development. There were some who opposed oppressive colonial policy and practices, and who spoke out in support of independence.
In their history of Christianity and the colonisation of South Africa, the theologians Charles Villa-Vicencio and Peter Grassow noted that Christianity played a “formative role in the shaping of the social history of South Africa and other countries in the continent and beyond. Since the beginning of the colonial era in the seventeenth century until the present, it has been a dominant religious force for both good and ill.
“From the outset, many indigenous people experienced it as the handmaiden of colonialism and a threat to their culture. But Christianity also injected into South African society a positive dynamic, giving rise to people, movements and institutions which, in more recent times, have been at the forefront of the struggle for justice and reconciliation in a country long wracked by oppression and violence.”
The legacy and influence of the missionaries are still visible in South Africa, be it in the names of the towns or the institutions of learning and health care. People reminisce about the “best education” they received at the mission school, and there is a project, led by a former Archbishop of Capetown, Njongonkulu Ndungane, to restore some of them.
Many missionaries built houses next to their parish church, and parishioners and members of the community still refer to them as “mission houses”, even though the occupant is now the parish priest.
The Anglican Church is still seen by many in South Africa as an English Church, a missionary Church, a Church of “well-to-do persons”, and not yet rooted in its local context. This has worked both for and against the Church. The work of inculturation still needs to be done to make it appeal to many of the people it serves. While it does that, it should also embrace and celebrate its connectivity to the wider Anglican Communion, as it seeks to renew and re-imagine itself.
The Revd Dr Vicentia Kgabe is the first female Principal of the College of the Transfiguration, Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, South Africa.