Mankekolo Mahlangu-Bgcobo

Woman Making a Difference:
The Rev. Dr. Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo

by Ginny Robertson


The story of The Rev. Dr. Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo is a story of the struggle against Aparatheid. In South Africa, a year after Apartheid was made a policy of the land, Mankekolo was born in the maternity ward assigned to Blacks. Everyone was assigned to one of four classes of people: Whites, Indians, Coloreds and Blacks. All residential areas, schools and health care facilities were segregated accordingly.

Mankekolo remembers, “At the age of six, I went with my mother for Christmas shopping. At the store I wanted to fit the shoes my mother was buying for me, and I was not allowed to fit them because I was a black child. I saw a young white girl of my age fitting the shoes, and I asked my mother why I could not fit the shoes. My mother looked at me, put her finger on her mouth and said, ‘Shhh. I will tell you later.’ She took me out of the store and told me that because I was black the laws do not give us the same rights as the white people. I told her that it was not fair. She told me I would understand it better when I grew up.”

Her mother’s words were truer than she realized. At the age of 21, Mankekolo went into nurses’ training at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, Johannesburg. She immediately became concerned about the way black patients were treated by white doctors, and questioned why all of the Nursing Matrons or Directors were white. She resented white people. She also began to feel a conflict in her heart about Christianity, seeing it as a religion that oppressed Black people and took their land.

Then, when she was President of the Hospital Christian Fellowship, Mankekolo said, “We invited a Mission ’70 Crusade to visit, and on August 21, 1970, I received Jesus Christ as my personal Savior. It was revealed to me that Jesus Christ was a Savior for all people. He was inclusive. He included the women and the outcast in His ministry. The Samaritan woman was not from His ethnic group, and she was a woman, and Jesus did not judge or condemn her. He embraced her. Through my new Christian experience, I learned that we are all made in God’s image and Christ died for all of us, Black, white, Indians and Colored. I decided to give Jesus a chance to use me, a Black woman, to change Apartheid.”

Every Christmas Eve, the Hospital Christian Fellowship was charged with planning the nativity play and carol singing for the patients. With Mankekolo’s new Christian experience, she wanted the nativity play to have a practical spiritual meaning to those who lived under Apartheid. She said, “I wanted to help others experience the birth of Christ in our hearts and our environment. The question was If Jesus was to be born in South Africa, where would the stable be? Would the stable be in a white suburb or a Black township like Soweto?

“We took the script to the Chief Matron to endorse it. I was called to her office to discuss the nativity play script. She wanted me to cancel the introduction and the conclusion as it was ‘communist’. I respectfully told her that we prayed about it and that was the revelation we had, and we would not remove any part from the script. She told me that there would not be a nativity play. We did not have the play that year. That decision inspired the patients and staff to support anti-Apartheid activities.”

Mankekolo applied for a nursing scholarship to the University. At the interview, she discovered there was a confidential report stating that she was a communist. “They asked me if I was a communist,” she said. “I asked them to define and explain what a communist is. They did not define and explain it and let me go. I thought they were not going to offer me a scholarship. But they did. I went to University of the North. I joined the Student Christian Movement. I believe that Christianity should relate to our daily lives so Liberation Theology and Black theology were guiding my faith.

“I was elected secretary of the Student Representative Council. In June, 1976, the students in Soweto protested against [the] Afrikaans [language] being used as a medium of instruction. Their protest was met with bullets. The first youth to be killed was twelve-year-old Hector Peterson. We organized students at the University to be in solidarity with the students in Soweto. We were also met with guns and teargas. Some students were killed, jailed or fled the country.

“The University was closed, and I returned to Baragwanath Hospital to work. The hospital was filled with students who were under arrest. I stayed for a month, and we were called to go back to the University. The following year, on September 12, 1977, Steve Biko, the founder of the Black Consciousness in South Africa, was brutally killed. We organized a student protest, and the University was closed. We returned three weeks later, and the Student Representative Council members including me were expelled. I was left with two weeks to write my final examination to get my Nursing Diploma. I was also expelled when I went back to Baragwanath Hospital.”

She continued, “After Steve Biko was killed, the Black Consciousness movement was banned. On October 11, 1977, we organized ourselves underground and formed Azanian Peoples Organization. Two weeks later, we were detained and held in solitary confinement. I was in solitary confinement for 21 days. I was not allowed to get visitation from family, pastor and lawyers. I was not allowed to read even the Bible. I slept on the cement floor with blankets full of lice. I was interrogated and bitten. I was released on condition that I should stop organizing Anti-Apartheid. The police commissioner told me that if they arrested me again, I would go to jail for a long time.

“Police were assigned to my home in Soweto to monitor people coming to my home. One day they came in when I was not there. They told my Mom-aunt that I should report to the police station the following morning. I fled into the neighboring country of Botswana where I was declared a refugee. I stayed at a refugee camp for two days and left after the man at the camp office showed me an article in the paper about my fleeing South Africa. He told me that the South African security police told him to check if I was in the camp.

“I left the camp and stayed at the ANC (African National Congress) house for a short time. I could not leave the house. It was suggested that I go to the ANC Headquarters in Zambia. I left quickly, and at the airport I met the President of ANC, Oliver Tambo. What a great man. He told me that he heard that I was a praying woman. He asked me to pray for him and I did until his death in South Africa. I was glad that he was able to go back home and see the country he fought for.”

Mankekolo missed her son and family, but she was able to be emotionally strong. “The ANC created a communal way of living that was great. We were comrades and bonded together and we were family. When you are in a liberation struggle, the nation comes first.” She was working to liberate her family from Apartheid. Still, there was always the knowledge that she could be arrested and locked up for life, killed or forced into exile. These were sacrifices those working for the cause took on. However, as things got more dangerous, Mankekolo was forced to leave the country and came to Baltimore where she lives today.

Mankekolo was in Baltimore when Nelson Mandela was released from jail. Ever active in the ANC and the Baltimore Anti-Apartheid Movement, she helped organize his visit to Washington DC in 1990. Her daughter, Ntokozo was one of the four children to welcome Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Mankekolo attended some private meetings with him and found it exciting to be in the Mandelas’ presence. And she met Nelson Mandela again when she went back to South Africa to direct the repatriation of exiles.

Using her Masters in Public Health, Mankekolo worked with the Baltimore City Health Department and was assigned to make presentations on HIV/AIDS to BCHD staff and the community. She found that the church resisted dealing with HIV/AIDS issues at that time. “The church,” Mankekolo told us, “stigmatized the epidemic as a gay disease and that God was punishing them. As a public Health professional and a minister, I saw the epidemic differently. I found out that it was more pastoral to have compassion like the Good Samaritan than to judge. I visited patients in the hospital, and some of them were suicidal because family and the church were judging them. From Apartheid struggle, HIV/AIDS became my other cause to advocate and minister.”

It had been during post-graduate study in public health that Mankekolo received the call to ministry that she knew she must answer. In 1988, she preached her trial sermon at Bethel AME Church on Druid Hill Avenue under its pastor, Bishop John Bryant. In 1989, she earned her Master of Arts in Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University here in Baltimore and went on to United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio where she was graduated with the Doctor of Ministry degree in 1992. She was transferred to Metropolitan AME Church in Washington and ordained an elder in the AME church in 1992.

Today, all of the stepping stones on Mankekolo’s path come together—her South African heritage, her ministry, her public health training, her compassion for and experience working with those who are discriminated against and outcast. And her experience of having been an outcast herself. She taught at Morgan State University for over 11 years. For the past 5 years she has been a mentor in the Doctor of Ministry program at United Theological Seminary. She developed a D. Min degree with concentration on “The Black Church and Public Health” which fosters her interest in integrating spirituality and health. Her five students received their Doctor of Ministry last December. She is currently Resident Chaplain at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In 2000, Mankekolo founded Kalafong AME Mission Church in Baltimore. Kalafong means a healing place in three Southern African languages—Sesotho, Setswana and Sepedi.

As Mankedolo tells it, “We were answering the scriptural question found in Psalm 137:4: How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? The church was formed to assist the immigrants spiritually, socially and economically and also with immigration issues.” Kalafong’s new home is at 2500 Arunah Avenue in Baltimore. Sunday worship starts at 1:30 PM and every Tuesday at 7:00 PM there is a healing service open to everyone.

Mankekolo has written many books on various themes of empowerment and inspiration. When asked what readers of On Purpose Woman could do to assist with her work, she mentioned that, in December, she is returning to Southern Africa with Supervisor Rev. Cecelia Bryant to do HIV/AIDS mission work in Lesotho, which as one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world. She offered an opportunity to help by buying her informative book, AIDS in Africa: An African and Prophetic Perspective and her inspirational CD, Prayer for AIDS in Africa. In this way, readers can become more informed and inspired and support Mankekolo’s work financially. She also encourages donations to organizations that are dealing with HIV/AIDS in Africa.

True to her background and her path, Mankekolo’s primary goal is to educate all people, and the church in particular, about HIV/AIDS and to provide pastoral care to those affected by the epidemic locally and internationally—to find resources and provide education, pre- and post-HIV testing, palliative care and support for orphans and vulnerable children. That six-year-old girl who wondered why she could not try her shoes on in the store has lived the answer to that question and truly become a woman making a difference.