Academic journal article African Studies Review

Silence, Disobedience, and African Catholic Sisters in Apartheid South Africa

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Silence, Disobedience, and African Catholic Sisters in Apartheid South Africa

Article excerpt


This article considers the choices made during the apartheid era by Catholic sisters who were members of one of the largest orders for African women, the Montebello Dominicans, based in KwaZulu-Natal, and one of the smallest orders, the Companions of Saint Angela, based in Soweto, the sprawling African township to the southwest of Johannesburg. The Montebellos took an apolitical stance and embraced "silence," but they could not avoid the political tensions that defined KwaZulu-Natal. The Companions became activists, whose "disobedience" brought them into direct confrontation with the state. History, region, ethnicity, and timing help explain what it meant for African women religious to be apolitical, and what it meant to be politicized, in the context of state repression so effective that every action could be interpreted as a political act.

Résumé: Cet article évalue les choix des soeurs catholiques pendant l'Apartheid, qui étaient membres d'un des plus grands ordres pour les africaines, les dominicaines de Montebello, basées dans le KwaZulu-Natal, ainsi que l'un des ordres les plus petits, les compagnes de St Angela à Soweto, le township tentaculaire du sud ouest de Johannesburg. Les soeurs de Montebello restèrent neutres politiquement, et adoptèrent un statut "silencieux," tout en ne pouvant éviter les tensions politiques qui régnaient dans le KwaZulu-Natal. Les compagnes s'engagèrent alors politiquement, et leurs actes d'insubordination les poussèrent à un état de confrontation directe avec l'état. Le contexte historique, régional et ethnique, ainsi que l'époque permettent de comprendre la signification d'un choix de neutralité ou d'engagement pour les religieuses africaines, dans un état de répression si percutante que tout acte risquait d'être interprété comme un acte politique.

On a street corner in Johannesburg's city center in September 1977, a sobbing white woman embraced Sr. Mary Modise, the newly elected moderator general of the Companions of Saint Angela, a Catholic religious order for African women. "They have killed him," the woman cried to the sister, who was readily identifiable by her religious habit. "Who has been killed?" Modise inquired. "Steve Biko," the woman answered. Recalling the incident almost thirty years later, Modise admitted that, ironically, despite the Companions' experience of oppression and the sisters' growing activism, she had not known who Biko was (Modise 2005).1

Steve Biko's death in police custody followed the June 1976 uprising of schoolchildren in Soweto, the large African township outside of Johannesburg. Students demonstrated to protest the inferior education mandated by the apartheid state, and the Soweto uprising marked the beginning of what was essentially a low-grade civil war in South Africa. Black residential areas were heavily patrolled by police, resisters were jailed and tortured, and freedom of speech and assembly were severely restricted. Biko had been an outspoken advocate of the ideology of Black Consciousness, "in essence the realization by the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers round the cause of their subjection-the blackness of their skin-and to operate as a group to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude" (Thompson 2000:212). Black Consciousness may have played a role in inspiring the 1976 demonstrations, though how deeply students or Catholic religious women-black or white-understood the subtleties of Biko's philosophy, which was not fundamentally antiwhite, is open to question. Black activists on the ground reacted not to ideology, but to the embrace of blackness in opposition to whiteness (see Tlhagale 2005; Malueke 2008:116-17).

Sr. Mary Modise was not alone in her ignorance. In his history of the Catholic Church under apartheid, David Ryall (1998:182-86) identified four "radical black clergy and religious." Three were priests: Fr. Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, a leading exponent of so-called liberation theology who served as secretary general of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference (SACBC); Fr. …

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