I saw Mr Thandinkosi Ntshingila for an eye test recently. He was born in 1940. I told him I knew a Mr Max Ntshingila in Harrismith many moons ago, who owned a fleet of buses.
He said “Hayibo! That’s my Dad!!”
He grew up in Harrismith! Strictly speaking Max was his uncle, but his Dad died when he was very young and his uncle Max took him in and raised him as his own in Phomolong.
He told me that besides the buses – remember “Max Express” buses? yellow and green, I seem to remember – Max owned two shops, plus a petrol station in Swaziland.
Max died in 1978 aged 60 (so the news cuttings below are ca.1971). His empire collapsed when he died, as his kids “were spoilt” and “none of them could manage anything”, according to Thandinkosi. And although he was like a son, not when it came to inheritance.
Max sent Thandinkosi to college and he ended up in Durban working for Engen or Sapref or one of those fuel refinery places. Retired now, he plays the horses for fun and I see him at the tote on the roof of our centre occasionally.
I had wondered vaguely all these years about something, and I never expected to get the answer. But Thandinkosi had the answer for me: That cream coloured yank tank Max drove was a 1963 Chev Biscayne. I just LOVE it that I did find out! Never thought I would or could.
Thandinkosi still goes to Harrismith regularly to look after the house in Phomolong where he was raised. One of his nieces lives in it.
Leon Strachan sent me some pictures and newspaper cuttings. Note how Dr Frank Mdlalose, who we only got to know of post-1994, when he became KwaZulu Natal’s first Premier, was a house guest of the Ntshingila’s in Harrismith.
Update: Today – 12 December 2019 – I saw Mr Thandinkosi Ntshingila again. I phoned him to come in so I could give him copies of these pictures. He’ll be 80 next year. I hoped he was one of the kids in the photo, but he wasn’t. Not one of the people in the photo are still alive, he tells me. They all died quite young. He’s the only survivor of that household. He was chuffed and moved to receive these mementos, and says he’s going to frame the family photo!
Dr Frank Mdlalose died in March 2021 of COVID-19. His wikipedia entry tells a lovely story: Representing the students at the segregated medical school in Durban, established by Jan Smuts for Black and Indian students, he attended the only conference of the Association of Medical Students of South Africa attended by students from one of the Afrikaans-medium medical schools. They had hitherto refused to attend if Black students were present. One of the Afrikaner students said, as the conference finished, “I thank the Chair for having organised this conference. This is the first time I have met a black man with an intelligence equal to, or superior to, my own.” To which Frank responded, “I, too, thank the Chair for having organised this conference. This is the first time I have met an Afrikaner with an intelligence equal to, or superior to, my own.”
Harrismith had the biggest influx of people in its history recently. Well, that would be my guess. I don’t think even the Rhino Rally ever brought in THIS amount of people! I mean those rowwe hard-drinking bliksems fit a maximum of two people on their vehicles . .
. . . whereas I would guess the teetotal Shembes are unlikely to put less than sixty people in a sixty-seater bus? And there were LOTS of those buses in town. The view is the eastern side of town with the Platberg mountain behind you.
In a way they were coming home: The founder of the Shembe church, Isaiah Mloyiswa Mdliwamafa Shembe, was born in 1865 at Ntabamhlophe outside Estcourt in the Drakensberg region of Natal. When he was very young his family fled from Shaka during the Mfecane period to the Harrismith district of the Orange Free State, ending up there as tenants on a farm of ‘an Afrikaner family named the Graabes.’
Then the stories start: Like many other people of Harrismith he absorbed the local spirits; and like many ‘prophets’ before him, young Shembe ‘died and was resurrected at the age of three when relatives sacrificed a bull before his body could be interred’; He was ‘visited by God on many occasions’; He was ‘taught how to pray by God himself’;
The call of Isaiah Shembe to his life’s vocation can be traced back to an experience at Ntabazwe Mountain in Harrismith. The mountain is also called Platberg in Afrikaans, meaning ‘Flat Mountain;’ and Thabantsho in seSotho, Black Mountain. Earlier he was on a farm (near) Witzieshoek in the Harrismith district; and then he moved to the land on the outskirts of Harrismith, (near) the mountain of Ntabazwe. Here Shembe experienced several revelations as a young boy, and it was through the means of lightning that he received his call.
When he was told to ‘find a place to pray to God’, he tried the Wesleyan Church that was nearby. However they were not right for him: they didn’t know how to baptise properly. Then came the Boer War and, abandoning his wives, he spent some time on the Rand. He joined a Baptist church there. After he returned to Harrismith the leader of his new church came to his place in 1906 to baptise Shembe. Proper baptism under water, not just a drop of water on your forehead, Methodists!
Shembe went to Natal and started accumulating followers. He would send them ahead to new areas to pronounce him as a ‘Man of Heaven.’ As his success and number of followers grew, so did his power. What you ate, what you thought, what you wore, what you did, how men were to rule over their women, was all prescribed by the great man. A lot of what you had to do happened to make him rich. Hey! Coincidence! The legend grew. Shembe must have been highly intelligent and astute, as he told vivid parables, and showed uncanny insights into people’s thoughts. He also did the dramatic healing trick. He composed music, writing many moving hymns; he had his sermons reduced to writing and they became scripture, and he provided his followers with a rich liturgical tradition based on modified forms of traditional Zulu dancing. In 1913 Shembe visited Nhlangakazi Mountain which became the movement’s holy mountain. At Nhlangakazi he was told by the Holy Spirit to form his own church. This place later became his place of annual pilgrimage every first Sunday of the year.
The Shembe Bible is known as the Book of the Birth of the Prophet Shembe. Their writings say ‘On March 10, 1910 it was the arrival of the Prophet Isaiah Shembe at KwaZulu Natal (Durban) from Ntabazwe (Harrismith), as he was instructed by the Word of God to do so. The Word of God told Shembe that they will meet at KwaZulu (Natal).’
In the 1930s Shembe commissioned his friend and neighbour, the renowned John Dube, to write his biography. The book uShembe, appeared shortly after his death, and contains much of the essential Shembe lore and hagiography, but Dube was an ordained minister and not a Nazarite, so he does not only present Shembe in flattering terms. Shembe’s bona fides as a prophet are questioned, and his undoubted skill at extracting money from his membership is highlighted. Dube alleged that Shembe was overtaxing rentals; that he was conducting baptism for payment – part of his fundraising for the church; that he was extorting money from members as he paid lobola for young girls whom he married; and that he was corrupt and exploitative. – Tch! Just what an ambitious prophet / saviour / manifestation of God doesn’t need: an honest biographer! Shembe’s son and heir, Shembe II, Galilee Shembe forbade his followers to read the book. Hey! You know that book my father asked his friend, uMfundisi Dube to write? Don’t Read It!
A factor of the huge success of African Independent Churches like the amaNazaretha has been their emphasis on ‘Africa for Africans’. Often implicit, but explicitly verbalised by Shembe, this has been the main cause for the break-away from the mainline or mission – or European – churches. They wanted their own identity. However, discontent has continued to plague these church formations, even after self-governance and independence. Money and power corrupts, and they have splintered into many different internal groups and factions. Succession wrangles in the Shembe Nazaretha Baptist Church have given birth to the current seven factions, six of them headed by Shembe family members. Various battles have raged since 1935 when the original Shembe, Isaiah, died. The latest succession struggle started in 2011.
So who decides who is divinely anointed to lead the church? Very modernly, it is not a God . . not a king . . not a council of elders . . nor a new legitimate national democratic government – No! A judge of the courts. They’re like, Step aside, this is not a small matter! I have brought my lawyers! The prize is reportedly worth many millions. As with all human endeavours, greed is always a big factor.
So who went to Harrismith this year? Which faction? I don’t know . . we’d have to ask an insider. I just hope they didn’t ascend the mountain. Fragile Platberg does not need 6000 humans on it.
Lucky Dube wrote a song about the Shembe religion –
update: 2021 and the saga continues. The highest court in the land made a pronouncement in June as to who the legitimate leader of one of the factions was. Now in August another breakaway faction has formed.