Generation expresses gratitude

November 21, 2003
The first South African Indian to become a Baha'i was Dr. Abdul-Hak Bismillah (holding baby) in 1955. He is pictured with his wife, Joan. They are with Sombi Govind (left), Ismail Cassim and children.

PHOKENG, South Africa — Two young cousins provided a highlight here at the national Baha'i jubilee celebrations, which followed satellite festivities in eight cities.

At an opening session of the festivities, Kelebogile Khunou, 12, and Direlang Nakedi, 11, praised their grandparents for becoming Baha'is nearly 50 years ago.

The cousins said the sacrifices made by their grandparents, Ntate and Mme, were the cause of many of the benefits in their own lives.

One of those benefits, both said, was that their parents were "welcomed into the progressive knowledge-giving world of the Faith."

"I [would] never exchange anything to give up being a Baha'i child -- it is really a rewarding experience," Kelebogile said. "The favorite gift I receive every day from my grandparents' efforts is the relationship of my parents, which is based on the principle of equality of men and women."

This testimony by third-generation Baha'is helped symbolize the dramatic and inspiring history of the Baha'i Faith in South Africa, where for many years the government's official policy of apartheid (involving the separation of racial groups) ran directly counter to the principle of the oneness of humanity, a fundamental teaching of Baha'u'llah.

Participants at the South African jubilee celebrations, held from 21 to 22 November 2003, told stories of courage, of successes achieved in a "cloak and dagger" fashion, of constant police surveillance, of dogged determination, and of endeavors of heroic proportions.

Members of the 40-strong local community of Phokeng, including youth, organized most of the national event, which was attended by some 620 Baha'is.

Max Seepe, who served the Faith in South Africa for many years, as did his wife, May. Slideshow
28 images

Max Seepe, who served the Faith in South Africa for many years, as did his wife, May.

African dancing, music and dramatic performances, including presentations by the group "Beyond Words," gave artistic and emotional energy to the national jubilee celebrations. At one point, all the members of the National Spiritual Assembly sang to the audience from the stage.

The Queen Mother of the Bafokeng tribe, Dr. Semane B. Molotegi, a guest of honor at the celebrations, said she was delighted the jubilee was held in her province -- the home of the first indigenous South African Baha'is -- and she praised the Baha'i community work for peace and unity.

During the celebrations, some Baha'is who were in South Africa in the 1953-1963 era recounted memories, and outlined some of the difficulties they overcame in the early years of the community.

One such speaker was Ephens Senne, whose wife, Dorothy, in January 1955, became the first South African woman to accept the Faith. Describing the oppressive atmosphere of apartheid, Mr. Senne said he and his wife were scared initially that the white people had plans to kill them. That fear vanished as they got to know the Baha'is, but they had to be very careful about meeting them because of their apprehensions about official surveillance.

When the couple visited European Baha'is, they had to pretend that they came to clean the houses, carrying mops and brooms to avoid suspicion, said Mr. Senne, a former member of the National Spiritual Assembly.

One of the talks at the conference was about the "spiritual ancestors" of many of today's Baha'is -- the three Persian Baha'is who were murdered in March 1994 at the Baha'i center in Mdantsane, Ciskei.

The presentation recalled the crime that shocked not only Baha'is throughout South Africa and the world but also the local community when gunmen from a militant black group shot dead Houshmand Anvari, Shamam Bakhshandegi, and Riaz Razavi, all of whom had come to South Africa to improve conditions for the black majority.

At the jubilee festivities, members of the Continental Board of Counsellors, Beth Allen and Enos Makhele, gave inspiring talks on unity and diversity, and the vision of the South African Baha'i community respectively.

The two authors of a newly published book, "Heroes and Heroines of the Ten Year Crusade in Southern Africa," Edith and Lowell Johnson, spoke on the topic, "Fifty Years of the Baha'i Faith in South Africa."

Participants listened closely as Edith Johnson pointed out that in 1953 there were only two Baha'is in South Africa, Agnes Carey (1879-1958) in Durban and Reginald Turvey (1882-1968) in Johannesburg, and they didn't know about each other. Shoghi Effendi, who had traveled through South Africa in 1929 and 1940, named them "Mother" and "Father" respectively of the Baha'is of South Africa.

Records show that the first Baha'is in South Africa were Agnes Cook in 1911 and William and Mary Fraetas in 1912. The first pioneer was Fanny Knobloch in 1920.

Mr. Johnson said that the first of 37 pioneers to arrive during the Ten Year Plan were William (Bill), Marguerite and Michael Sears. The Sears' farm became a place for people of different racial and religious backgrounds to deepen their understandings of the teachings of Baha'u'llah. Mr. Sears was later appointed a Hand of the Cause of God, and this much-loved figure published influential books and delivered inspiring talks on the Faith.

The first indigenous South African to become a Baha'i was Klaas Mtsweni, an employee of Lyall and Eleanor Hadden, in 1954 in Pretoria. The first white South African to enroll was Florence Norman in Durban.

During the early years prominent local Baha'is included, for example, Bertha Mkize, Gilbert Tombisa, Dr. A.H. and Joan Bismillah, Cassiem Davids, William Masetlha, Max and May Seepe, Andrew Mofokeng, Florence Marumo, Sue Hofmeyr Podger, Daniel Ramoroesi, Michael Nthau, Stanlake Kukama, Phillip Hinton, plus the Heuvel and Gallow families.

Mr. and Mrs. Johnson said that since 1963, 396 overseas Baha'is had served in South Africa, and about 182 are present there now

The first Local Spiritual Assembly was formed in 1954 in Johannesburg, and the National Spiritual Assembly, administering the whole of Southern Africa, followed two years later. It assisted the formation of 14 National Spiritual Assemblies in Southern Africa and also three "homeland" regions, which are now incorporated back within South Africa.

Today the National Spiritual Assembly administers one country, South Africa, and the island of St. Helena. There are 38 Local Spiritual Assemblies.

At the conclusion of the address by Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, the participants sang a Mike Sears song, which is now sung all over Africa and starts with the lyrics: "Africa, Africa! Come let us sing, a song of the love and the glory of God."

The satellite festivities were held in Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria, Johannesburg, Sabie, Umtata, and Mafikeng.

The South African Baha'i community is actively involved in the three core activities now engaged in by Baha'is throughout the world -- study circles, children's classes and devotional meetings.

In 2000, some 12 per cent of new Baha'is were under the age of 25 years but that has increased to 25 per cent this year, as more and more young people attend study circles and become attracted to the teachings.

One of the activities carried out within the wider community is the Royal Falcon Education Initiative, which is dedicated to the promotion of moral values among teenagers and young adults in South Africa.

More than 29 facilitators are now offering the program at 18 schools throughout South Africa and it is being used at a university and in a prison, as well as in nearby countries.

(Jubilee photos by Denny Allen).