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Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo
Out of Africa
Throughout history, racial segregation has evoked anger and shame. But for Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo, the pain is profound. Raised in a South African village three hours from Johannesburg, she grew up under apartheid. Now a pastoral care resident, she shares the story of her harrowing journey to Hopkins.


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Karen Boyle
Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo.

I was born in 1948 in a hospital with separate entrances for whites and blacks. The next year, apartheid became law.

An only child, I lived in a four-room house with my mother, a domestic worker for white families, her sisters and their children. My maternal grandfather spoke out against prejudice. He died mysteriously in his 40s. My aunt was arrested for protesting the Pass laws, which forbade any black person over age 16 to go outside one’s neighborhood without a “pass.”

Every Sunday we went to a Dutch Reform church. Our pastor, a white male, would tell us that blacks are descended from Ham [a son of Noah], cursed to be servants of white people. I began to think of Christianity as a religion that oppresses black people. As I got older I resented white people more and more.

I started nurses’ training at Baragwanth Hospital in Soweto when I was 18. Two years later, in 1970, I was president of the hospital’s Christian fellowship, though I still had religious doubts. That August, a mission crusade came to visit us. The guest pastor was white, but he told us something I’d never heard from a white man—that Jesus Christ was a savior for all people, including women, blacks and whites. It stirred me to give Jesus a chance. I became reborn. I also became politically active.

That’s when the trouble started. I wrote a Nativity play for the patients, raising political questions. I was told it was unacceptable and asked to leave. I applied to the local university, but my hospital record drew concern. Fortunately, I got a scholarship at the University of the North. I became active in the student council and Christian movement.

In June 1976, students in Soweto protested the schools’ use of the Afrikaans language. Spoken mainly by the ruling whites, it had become the “official language.” Riots broke out. Bullets started flying, taking the life of a 12-year-old boy first. In solidarity, we organized a protest and were met with more guns and tear gas. The following September, Steve Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness movement, was killed. Devastated, we protested, and I was expelled from school and nursing. It was two weeks before final exams for my nursing diploma.

On Oct. 11, 1977, all black consciousness organizations were banned. In March 1978, after founding a new group, we were detained. I was held in solitary confinement for 21 days and denied visits from anyone. I slept on a cement floor with blankets covered in lice. I was interrogated and bitten. I was finally released on condition that I stop my anti-apartheid activities.

When you’re involved in a struggle, there are three things you must know from the beginning: One, you could be arrested for a long time. Two, you could die young. Three, you could go into exile forever. I accepted all that. My faith gave me strength.

For two years, police monitored my home in Soweto. One day I was told to report to the police station the next morning. With the help of someone with ties to Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, I fled to Botswana, where I was declared a refugee. I had to leave my 12-year-old son behind.

My work with the ANC helped get me to America through the United Nations. I moved to Baltimore, enrolled in the School of Public Health and eventually was reunited with my son. I was a pastor and professor at a Christian seminary when I returned to Hopkins to begin the Clinical Pastoral Education program.

Hopkins reminded me of the U.N.—so many different kinds of people. Now I spend a lot of time with the palliative care team and meet often with HIV/AIDS patients.

I never thought I’d go back to Africa, but after Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, I helped direct the return of those forced into exile. I often go to Africa on health and pastoral care missions. Pastoral care at Hopkins is a precious privilege that I will always cherish.

Because I was excluded legally by race but reborn with Christ, I bring context to my job, and I take nothing for granted.

—As told to Judy Minkove

 

 

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