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Mashaba, Robert Ndevu
c. 1861 to 1935
Methodist
Mozambique/South Africa

Mashaba, who was a member of the Ronga clan, pioneered the work of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Mozambique.

He was born in about 1850 in Ntembi's Place, near Delagoa Bay, where today a church stands in his memory. His parents followed the African traditional religion. He did not attend school as there were none where he lived. His cousin had been to Durban and returned to Mozambique to tell his uncle, the hunter, that in the future he would act as an agent and see that the uncle got an honest price for his wares. The young Mashaba longed to be able to go to Durban too.

As soon as he was old enough, Mashaba traveled south with his uncle and found himself a job at the Bluff Naval Station in Durban. He later found work at the Point, the landing place for ships which could not pass the bar at the entrance to the harbour. He soon realized that he needed to be educated to be able to do his work so he attended a night-school run by missionaries. He learned his ABC, some simple reading and how to say the Lord's prayer.

In about 1875 he heard from other workers that in Port Elizabeth you could earn more money and there were opportunities for a better education (Choate's papers). He traveled to Port Elizabeth, possibly by ship as that was the cheapest way, and found himself a job there. He made friends with Penny Pikisana, who persuaded him to attend services at the Wesleyan Methodist Church in the township church north of Russel Road. He went reluctantly but found that he was fascinated by the Bible.

One afternoon, while walking on the hills outside Port Elizabeth, he had a vision. He saw a fire burning where no fire should have been. Then he heard a voice which said: 'Pray'. He fell to his knees and was overcome by fear. The same thing happened again the next day. When he approached the fire there was nothing to be seen. He fell to his knees and began to pray. Mashaba joined the Methodist Church and was baptised by the Rev. Robert Lamplough, whose name he took.

He resolved to study at Lovedale and after a number of years of self-denial he had saved 40 pounds and in 1879 was able to do so. During his holidays he worked in Port Elizabeth to help pay for his fees. He also received a bursary from the institution. After three years at Lovedale the institution found him employment as a messenger at the Kimberley Telegraph Department. His contract was completed in 1885 and he returned to Mozambique

Mashaba started a school and a regular church meeting among his own people. The Roman Catholic Church urged him to join the 'only true church' but he refused. He was then not allowed to hold his school at the same time as theirs, so he held his in the afternoon and attended the Catholic school in the morning. Bishop Mackenzie of the Anglican Church wanted to take over his work, but again he refused. Mashaba had to take a job at Komati Drift when he ran out of money. He wrote to Imvo, the African newspaper in King William's Town, and said that if the Methodists did not come to his aid he would have to accept Bishop Mackenzie's offer.

The Natal Synod replied by sending William Mtembu to investigate matters. Mtembu baptized some of the converts and invited Mashaba to attend the Synod in Durban. However, the Natal Synod decided that Mozambique should fall under the Transvaal Synod. In 1892 Mashaba was visited by Rev. Daniel Msimang and Rev. George Weavind and was persuaded to become a candidate for the ministry.

Trouble was already beginning to brew in Mozambique. In 1894 there was an uprising and two years later rebellion broke out. Mashaba was falsely accused of being one of the leaders of the revolt. He was arrested and sent to the Cape Verde islands for imprisonment. He managed to smuggle a letter off the ship addressed to the Methodist authorities. He also wrote to the Christian Express at Lovedale asking for help.

From Cape Verde Mashaba wrote to a friend and told his story. "Chief Mamatibjana, who was fighting against the Portuguese government, was arrested, given a list of names and asked who had assisted him. When my name was mentioned he said, 'that is the man who sent me to fight against the government'" (Notices 1896, 146). Arrest followed and 'a policeman beat me in order that I may tell him what he believes to be the truth'. The next day he was put on board the Africa en route for prison on Cape Verde.

The Methodist authorities did all in their power to secure his release. When, after four years, they were at last able to do so it was on condition that he would never return to Mozambique.

After his return Mashaba worked at Germiston and Pimville. He was ordained into the ministry and served on a number of committees. One of his main contributions was the translation of 100 hymns into the Tsonga language. Shortly before he died he was allowed to return to Mozambique, not to work but to live out his last days in the land of his birth.

J. A. Millard


Bibliography:

Choates, D. Private Papers.
Harries, P. Work, Culture and Identity: Migrant Labourers in Mozambique and South Africa c. 1860-1910. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1995.
Minutes of the Transvaal and Swaziland District Synod 1892, 1896.
Stewart, J. Lovedale Past and Present: A Register of Two Thousand Names. Lovedale: Lovedale Press, 1887.
Notices of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, 1896.

This article is reproduced, with permission, from Malihambe - Let the Word Spread, copyright © 1999, by J. A. Millard, Unisa Press, Pretoria, South Africa. All rights reserved.