From South Africa - Velisiwe Mary Mkhwanazi: Women's Ordination: We Are Church



Velisiwe Mary Mkhwanazi, South Africa

Launched August 9, 1996 in Umlazi & Durban, South Africa by Dina Cormick & Velisiwe Mkhwanazi. Our steering committee has remained constant (of 7): Marylyn Cason, Dina Cormick (newsletter), Rosemary Gravenor (treasurer), Thoko Makhanya, Velisiwe Mkhwanazi, Betsy Oehrle (email) & Cherryl Stone. We don't have a membership number tally as such, we send out 450 newsletters around the country. Our AGM usually gathers around thirty to forty supporters in Durban. Initially WOSA began an overt campaign for ordination with public debates & placard signs outside churches. The first debates were very well attended but dropped drastically when the hierarchy pronounced against us. So we soon discovered that Catholics here are too nervous & conservative to OPENLY & PUBLICLY support us. Since then we have a covert campaign with the newsletter! This has proven to be a far more effective campaign tool and our readership is growing.

Yes, it has been difficult to find active supporters ready to speak out or take part in public stands. In general, South African church people & especially Catholics are afraid to criticise or challenge the church leaders. Priests, and especially bishops, are revered no matter how they behave. A good example of this intimidation are the stories about priests raping the nuns etc. The sad truth about all the sex scandals recently exposed in the press is that for many of us in Africa it was not new news - and STILL people are too scared to discuss these problems, and it is STILL CONTINUING!

So we have a lot of very conservative Catholics who refuse to see the need for change, and many many others who now couldn't care less what happens, but still don't want to stick their necks out and complain. They go to church if there is something special like a funeral or wedding, but otherwise they pay little attention to what happens in the church. And then there are an increasing number who wonder why they stay "Catholic". They are angry and frustrated at the hypocrisy.

We have found that our most successful action has been the newsletter. We use the newsletter as a channel of information - much of the material comes from the internet which most of our readers do not have access to. We share news about what is happening in the rest of the world to encourage our people struggling to find hope in the activities of our international sisters and brothers. So the WOSA newsletter serves as a tool to keep the debate open, to challenge our Catholics to think independently, and to provide a source of information on Catholic views and news around the world. Through the generous funding of The Global Fund For Women (without whom we would not have survived), WOSA newsletters are distributed free twice a year to 450 supporters - including several of our unsupportive hierarchy! (We try to hand them out to anyone who expresses an interest, in the hope we might "convert" or at least open their minds!)  We are planning to increase production to 3 times a year. Our Annual get-together (AGM) is usually held around March 25 or Mass of Chrism. This year we had excellent press coverage for our stand outside Durban Emmanuel Cathedral before Mass of Chrism (see our display board). The publicity has also led to another round of vindictive personal attacks on several members of the steering committee -- but we remain determined not to be intimidated.

After the Sunday Tribune article, Cardinal Napier wrote letters to the Methodist and Anglican bishops asking for an apology. And unfortunately they complied for the sake of ecumenism -see news board. Bishop Purity told Dina that she would keep Napier's letter to show her grandchildren as a memento! There will be another press article in the Southern Cross which will hopefully engender a lot of response.

Note: as far back as 1995: 

A study of the relationship of catholic women to the institutional church, with specific focus on the question of women priests (a 1995 research project by Dina Cormick, assisted by Velisiwe Mkhwanazi)

The most important result of this survey has been to reveal that South African Catholic women want changes in the institutional church. It is significant that most of the women polled were in favour of women priests and married priests. Most of the Catholic women who completed the questionnaires asked for equal and full participation in all ministerial roles in the Church. Many of the Catholic women expressed extreme dissatisfaction at the present submissive role women in the Catholic Church are accustomed to endure.

In the very process of gathering data for the research topic, the researchers found they were providing the opportunity for many Catholic women to dare and criticise the church. This in turn led to opportunities of intensive discussion with Catholic women on the whole question of personal ethics and independent thinking within a patriarchal structure such as the Catholic Church. Women commented that no-one had ever asked these kinds of questions before; no-one had ever concerned themselves with the questions of fairness in church sexism.  Mkhwanazi, research assistant, became so conscientized listening to these reports that she willingly counseled the women who had unburdened themselves of their deep hurt. Some of the "shocking" statements concerned issues of pastoral authoritarianism and abuse that went beyond the focus of the survey, but were in fact relevant to the overall problem of the Catholic priesthood of today.

- Velisiwe Mary Mkhwanazi

About Velisiwe Mary Mkhwanazi:

A pioneer from the onset, Mary Mkhwanazi, sought to rise above her circumstances and challenge prevailing oppression. Born in 1932, in rural Mbongolwane, KwaZulu-Natal, Mary completed her primary school education with ease and moved on to attend high school, a rarity at a time when a standard two education was deemed sufficient.

In 1960 she moved to Durban. It was here, at her new workplace, that she realised the power of activism. Unhappy with the decrepit mattress she was given and aware of the abundance of adequate beds in her employer’s household, she demanded better treatment for herself and other employees. The incident made her realise that changes to her condition could be negotiated, but that such negotiation was dependent on her challenging her oppression in the first place.

It was through her fight for her own basic human rights as a domestic worker that she paved the way for others to also gain access to justice. In 1980 Mkhwanazi went on to lead the South African Domestic Workers’ Association (SADWA). SADWA’s activities eventually led to the establishment of the South African Domestic Workers’ Union (SADWU) in 1986. Their objective was met in 1997, when the formal recognition of domestic labourers as workers was legally guaranteed.

Now almost 82 years old, Mkhwanazi, has dedicated 50 years of her life to human rights and democracy. She has been honoured by the Steve Biko Foundation and the Legal Resources Centre for her extended commitment to liberty and equality. She is still an advisor and mentor to a list of professionals and also serves as a member of the ANC’s veteran’s league.

In 2009, The Legal Resources Centre | Securing Livelihoods Using the Law, a human rights NGO in South Africa, honoured Ms. Mkhwanazi as a woman of achievment and national hero. The LRC uses the law as an instrument of justice for the vulnerable and marginalised, including poor, homeless, and landless people and communities who suffer discrimination by reason of race, class, gender, disability or by reason of social, economic, and historical circumstances.

In 2013, she received The EThekwini Living Legend Award