Obituary: Simon Gqubule, respected theologian and educationist who threw the book at apartheid

19 June 2016 - 02:00 By Chris Barron

The Rev Dr Simon Gqubule, who has died in Port Elizabeth at the age of 88, was a widely respected church leader, theologian, educationist and thorn in the side of the apartheid system.His influence over young black intellectuals was regarded as a threat to the established order by the governments of John Vorster, Kaiser Matanzima and Mangosuthu Buthelezi.As president of the Natal Midlands branch of the United Democratic Front, card-carrying member of the ANC and unlikely friend of ANC warlord and regional SACP leader Harry Gwala, Gqubule was involved in attempts to negotiate peace between warring ANC and Inkatha factions. As a priest he never stopped burying the victims. At one funeral he buried 19.Gqubule was born near Cookhouse in the Eastern Cape on February 18 1928, the son of a sharecropper on a "white" farm who didn't have enough money to send him to high school.He seemed destined to follow in his father's footsteps but a church minister spotted his talent and arranged a bursary.He was sent to Healdtown, the Methodist missionary college where Nelson Mandela was also educated. A close friend there was Robert Sobukwe, the future founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, who sparked his political consciousness.He began teaching in 1950 in Grahamstown. He entered the Methodist ministry in 1951, graduated with a BA in Greek and Latin at the University College of Fort Hare in 1956 and was ordained a minister in 1957.He worked as a chaplain at Indaleni mission college near Ixopo in KwaZulu-Natal. In 1961 he joined Lovedale United Theological School in Alice where he taught systematic theology, New Testament studies, and New Testament Greek.When the Federal Theological Seminary was established in 1963, he was, and for four years remained, the only black lecturer. He was the first black principal of John Wesley College, part of the Federal Theological Seminary at Fort Hare, and the first black president of the seminary.The government saw it as a nursery of black intellectual opposition to apartheid and in 1975 ordered Fort Hare, whose principal was a member of the Afrikaner Broederbond, to expel the seminary for instigating anti-government feelings.Gqubule took the seminary to Umtata but after a few months it was expelled by Matanzima, who was preparing Transkei for independence and saw the seminary as a negative influence.Gqubule moved it to Edendale in the Midlands, where for five years students slept and studied in caravans. He raised R3-million from overseas donors and in 1980 moved it to new premises in Imbali in Pietermaritzburg, a move he first cleared with Buthelezi.Gqubule had been a close friend and admirer of Steve Biko and under his leadership the seminary was a hotbed of Black Consciousness. Buthelezi turned against it and in 1985 it was attacked by an Inkatha impi. Church leaders had to appeal to Buthelezi to call them off.In the 1970s Gqubule continued his theological studies in Geneva, London and Edinburgh, where he got a master's in theology in 1971. In 1978 he was the first black student to get a PhD at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.He served as president of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa for a year in 1981 and was vice-president of the South African Council of Churches and the South African Institute of Race Relations from 1980 to 1987.He used these platforms to launch widely publicised and damaging attacks on apartheid."Jesus Christ would weep for South Africa if he saw how blacks suffered under the country's influx control regulations," he said.In 1983 he compared forced removals to the murder of Jews under the Nazis."We don't have an Auschwitz, we don't use gas chambers. We just remove people en masse. Which is better?" he asked. "The quick death in the gas chamber, or the slow death in the resettlement camp?"He supported the SACC's justification of the use of force to end apartheid.The government bristled but his international stature shielded him from arrest. Instead it resorted to harassment. His children were detained periodically and in 1988 he was served with a banning order.To Gqubule, education was sacred. In 1972 he called for a single department of education for all race groups, and consistently demanded equal facilities and opportunities for all races.He was appalled by the standard of education under the ANC government, and had no time for the policy of mother-tongue teaching. He believed that, like it or not, English was a critical tool of liberation, and fluency in English was non-negotiable.Horrified by high matric failure rates, he started Ilitha Lemfundo Educational Enhancement Centre in Uitenhage after his retirement. He persuaded the best teachers he could find to help give Saturday classes to Grade 10, 11 and 12 pupils from the worst-performing schools, on a voluntary basis.In 2013 and 2014 it achieved a 100% matric pass rate. He banned the use of any language at his school other than English.In 1995 Rhodes awarded him an honorary doctorate in divinity. From 2000 he was president of the Convocation of Rhodes University. He vigorously opposed pressure to change its name.In April this year Gqubule was awarded the Order of Luthuli Silver for his part in the struggle against apartheid.He is survived by three children. His wife Miriam, whom he met at Fort Hare where she was also a student and married in 1960, died six years ago.1928-2016

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