NO trip to Soweto is complete without a visit to Regina Mundi,
Soweto's largest Catholic Church. Not only has the vast church
always been a spiritual haven for thousands of Sowetans, it has
also played a pivotal role in the township's history of resistance
against apartheid. As such it is a well-circled destination on
the tourist map: every day the church opens its doors to streams
of visitors keen to witness the scars it still bears from the
Soweto uprisings, when police stormed through its doors, firing
live ammunition at fleeing students.
But both before and after the dramas of the Soweto uprisings,
Regina Mundi - whose name in Latin means Queen of the World -
has quietly offered its protection to those struggling for liberation.
When political meetings were banned, people sought the safety
of Regina Mundi - if not Queen of the World, then surely Queen
of Soweto - to form their political strategies. What started
out as 'church services' often ended up as political rallies.
Funerals, points out Father Vusi Mazibuko, who has been pastor
at the church for the past four years, were often political affairs.
They started off at Regina Mundi and ended up at Avalon Cemetery.
When protesting students were fired at by police on their way
to Orlando Stadium on June 16 1976, and Hector
many others were killed, the students fled for sanctuary to Regina
Mundi. With buckets of water at the ready, they managed to douse
the teargas canisters thrown into the church by police. But then
police stormed the church, firing live ammunition. Although no
one was killed, many were injured and the church's sacred symbols
were damaged. The broken marble alter, the bullet holes in the
ceilings and the damaged figure of Christ all bear testimony
to the terrible lack of restraint shown by police that day.
Regina Mundi has always been a home to
the community of Soweto and has functioned as a centre for
important community events. Anti-apartheid stalwart Dr Nthato
Motlana once described Regina Mundi as "not just a church - it is the people's church, the
church of the nation".
And on 30 November 1997, declared Regina
Mundi Day, former President Nelson
Mandela paid tribute to
the church during a ceremony marking its restoration. "Graduates
of Regina Mundi are making important contributions to the reconstruction
and development of our country. Such was the role of this church
in the lives of many of us; such was the esteem with which
it was held, that it popularly became known as the people's
"Regina Mundi served the greater Soweto community in times of
need. It opened its doors to anti-apartheid activities when all
other avenues were closed to the majority of oppressed … It
was this stance that earned Regina Mundi a reputation as one
of Gauteng's greatest protest centres, a literal battlefield
between forces of democracy and those who did not hesitate to
violate a place of religion with teargas, dogs and guns. Regina
Mundi became a world-wide symbol of the determination of our
people to free themselves," Mandela said.
Today the church is as much "the people's church" as
ever, swamped by the demands of the community in its midst,
whose needs are different but perhaps even more challenging.
Though relaxed and youthful-looking in jeans and a t-shirt,
Mazibuko clearly finds his job overwhelming at times. Although
the daily deluge of tourists - sometimes as many as 200 a day
- are taken care of by two full-time tour guides, Regina Mundi
is constantly called on for assistance by the community.
"It's a busy place. People come to you in need of help and sometimes
you don't have the means to help them," says Mazibuko. The needs
of the community are great, particularly during the era of HIV/Aids,
he adds. Funerals are frequent - more so because of the scourge
of the disease.
The rather ordinary-looking, typically-1960s building (it was
built in 1964, replacing Moroka's first church as the parish
church), located almost in the middle of Soweto between Rockville
and Moroka, belies the richness of its interior: the space inside
is vast enough to absorb the murmur of tourists and the sense
of peace is all-pervasive. Morning light shines through the beautiful
stained-glass windows (donated by Poland in 1998); the renowned
Black Madonna looks serenely down from her vantage point to the
right of the alter and the rows and rows of gleaming pews are
a welcome invitation to the thousands who attend mass every Sunday.
Regina Mundi can seat 2 000 people and has space for a further
5 000 standing.
The "Queen of Soweto" has come a long way since her humble beginnings.
Today an impressive park built by the City of Johannesburg, with
a fountain, benches and green lawns, is in front of the Church.
Memorial stones, including a "peace pole" donated by Japanese
Christians, and a plaque documenting the Church's history are
in evidence outside. Upstairs is an art gallery featuring photographic
and art works, documenting the history of the church and the
broader subjects of Soweto and Johannesburg.
Not only have the grounds been restored and upgraded, but Regina
Mundi has continued to play an important role in Soweto and society
Fittingly, Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings were
held in the church from 1995 to 1998, presided over by Archbishop
In March 1998 Regina Mundi made international headlines after
a visit by President Bill Clinton and wife Hillary. Clinton caused
a furore among Catholics worldwide when he and his wife took
Holy Communion during a two-hour service he attended at the church.
Since Clinton is a Baptist and his wife a Methodist, this constituted
a breach of the cardinal rules of the Catholic Church. Mazibuko
says that Father Mohlomi Makobane, parish priest at the time,
found it impossible to refuse the Clintons communion when they
joined the rest of the congregation.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Makobane
said: "Let's be
practical. He's a child of God and came willingly to share the
Eucharist with us and pray with us ... And he's the most powerful
man in the world … If I had denied him communion when
he came with the procession … there would have been much
But the story didn't end there. Makobane
chose to base his sermon on adultery at a time when the scandal
around Clinton's adulterous affair hung heavily over the heads
of the presidential pair. Makobane recalled the parable of
the adulterous woman saved by Jesus Christ from being stoned
to death. Newspapers gleefully reported how Clinton "became visibly uncomfortable" when Makobane
read from John: 1-11. "Clinton looked sombre and rocked on his
heels as the priest read the text. Mrs Clinton's head was bowed
throughout the reading." But Makobane's sermon preached forgiveness
as Jesus forgave the adulterous woman.
What next for Regina Mundi? In Mazibuko's
view the church will continue to play the pivotal role it has
done since its inception. "The
church is an eye. It must see to it that justice is done." In
all probability Regina Mundi will bear witness to many interesting
This article originally printed
by the Johannesburg