Politics and Prayer: The role of religion in Eastern Cape struggle politics

Religion was a heady part of liberation politics in the Eastern Cape, with prayers and religious fervour adding heat to the brew.

"Later, during the Defiance Campaign of 1952, we also sent volunteers to different churches to solicit support. The ANC (African National Congress) in PE [Port Elizabeth] received a great deal of support from the church for the defiance campaign. Many churches, especially those in the townships, held special prayer services for the volunteers who were planning to defy the unjust laws that the government imposed on black people. We attended many of these services.

"I remember attending a service by Reverend Tsekeletsa, who was the secretary of the Port Elizabeth African Ministers Council and the Cape Midlands Non Denominational Association. Reverend Tsekeletsa was radical. He preached that black people were fed up with white people. This was because blacks as pass bearers felt the presence of whites everywhere - at work, at home and in the streets. The minister told the congregation that whites came between blacks and God even at church.
Reverend Tsekeletsa was radical. He preached that black people were fed up with white people

"When the Defiance Campaign started in PE, Reverend Tsekeletsa made a statement that, as from that day, the African churches in the Eastern Cape would support the resistance movement. I remember HF Verwoerd, the Minister of Native Affairs at the time, warned the African preachers and churches to confine themselves to their religious duties if they wished to continue enjoying the benefits and privileges derived from their exemption from the Riotous Assemblies Act. (The Riotous Assemblies Act of 1914 had been given an amendment, which gave the government the authority to ban any meetings that could be seen to disturb the public order.)"

- Raymond Mhlaba's Personal Memoirs: Reminiscing from Rwanda and Uganda, narrated to Thembeka Mufamadi (HSRC and Robben Island Museum, 2001), pp. 62-3


Prayers before action

"On 25 June, women spent the day and night in prayer in preparation for the launch of the [defiance] campaign the following day. It became a feature of the campaign that woman met for payers prior to their menfolk going into action, a practice in keeping with African custom."

- Baines, GF, "New Brighton, Port Elizabeth c.1903-1953: A history of an urban African community", University of Cape Town, Department of History, PhD thesis, February 1994, p. 215)


Sermon in the rain

"At Port Elizabeth ... prayers for those who have volunteered to defy 'unjust laws' were said today by about 2 000 Port Elizabeth natives at a two-hour open-air religious meeting near the city. The meeting was held in pouring rain and a bitterly cold wind.

"The Reverend WB Tshume, who delivered the sermon, said the grievances of the native people had not only been ignored, but had been replied to with threats that the 'armaments of destruction' would be used to enforce obedience."

- "Call for volunteers in 'Defiance Campaign' - Natives pray at meeting", Chronicle, June 23, 1952, Wits Historical Papers: South African Institute of Race Relations Collection, AD1912 (Box 81), Defiance Campaign, January-April 1952)


back to the Raymond Mhlaba memorial page

"I opened the way for others to defy an unjust system."
Raymond Mhlaba
Raymond Mhlaba
Picture: Courtesy of Thembeka Mufamadi


In this lesson plan, learners will have an opportunity to study Raymond Mhlaba's memoirs as he related them to a historian in 2001. They will be able to think about the value of oral history and how it provides new insights into events.

Lesson plan
You′ll need the Adobe Acrobat PDF reader to view these lesson plans. Download it here.
Archive and Artwork Photo Gallery
Images from Raymond Mhlaba’s life and of the Heritage Project’s memorial to his role in the 1952 defiance campaign.
Audio about Raymond Mhlaba
Family, friends and colleagues talk about Raymond Mhlaba and why he is regarded as one of the unsung heroes of the Eastern Cape
Raymond Mhlaba speaks about life imprisonment
In June 1964, Raymond Mhlaba and seven other icons of the struggle against apartheid were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. For them the sentence came as a relief — it was much better than the death sentence they were expecting. In this e
Mhlaba and Mandela on the 1952 Defiance Campaign
In 1952, Raymond Mhlaba launched the famous Defiance Campaign by walking into a whites-only area at the New Brighton train station, knowing that he would be arrested. In this video extract from a documentary by Dali Tambo, Mhlaba and Nelson Mandela remi