Trials build strength, character
June 8 2001 by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor

Trials build strength, character | Friday, June 8, 2001

Friday, June 8, 2001

Trials build strength, character

By Tony W. Cartledge BR Editor Meet George Mataboge (Ma-ta-boo-heh). Look into his eyes, listen to his life and you will never forget him.

Mataboge has walked through the worst and the best of South Africa's long struggle to define itself. His life began in the darkest days of apartheid - an era of government-mandated racial separation that left South Africa's black citizens at the bottom of the heap and where severe punishments were doled out to those who opposed the system.

"I was born in 1947 near Rustenburg, just 16 days after my father was arrested for his involvement in the struggle for freedom," Mataboge said. He speaks carefully, slowly, weighing each word.

"Our home was not a Christian home. My father was both a member of the African National Congress and a communist. He believed in a god but not in Jesus."

Mataboge was 8 years old before he met his father during a rare prison visit. His father was released soon afterward, but his continued political activism led to a string of arrests that kept him in and out of prison for most of his adult life.

"As I was growing up, this made me have a strong relationship with my father," Mataboge said. But his father had a strange way of showing closeness. "My name then was 'Hope,'" Mataboge recalls. "My father changed my name to 'George' because the policeman who arrested him was named George."

Though often imprisoned, Mataboge's father worked hard to teach his son about life, politics and things not taught in the public school curriculum. And Mataboge proved to be an ardent pupil.

A young activist "I got involved in the struggle when I was about 15," he said. "While in high school, I helped to organize a meeting of students to show dissatisfaction with conditions in our school and to protest the distorted history they were teaching us. They forced the black students to work on the white farms every afternoon and on holidays."

What began as a peaceful demonstration turned into a riot, and the police knew who had organized the event. "They were watching for us," Mataboge said. "We heard they would arrest us if we went to school the next day, so we ran away from home. We planned to go north into Botswana to live in exile."

Sixteen student activists began the trek, but heavy rains swamped their plans at the border. "The Limpopo River was flooded," Mataboge remembered. "We stood there trying to cross, knowing there were crocodiles in the river. Our leader said 'It is for us to risk.' We were not afraid of prison except for the treatment there. We knew the guards were Afrikaaners (descendants of early Dutch settlers who controlled the government). Some of them were well trained in torture without killing, to make you wish you were dead."

Nine students attempted to cross the river. Two boys and a girl succeeded in swimming across. The others did not. "Five of them were attacked," Mataboge said with sudden intensity. "We saw them being killed ... by the crocodiles."

A squad of policemen caught up with the remaining students, arresting George and two of the other boys as they watched. "It was bad," Mataboge said. His speech slows even more and his husky voice deepens.

"They beat us so bad that our eyes were closed when we got to the police station. They had to wait for days until the swelling went down before taking us to court. My father was proud."

The other boys were discharged with a suspended sentence, but Mataboge was convicted because he owned some books that were banned. "They knew my father," he said. "I suffered because of the sins of my father."

"The judge said 'George, we just want you to know that we love you and we believe we can produce a good leader from you.'"

"I was standing there in chains," Mataboge said. "I said to the judge, 'I do not believe there is a white person who loves a black person.' For that they considered me a very dangerous person."

"My mother was there," he said slowly, softly. "The judge gave me a chance to speak but I said I had nothing to say. My mother said 'Remember others who are in prison for liberation. You go and be strong and meet the challenges of life behind bars.'"

A political prisoner Mataboge was sentenced to 12 years, with six to be suspended and six years to be spent in prison. From Rustenburg, he was transferred to Pretoria, then to other prison sites. "They rotated us often so we would not get to know the guards," Mataboge says. A painful edge enters his voice as he recalls being beaten without cause and being forced to dig potatoes from the frozen ground with his bare hands. He suffered stifling heat in the summer and frigid temperatures during the winter.

"Sometimes they would beat us and try to get more information from us," he said. "Once they broke my right leg." Mataboge's hand drifts down to touch the old injury. "It still gives me problems in the winter."

In the fourth year of his imprisonment, Mataboge was consigned to solitary confinement. "They put me in a room without windows 24 hours a day," he said. "The lights were always on. I lost the calendar of life. I saw only the feet of the guard who brought the food."

To fight boredom, Mataboge asked for something to read and was given a Bible. "I was taught by my parents not to read the Bible because it contained the thought of the oppressors," he said. "The oppressors used the Bible to take over the land from the blacks. So I didn't want to read it. But after four days I decided I would read it to try and understand the mind of a white person."

In four weeks, Mataboge read the Bible through four times.

As the pain of isolation grew, Mataboge remembered how his father had trained him in suicide techniques and he seriously considered ending his life. "But the fourth time through the Bible, Hebrews 2:3 and 9:27 really touched my life. There were two thoughts. 'How shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?' And, 'it is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgment.'

"I started asking questions: 'Is there a God who loves me? If I commit suicide, will I stand before this God?' I started developing a fear about eternity. I was struggling with the existence of God because I had been taught to worship my great-grandparents as gods."

A new Christian Not long afterward, in January of 1967, Mataboge was released from prison. "At that time political prisoners were honored," he said, and he became something of a local celebrity. He and some friends were loitering at a soccer field when a group of Christians promoting a tent revival came by and Mataboge confronted them.

"I used to call Christians confused monkeys," he said. He asked if they had read the Bible through and demonstrated his own understanding of scripture from reading the Bible in prison. He spoke of Moses and Jesus as important leaders of the poor and oppressed. "We also have a leader," he said (speaking of Nelson Mandela), "who is in prison."

When the evangelist approached and realized how persuasive Mataboge was, he asked for time to explain his beliefs. "I don't want to hear about the God of oppression," Mataboge said. "I want to hear about the greatness of salvation."

Mataboge agreed to attend the revival service, though he planned to be more of an agitator than a participant. "Then the pastor stood up and said he had planned to speak from some other text, but felt led to Hebrews 2:3. I was drawn to him," Mataboge recalled. "I saw myself kneeling down and crying and asking what must I do to be saved.

"That afternoon I saw my life being changed. I had been raised in bitterness but now I was singing. I went back home and tried to imitate the singing of the Christian songs." Though Mataboge tried to keep his new faith secret, his singing gave him away. "On a Monday, my mother asked if I was a Christian, but I would not say. My father arrived on Tuesday and my mother told him there was a change in me and she thought I had become a Christian. My father called and said, 'George, are you a Christian?'"

Mataboge pauses, remembering. "It was hard for me because I knew it would destroy our relationship and I would not say anything. My father said, 'You can tell me later.'"

On Thursday, a group of relatives gathered. George was called forward and the question was posed again. "The devil said to say 'No,'" Mataboge recalled, "but something gave me strength. I said, 'I have decided to follow Jesus Christ.'"

George's parents immediately disowned him. "Know from this day you are no longer a Mataboge," said his father. "You are no longer our child."

Mataboge wandered the streets, homeless, until some Christians learned of his plight. They provided food, clothing, a job in a garage and Christian nurture.

"Four months later," Mataboge said, "my father was killed by the police." His family would not allow him to attend the funeral.

"I was angry because I could not attend the funeral," he recalled. "I said I would get revenge for my father's death. I said I would join the police and get revenge."

A developing leader But God began to lead Mataboge in another direction and he applied to attend a Bible college. After being denied entrance in 1968, a new president of the school accepted him the following year.

Mataboge wanted to incorporate political activism into his new beliefs. Politics and themes of liberation kept creeping into his sermons. Friends encouraged him to turn his thoughts from overthrowing the government to changing people's lives.

Mataboge graduated in 1972. He took his diploma to show his mother. They were reconciled and she became the first person he led to Christ. Soon afterward, Mataboge was assigned to a small church in Potgietersrus, in the far northern part of the country. He and his wife Elizabeth were married there, during a time of poverty and struggle.

"It was tough," he said. "But I don't regret that God sent me there. He was busy breaking me down. Living on 24 rand a month (about $24 at the time) was tough. The people in the church were not converted, just religious. They were still worshipping ancestors and drinking beer. It was a shock to me.

"My approach was all wrong: I was preaching down to them and not uplifting their spirit, always adding political ideas. The church was packed with young people because they liked that, but my wife Elizabeth said I should stick to the Bible."

Mataboge was pulled out of Potgietersrus because of his political activism, and sent to Garankuwa Baptist Church in 1975. When riots broke out in 1976, Mataboge was arrested, taken back to prison and held without trial for three weeks. Although he was in Swaziland, he was later accused of a bombing in Pretoria and arrested for four days of interrogation.

In 1985, Mataboge was given a scholarship to study evangelism in Singapore and also visited Australia and New Zealand. Upon his return, he was arrested for speaking out against apartheid in South African while overseas.

Mataboge's reputation grew, and he was invited to a prayer breakfast in Washington, D.C. in 1986, during the Reagan administration. Later that year he traveled to Britain to speak about the church's challenge in dealing with apartheid.

The Baptist Union of South Africa was unwilling to speak openly against apartheid, Mataboge said. This contributed to a split in 1987, when a number of black churches left the union to form a separate convention. Mataboge spoke against the split because he feared the division would lessen the church's influence. He went to work for the Baptist Union, training church leaders from 1987-92.

A strong survivor A serious bout with anemia and bone marrow cancer sidelined Mataboge from 1992-94, adding another personal trial, but not defeating his spirit. After long and painful treatments, some of which still continue, he returned to action. In 1997, he helped to orchestrate a meeting designed to bring reconciliation between the divided churches, and in 1998 he was elected president of the Baptist Union.

"I said then that Christ is our only hope. Not Mandela, not politics. The only hope of a country or of the world is Jesus Christ."

The sense of hope has served Mataboge well through other ordeals. In 1994, a group of six armed men broke into the Mabopane home where Mataboge lives with his wife and three daughters. They took the family's education savings and the car keys, then announced that they had been sent to assassinate them all.

"I was praying that they would not rape my wife and children," Mataboge said. "But my wife began praying aloud so they would hear and remember her words. I thought we would be killed in minutes, but one man said 'I have heard the words of this man's wife, and we should not kill them.'"

The bandits began arguing among themselves, finally deciding to lock the family in the bathroom. They then ransacked the house, stole everything valuable and left in Mataboge's car.

In 1996, Mataboge's brother was killed at a meeting he had also been scheduled to attend, but missed because his car would not start. Later that year, Mataboge was carjacked by marijuana-smoking men who blindfolded him and drove his car to a secluded mountain hideout. One of the men threatened to kill him and pointed a gun. As Mataboge leaned over to brush away a biting insect, a bullet grazed his head - then the gun jammed. He eventually talked the men into letting him go.

"We survive by God's grace," he said.

By God's grace - and a lot of hope.

EDITOR'S NOTE - Mataboge now serves as pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Mabopane, and works as a church planter in the Northwest province of South Africa. He and others have begun five churches in the past five years, some of them meeting under trees in outlying villages. He hopes to move into church planting full time.

Mataboge has worked closely with many N.C. Baptists during the BSC/Southern Africa partnership. He expresses great appreciation for the partnership, and especially for the work of Roy A. Smith.

Mataboge also remains politically active, promoting the African Christian Democratic Party.

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6/8/2001 12:00:00 AM by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor | with 0 comments
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