Remembering Dad Mnisi

Our hearts are heavy. This week we bid an unexpected farewell to Sindiso’s father, Simon Semete Mnisi, who died on May 28, 2020 in Johannesburg.

Dad Mnisi was born in 1941 in Mpumalanga Province, South Africa. His family were labor tenants (sharecroppers) on “white-owned” land that had been taken from them generations earlier. His mom, whom he loved dearly, died in childbirth when he was around six years old — an incurable pain he carried to his death bed. He received little formal schooling that we know of and left home at age 16 to seek a better life in Soweto, the main black township of Johannesburg. Under apartheid, he was denied civil rights, required to carry a passbook at all times, prohibited from performing skilled work, barred from attending white schools or using white facilities, and his citizenship was constricted in one of the black “homelands” making up (collectively) only 13% of his country.

Dad sold chickens, worked in furniture stores, coached soccer, and read constantly to better himself and feed his insatiable appetite for history, business, politics, faith. He LOVED his five children and dreamt that they would have a better life than he. Four of them came of age under apartheid, with all its cruelty, and Dad had to bury the oldest two (Sindiso’s brothers) far too soon. He said of one of them, “he died of poverty.” Ever the optimist, he nonetheless imagined his last-born child Sindiso would someday study at Oxford, paradoxically, a bastion of the colonial authority under which his family had suffered for generations. (Such is the nature of hegemony, which partly seeded what Sindiso would go on to study there.)

In the latter days of apartheid, Dad and Mum started a successful business and began to build the life they had long imagined for their family. Seeing his youngest daughter, who spent her early years in Soweto under apartheid, go on to finish law school and clerk on the Constitutional Court in a free South Africa was a dream come true. So was his journey to Oxford to celebrate Sindiso’s graduation with a PhD in Law as a Rhodes Scholar. I’ll never forget sharing with him, Mum and Sindiso that day the bittersweet exception proving the rule that “individual behaviors can shape the success of individuals but policies determine the success of groups [and] it is racist power that creates the policies that cause racial inequalities.” (Ibram X Kendi, “How To Be An Antiracist”)

In later years, Dad formally stepped into vocations in which he had always served, at least in part: as faithful community leader and chronicler of his traditional group’s history. And so he became a part-time pastor in his church and a headman in rural Mpumalanga near the traditional Mnisi lands. He loved the work and was hard pressed to ever slow down, even in the face of cancer. He loved his family and community even more; they could always count on him to negotiate their lobolo (bridewalth), help organize and host a special ceremony or rite, and drive through the night to attend a distant cousin’s funeral or pay his respects to an elder. And oh how he loved his little grandchildren, even from afar! What a gift that he got to meet his youngest before his passing.

When I first shook Dad’s hand in Johannesburg 11 years ago, I was nervous. A minute later, he had made me feel like his son. The feeling has only grown stronger to this day. We love and miss him dearly. Dad was a man of dignity, kindness, curiosity, resilience, abundant energy, and earnest affection. We thank God for his life and—though it breaks our hearts—for bringing him home. In our loss of a deeply beloved parent, we nonetheless celebrate his reunion with his.

480Andrew Plummer, Bishop Thabile Mnisi Msibiand 478 others233 Comments3 SharesLikeCommentShare

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