I first got to know Ma Lindiwe Myeza in 2011 when I was working on Sanctuary, a book about the refugee crisis at the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg, and she was telling me about the history of the church.
Although Mama Lindi had diabetes, she would insist that my visits to her home in Mofolo South, Soweto, were an excuse for us to eat cake and drink tea. She had trouble with her hip, so she would sit at the round dining table and keep talking to me as I put on the kettle.
Myeza trained and worked as a teacher and then an administrator at Baragwanath Nursing College before working at the YWCA, and then at the Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre. She then taught adults to read and write at Unisa.
“I was overseeing 25 supervisors,” she said. “Every supervisor had 10 educators, and every educator got 18 learners that they must teach,” said Ma Lindi. She pulled out a framed document to show me with pride — the Order of the Baobab presented to her by then-president Thabo Mbeki in 2006. During my visits, we would talk for hours about her life. Ma Lindi loved to tell a good story and have a good laugh.
Born in Sophiatown, Myeza was 25 years old in 1960 when she started working with Reverend Beyers Naude, the outspoken cleric who opposed apartheid. She worked with him at the Christian Institute of Southern Africa, the ecumenical organisation founded by the clergy to unite Christians against apartheid, until 1977, when the institute was banned. Myeza worried that she would never get another job. “I was contaminated,” she said. “My reference book had Beyers’ signature.”
Her colleague, Reverend Brian Brown, was also left without work and on his suggestion they approached Reverend Peter Storey at the Central Methodist Church for a job. “I will scrub the floor,” said Myeza. “I’ll wash the dishes,” said Reverend Brown. Storey employed them both.
As a community worker and the first black employee at the church, Myeza helped homeless people who arrived at the church in need of food and clothing. At the time, in the mid-1970s, most destitute people in the city centre were white.
“I’m sorry,” said Myeza, “but this is not right. I can’t be dishing food and clothes to people who have a vote when I don’t have a vote.” Myeza started counselling sessions to find out why they were in that situation.
She helped to hide Tsietsi Mashinini, a youth leader in Soweto in the mid-1970s. “I’d tell him to put on an apron and a doek. Make him sweep the yard. So when the police came, they would look for him and they would not see him.”
In the days that followed the June 16 1976 uprising, Myeza assisted many young people in Soweto, and visited hundreds of people who had been affected by the violence. Myeza and the Central Methodist Church arranged for teenagers to be taken into the homes of congregants and to come into the church each day for lessons and activities. Cyril Ramphosa, now South Africa’s president, was one of those young people.
In 1976 the readers of The Star voted her “Unsung Heroine of the Year” for the crucial role she played.
Myeza told of trying to find a place to eat lunch in Johannesburg. Up the street from Central Methodist, in a big shopping centre on the corner of Pritchard and Eloff streets, was a restaurant, but black people were not allowed to eat there.
“I decided not to rely on hearsay and to see if it would happen to me,” recalled Myeza. “I went upstairs, click, click, click with my heels. I just played dumb. And I took my plate to go and dish. One black woman there said: ‘Mama, you know, you are not allowed to eat.’ I said: ‘Why?’ ‘No, no, no, it’s for whites only,’ she said. So I said: ‘If you say so, I’m also white.’
“So I dished my food, thinking: ‘What if they toss me out, how am I going to react?’ I think that woman told a manager. He said: ‘Mama, you know, we are trying to make sure that we don’t create trouble.’ ‘What trouble?’ I said. ‘Blacks are not allowed,’ he said. ‘Why are they not allowed?’ I asked. ‘Well, it’s how it happens here,’ he said. ‘Am I going to be allowed?’ I asked. ‘No, no, no mama, the best thing, because now you’ve dished your food, let me help you go and sit at the corner.’ ‘In that case then,’ I said, ‘take your food,’ and I gave him my plate. ‘But you’ve dished,’ he said. ‘No, I don’t want it anymore,’ I said, and I walked out.”
Myeza tried the restaurant at John Orr’s department store. “Click, click, click with my heels. I went upstairs with the lift. The cafeteria was filled with white people. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is what’s happening in South Africa.’ Just when I got off the lift, the guy says: ‘No, no, no, you’re not allowed to come here.’ I pointed out to him, ‘We buy the same things downstairs. Why can’t we buy the same food?’ ‘It’s the law,’ he said. ‘Who’s law?’ I asked. ‘It’s the law of the shop,’ he said. ‘Who has put the law in place? I want to see it written,’ I said. ‘No please, please I beg you. I might lose my job,’ he said. ‘Okay, if you’re going to lose your job, I’ll go,’ I said, and I left.”
Myeza repeated the exercise in restaurants all over town. Everywhere she went someone would ask: “Wat soek jy hierso? What do you want here?”
“In those days,” said Myeza, “next door to Central Methodist there was a big hotel, Tollman Towers. They wanted to know, am I an American? So I said with a broad American accent, ‘Yes, I am an Am-er-i-can, from America.’ Then someone said, ‘Ai man, this woman works next door,’ and I was shown the door again,” Myeza said with a hearty laugh.
Myeza decided to eat lunch in a park. Opposite Tollman Towers was Von Brandis Park, which is now the Small Street Mall. Even in the park, black people were not allowed to sit and eat. They had to sit on the street.
“I went into the park, sat down, opened up my fish and chips packet. There were quite a number of tramps in the park. There comes a policeman. ‘No, no, no, you are not allowed to sit and eat here,’ he said. ‘But what about those guys?’ I said. ‘Can’t you see they are white?’ the policeman shouted. ‘Can’t you see I am black?’ I said. ‘Mama, please. Let’s not cause trouble.’ ‘What trouble?’ I said. ‘The homeless people who come to me for food at the church, they can sit here, but I can’t.’
Myeza’s experience was the motivation for the creation of a nonracial restaurant in the large basement of the Central Methodist Church. The People Centre opened in April 1978. “The beauty of it,” recalled Storey, “is that a lawyer could come from the Supreme Court and have lunch with clients of different races with ease, and at the same time a black street cleaner could come and order a very basic cup of soup. And both would be waited on by one of our grey-haired white ladies. It was the underground subversive integration of Central Methodist. Literally underground.”
In the early 1980s, Myeza worked with Mohammed Dangor of Actstop (the Action Committee to Stop Eviction), which had an office at the Central Methodist Church. They assisted tenants that were being evicted from flats in the inner city under the Group Areas Act. Actstop contested more than 200 cases in court between 1978 and 1982.
They also helped people who were being evicted from their homes in Fietas, just west of the city centre. The area had been declared a white area and people classified as Indian, coloured and African were being removed. Myeza remembers sleeping out on the street in solidarity with some of the people who had been evicted from their homes. With a smile, she told me how Dangor would tease her, saying: “Lindi tells people that she slept with me in the street.”
There were about 20 older people in Fietas, and Myeza believed they were too frail to be out in the open at night so she decided to let them sleep at the Central Methodist Church. They slept in one of the lounges and in the chapel, and were there for some months. “They would come at night and during the day they would go,” said Myeza. She didn’t tell anyone, not even Storey.
Myeza introduced Amadodana, the Young Men’s Guild, to the Central Methodist Church. Several years later, after Storey left and Reverend Mvume Dandala became the minister, Myeza encouraged the development of the Women’s Manyano. These two organisations helped bring larger numbers of black worshippers to the church.
After Sanctuary was published in 2013, I visited Myeza to give her a copy. I brought sugar-free health biscuits but she again pointed me toward a cake in the fridge, and I made tea. We kept in touch, always on her landline, and often spoke on her birthday, March 7. I am sad that Ma Lindi died during this time of the coronavirus. We cannot gather at her funeral, visit her family and convey our condolences to her daughter, Ma Buhle Myeza, in person.
I am certain that if these were normal times, thousands of people would have crowded into the cul-de-sac in front of her small home. I look forward to a time in the future when we can gather for a memorial for Lindiwe Leah Aida Myeza. Everyone will tell stories, remember Ma Lindi, have a good laugh and enjoy some cake and tea. No one will be turned away.
Christa Kuljian is the author of Sanctuary and Darwin’s Hunch, and a research associate at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER)