From congregationalism to pentecostalism: Rev Geoffrey Mkwanazi’s dedicated service to the Assemblies of God Church
ARISE! Go and preach the Gospel to the world. These thundering and heart rending words by the energetic preacher filled the massive hall within the Trade Fair grounds in Bulawayo. In front of the man delivering the Word of God is a massive wooden coffin in which lies the lifeless body of Reverend Geoffrey Bizeni Mkwanazi the Spiritual Leader of the Assemblies of God Church in Zimbabwe.
The 19th of August was a bitterly cold day. Despite the chilly weather, hundreds upon hundreds of mourners braved the nippy conditions to pay their last respects to the spiritual icon that loomed large over the Zimbabwean religious landscape. A pioneer in the establishment and nurturing of Pentecostalism in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Reverend Mkwanazi who passed on on 19 August 2017 had groomed and nurtured several young Pentecostals who today are leaders of numerous Pentecostal churches in Zimbabwe. Initially, he had embraced congregationalism as espoused by the London Missionary Society (LMS) to which his parents belonged.
Reverend Mkwanazi did leave behind a visible track record of his life of service to fellow men. All that was courtesy of Mrs Eunice Dlamini (neeNkomazana) who commissioned this writer to pen the Man of God’s biography. That exercise was duly undertaken and the book, titled “Dedicated Service: The Story of Geoffrey Bizeni Mkwanazi of the Assemblies of God Church’’, was put together and published by Amagugu Publishers in 2013. He and his wife Eleanor were to allocate numerous hours of interviews which, in conjunction with literature review, archival research and further interviews of those who knew him, resulted in the writing of the said biography.
Reverend Mkwanazi was born on 30 August 1929 in a family of eight children. His father was Bizeni, okaMogeli who lived at the village of Intunta whose chief was Mhabahaba Mkhwananzi. Intunta was part of Amnyama which located where present Bushtick is situated west of Falcon College is. Mogeli’s (he belonged to Imbizo) father was Nkuculana whose daughter Zifosi got married to Mdilizelwa Fuyane the chief of Isizinda Village who had succeeded his father Chief Maphisa. Mkwanazi’s mother was Selina Hlabangana whose mother was one MaXaba from Intshamathe where Xaba was chief.
Esigodini where Intunta was located fell under the LMS which, from Hope Fountain Mission, spread its wings to several areas such as Tjimali, Centenary, Matshetsheni, and Zamanyoni inter alia. Reverend Sitshenkwa Hlabangana was LMS minister in the area. It was not long before the people of Esigodini area were evicted. The Land Apportionment Act of 1930 took effect following recommendations of the Carter Commission of 1925. People from Entunteni went to Mberengwa under Alson Ngungumbane Mkhwananzi while another group under Mathalazana Mkhwananzi went to Nkayi. Mkwanazi found himself and his parents moving across the Insiza River to a place called Tshunkunyane. Reverend Hlabangana, father of the Rhodesia’s first black university graduates Tennyson and Cephas continued to minister to the people who had continued to hold on to (SDA), the Brethren-In- Christ Church (BICC) and the LMS.
At the age of ten, in 1939 Mkwanazi attended Tshunkunyane Primary School where he did SubStandard A. Bholi Mashengele taught at the school. He proceeded to the SDA school at Simbithi where he did Sub-Standard B. From Simbithi where he stayed with Elkana Ndlovu he went to attend Shabanie Mine School which subsided (sunk into the ground) prompting him to move to the second oldest LMS mission, Hope Fountain in 1942 where Reverend Mntompe Khumalo, okaJojwana, and Reverend Neville Jones also known as Mhlakazanhlansi taught. The latter did a lot of archaeological research in the Matobo Hills. Mkwanazi attended four schools in four years — a true rolling stone.
From Hope Fountain he attended Tsholotsho Government Industrial School for boys. The school, initially located in Tsholotsho, was relocated to Mzingwane in 1945 following the malaria menace in the poorly drained Tsholotsho landscape. The Principal, John Hammond, took a group of students to the new site and Mkwanazi was one of them. The school was the cradle for nationalism and it was here that Mkwanazi met the likes of Edward Silonda Ndlovu, Stephen Jeqe Nkomo and Boysen Mguni among several others. At the school, Mkwanazi did Building Studies, Carpentry and Leathercraft.
From Mzingwane he proceeded to Tiger Kloof, an LMS institution near Vryburg in South Africa. There he met students such as Quett Masire, later President of Botswana, Kingsley Dube, Mtshena Sidlile, Solomon Nkiwane and Silas Dabengwa. Unable to proceed with his academic education, Mkwanazi returned home and was employed by the Salvation Army. He taught at their school called Mkhuneni west of Whitewater. He was there for just one year and after that got employment with the Rhodesia Railways where he served for just one year.
Tshunkunyane and other areas were being appropriated and some villagers followed their kinsmen to Nkayi. Bizeni and his wife however, chose to rent a house in Bulawayo. Bizeni, a qualified carpenter and builder, took part in the building of Luveve’s Beit Hall. Now staying with his parents in Luveve, at a house along Mashona Road, the urban environment began to get the better of the young and impressionable Mkwanazi. He began frequenting beer outlets, particularly the Big Bar in Makokoba. He was then, by all accounts, a socialite of note. In 1952 he moved to the Cold Storage Commission where he was senior clerk. The company transferred him to Fort Victoria (now Masvingo). It was a move that provided him with a launch pad to South Africa and also to abandon the LMS and embrace a new Christian faith: Pentecostalism which flourished in the socially and politically alienating South African apartheid environment.
To get to South Africa, Mkwanazi resorted to foul means. He went under a faked identity, that of a teacher at the Dutch Reformed Church’s (DRC) Morgenster Mission. As Misheck Ntabeni, he went to Pretoria and attended Kilnerton outside South Africa’s administrative capital. It was the move to Alexandra Township that brought him in touch with squalid and hellish social conditions. These were alienating and dehumanising and provided the conditions that led to the growth and development of Pentecostalism as it promised a new meaning to life. Africans had been uprooted from their rural homes to serve as labourers in the Golden City. Mkwanazi got employment in the road department. At the time, his identity documents had been stamped by the Immigration Department and he was ordered back to Rhodesia.
Evading deportation, he got employment in an insurance company owned by Harry Oppenheimer of Anglo-American Corporation. He secured yet another job, this time with the South African Railways. The rolling stone roled on again. This time he was working for a Jewish wholesaling firm. For a while he watched pilfering going on around him. It was not long before he realised that, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” It was that anti-social behaviour that saw him incarcerated in Number 4 Remand Prison where he met the Lord and turned over a new leaf — ultimately leading him to embrace Pentecostalism for which he would henceforth dedicate the rest of his life.