Blending cultures

Daily Reading for June 18 • Bernard Mizeki, Catechist and Marytr in Rhodesia, 1896

The most celebrated of the Mozbieker cultural brokers from the Western Cape is surely Bernard Mizeki, the Anglican missionary martyred during the Shona uprising of 1896. Mizeki was born as Mamiyeri Mizeki Gwambe near Inhambane in about 1860. He came to Cape Town, via Lourenço Marques, some sixteen years later under the Government labour importation scheme run by Monteiro. He initially lived in the old slave quarters on the edge of town with several of his compatriots, and spent his working hours loading and unloading steamships in the docks. Friends from Inhambane soon found Mizeki more congenial work in the suburb of Rondebosch where he worked as a gardener, domestic servant and stablehand. Working for an English colonist, he followed the tradition of his elders and took the name Barnes; but this did not mean that he abandoned his old ways, for he continued to occupy a hut in Rondebosch with other men from Inhambane. It was these compatriots who introduced Bernard to the Anglican night school they attended in Woodstock.

In the mid-1880s this school fell under the aegis of the Cowley Fathers who had established a mission at St Philip’s church on Sir Lowry Road. They also organised tea-meetings in an attempt to draw men like Mizeke away from the canteens and brothels that were the major sources of diversion for the working classes. At these events the men danced to a familiar music played on xylophones, instruments that were particularly appreciated in the Inhambane area. The social work pursued by the Cowley Fathers was taken further when a hostel for black workers was established on land between Sir Lowry Road and the sea. St Columba’s boarding hostel became a centre of social life and a site of instruction for Bernard and his friends. It offered him a space in which to express himself, develop his confidence and readopt his original name, Mizeki. It also provided the Inhambane community with a space in which to socialise and worship together. In 1886 Bernard was baptised at St Philip’s along with his close friends from home, Thomas Masrai and John Ntinge. The next year others from Inhambane, such as George Marinyana and Tom Sihaya, enjoyed the same Christian rite of inclusion.

Bernard’s growing evangelical enthusiasm soon won him a job at St. Columba’s. This brought him to the immediate attention of the Cowley Fathers who, when he manifested a scholastic ability, entered him as a dayscholar at Zonnebloem College. Mizeki spent five years at Zonnebloem where he excelled in religious studies and showed an aptitude for arithmetic. When Bishop Knight-Bruce arrived in Cape Town in search of volunteers to work in the new See of Mashonaland, Bernard was about thirty years old. He had spent more than half his life in Cape Town and was a respected member of the Church. Eager to take the Gospel into new lands, he embarked for Beira with Knight-Bruce’s party in April 1891. The Bishop found him “an excellent linguist and charming companion” and an “invaluable” aid who soon established his own mission station near chief Mangwende’s village in Central Mashonaland. Mizeki developed a working relationship with Mangwende, even marrying one of his granddaughters early in 1896. But at a time when the Anglican Church was closely tied to the government of the British South African Company, Mizeki was viewed with suspicion by many members of the local community. On the outbreak of the Shona rebellion, this black missionary became an early target. Bernard Mizeki was killed by rebels in his village on 18 June 1896 and his body was never recovered.

From “Culture and Classification: A History of the Mozbieker Community at the Cape” by Patrick Harries, in Social Dynamics 26:2 (2000): 29-54. Found at

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