Finding Racial Harmony in Troubled South Africa
As told by Merlyn Mehl
I AM a South African, or, as quaintly described in this country, a South African of color. I am also a professor at the University of the Western Cape, the largest predominantly black university in the country. I have a doctorate in physics education. For the past 20 years, I have also been one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. So which of these two situations has helped me experience racial harmony in this land of friction and conflict?
Growing Up in South Africa
Cape Town, at the southern tip of Africa, has been described as ‘the fairest Cape in all the earth.’ Looking at the stars on a clear night in Cape Town is a moving experience. Once, while doing so, I recall saying to a friend: “What’s the point of all of this? Surely it must mean something; yet, down here things are so pointless. How can people discriminate so much against others? Why are things so unfair?”
To be born in South Africa is to be aware of discrimination at an early age. The problems of race seem to be omnipresent. From early childhood, people are separated and classified by race. Our family is classified “colored” by South African laws. As children, we were taught that whites were the oppressors while we were among the oppressed. And since, as we grew up, interracial contact at school or socially was practically nil, it is understandable that persons of another race were viewed with suspicion. To us it seemed that whites had the best of everything—including houses, facilities, and schools. “Apartheid,” the legal separation of races, became the most hated word in our vocabulary.
Before I finished primary school, our family was obliged to leave the home in the racially mixed neighborhood where my sister and I were born. Why? Because of the Group Areas Act, which permitted a particular area to be zoned for one racial group only. We moved to another area, where we lived for a number of years until it too was proclaimed a “white area.” Then, off we went again.
Because of the obvious inequities, my parents as well as our teachers urged us to study hard at school. “You must show the white man that you are better than he is,” was the message. This affected my attitude toward school. Although painfully shy, I loved to learn. Reading anything and everything occupied most of my time. Hence, I finished school among the top students in the country. So it was natural that I should go to university. Because I enjoyed science and mathematics, it was easy to decide to pursue a degree in science, with physics and mathematics as major subjects.
Since in 1960 (the very year I started university) the Separate Universities Act went into operation, I was obliged to attend a university for my racial group. There was much publicity surrounding the students at these separate universities. I graduated each year with distinction and finally achieved a Master of Science degree in nuclear physics, and that drew much attention, especially as I was then appointed to the faculty of the University of the Western Cape—the first colored student to be so appointed.
Yet, at this stage I felt very frustrated. I lacked the answer to the essential question of life: What is the purpose of it all? The comment to my friend, mentioned earlier, was made about this time.
My Questions Are Answered
Up to this point, religion had played a very small part in my life. As a child, I had attended the Anglican Church and was confirmed at the age of 16. But there were never any answers to my questions. So as I got older, my church attendance decreased and finally stopped.
Then one day I visited the home of a university colleague. His wife, Julia, used the Bible to show that there was an answer to the political and racial problems not only of South Africa but also of the whole world. I was surprised and skeptical. But I accepted the booklet Basis for Belief in a New World, went home, and started reading it out of curiosity.
At two o’clock the next morning, I was still reading! Here were reasoned arguments as to why the Bible is true, why its prophecies are reliable, why mankind is in so much trouble, why 1914 is such a significant date, and why we can hope for a righteous new system here on earth. This must surely be the truth!
The next day I returned to the home of my colleague. “Do you have more literature like this?” I asked his wife. I walked away with a pile of books dealing with basic Bible doctrines, explanations of the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, the nature of the six days of creation, and much, much more. Very important, they showed that nowhere in the Bible is there any justification for racial discrimination, since “God is not partial.” (Acts 10:34) I devoured all the literature. Here were the answers to the questions that had always plagued me. After about a year filled with concerted Bible study, I was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. That was on November 21, 1967.
As an organization, Jehovah’s Witnesses are truly nonracial and nonpolitical. They give allegiance to one government, God’s Kingdom. To them social status is genuinely unimportant. But in South Africa, there are always problems concerning racial issues. Because of the Group Areas Act, congregations reflect the racial composition of the areas they are in. So in the Claremont Congregation where I attended, most persons were colored. The few white persons attending were either missionaries or men in positions of oversight.
I still remember, after all these years, two incidents that show how difficult it is to rid oneself of racial attitudes. At assemblies, the whites present used to go to the front of cafeteria lines, collect their food, and go off to eat separately, while the rest of us stood waiting. That irked me. The white Witnesses also had a tendency to introduce their wives like this: “My dear, meet Merlyn. He is studying the Bible.” “Merlyn, this is my wife, Sister So-and-so.” They addressed me by my first name, but I had to use “Sister” or “Brother.” I was outraged!
But then I started reflecting. The problem is that you always feel it is the other person who is racist. And yet a racially polarized society like South Africa must affect everybody that lives here. True, some white Witnesses needed to work at their relationships with persons of a different color. But then, so did I. On this point the Bible gives this good advice: “Do not be quick to show resentment; for resentment is nursed by fools.” (Ecclesiastes 7:9, The New English Bible) Yes, I had to work at being less sensitive and not to see perceived slights in racial terms.
I should also mention that the general situation in the country has changed somewhat since then. In former years, only a limited number of whites were allowed to attend religious gatherings of other races, and they had to eat separately. This is no longer the case.
Most important, though, here was an organization of people who mixed freely, who were welcome in one another’s homes, and who called one another brother and sister and really meant it! These convictions were firmly held and based on Bible principles. So when racial incidents arise—and in South Africa they are almost inevitable—reflecting on these facts always tempers my feelings. As the years pass, I learn to apply Bible principles better and thus have greater peace within myself on racial matters. But one has to work at it!
The Full-Time Ministry
Soon after my baptism, I felt the need to increase my ministry. I was single and had few responsibilities, so on October 1, 1968, I started as a regular pioneer. This caused quite a stir, since it meant my leaving the university and abandoning what many regarded as a glittering career. A newspaper article about my move was headlined: “Top Scientist Goes Bible-Punching.” Soon I was conducting ten or more Bible studies with different persons or families. At one assembly two of these people were baptized, at the next, four; then seven, and so on.
On September 17, 1969, I married Julia, the Witness who had introduced the truth to me. She had obtained a divorce on legal and Scriptural grounds some time before our marriage. This meant that I inherited an instant family, since she had two boys, John and Leon. We resolved to continue in the pioneer service for as long as possible, which proved to be a good grounding for the boys and helped me make a success of our stepfamily.
The early ‘70’s was a very exciting time to be in the full-time service, as these experiences show. While preaching from house to house, we met a lady named Annabel. She immediately accepted the book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life and a Bible. (We learned later that she paid for the literature with the last money she had—the milkman was obliged to return the next week for his money!) From the start, she prepared well for her weekly Bible study in spite of a restless baby. She also started telling her family what she was learning. Soon her husband, Billy, accompanied her to meetings. Annabel’s parents had named their five children alphabetically. Her sister Beattie started to study. Charlie and his wife would not be left out. Daphne also showed interest, and Edna and her husband joined in. Today that entire family has been serving faithfully for many years. The men are elders or ministerial servants, and many of the women have served as pioneers.
And then there is Stanley. We contacted him in the house-to-house work, the last call on a cold Monday afternoon. But what a reception! His wife invited us in, and it was clear at once that we were dealing with a reverent man. In fact, he had just been praying for help to understand the Bible. Our first discussion centered around the Trinity doctrine. After an hour’s discussion, he seemed convinced. The next week, he greeted us with these words: “You people are right. I’ve read the whole ‘New Testament’ through, and there is no Trinity. I went to see the minister to ask why he has been misleading me. He refused to see me, so I handed back the collection envelopes that I used to collect money from other church members.” And all of this without having obtained a single publication from us! He wished to attend meetings, and we promised to fetch him. But that Sunday we came five minutes later than we had promised. We met him riding his bicycle to the meeting! “I thought you had forgotten me,” he said. We studied three times a week, and he was baptized three months after our first contact. Stanley has served for many years with the same zeal he had at first.
Julia and I calculated that over the years, we have been privileged to help some 50 persons to become Jehovah’s Witnesses.
A Return to Secular Work
After four years in the pioneer service, our money was almost gone. The cost of living had gone up, and the boys were getting bigger. So, painfully and reluctantly, we decided to leave the full-time ministry. That was in September 1972. What next? Just over a year later, on January 1, 1974, I returned to lecturing at the university when a post became available in physics. This meant considerable readjustment and also guarding against becoming despondent. But with solid support from Julia, I managed to make the adjustments. It proved very helpful to remain extremely active in the ministry and the congregation—really continuing to ‘seek first the kingdom.’—Matthew 6:33.
Since all university instructors are expected to do research, the question of returning to nuclear physics arose. I found it extremely difficult to imagine doing this esoteric type of research when my time outside the university was spent trying to teach people the truth from the Bible. It seemed so futile to be engaged in research simply for its own sake. And, of course, nuclear-physics research could just possibly have military applications, and this could bring problems with regard to Christian neutrality.—Isaiah 2:2-4.
In South Africa a university such as that of the Western Cape has many students who are termed “disadvantaged.” They come to the university underprepared because of poor schooling and other socioeconomic factors. In many cases they do not lack potential—they have simply not had the opportunity. For the last 13 years, as part of my university work, I have been researching the learning difficulties of such students and arranging alternative teaching methods. This research has brought me a doctorate in physics education and resulted in my promotion to professor. Cooperative research programs are now being conducted with universities in the United States and Israel. It is interesting to compare the findings of this research with the teaching methods of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
A theory developed by Professor Reuven Feuerstein and his coworkers in Israel is called Mediated Learning Experience. The essence of the theory is that children develop thinking ability not only from external stimuli reaching them through their senses but also from a human mediator interpreting the stimuli to them. If this is not done, children do not develop their thinking ability as much as they could.
Jehovah’s Witnesses place strong emphasis on the role of the parent as the primary instructor of the child. Witness parents spend many hours examining illustrated Bible study aids with their children, questioning them about what they see and helping them to grasp the significance of Bible stories. They stress the need not only for weekly Bible study but also for constant instruction, especially in Bible principles. (Deuteronomy 6:6-8) The above research seems to indicate that in so doing, parents are actually developing the intelligence of their children.
Constructivism is another theory that holds that teaching is not a simple transfer of information from the mind of the instructor to the mind of the learner. Rather, each person forms his or her own constructions from what is seen or heard or experienced. That is why two persons can listen to the same information and draw different conclusions. For persons to learn effectively, they must deal with the information themselves.
The meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses encourage exactly this. Everyone is expected to prepare beforehand the information to be discussed from the literature available. During the meeting itself, comments are drawn from the audience on the prepared material. In this way people are encouraged not only to express what they have learned but to benefit from the preparation others have made.
The advent of computer-based education has been hailed as the means to personalize instruction. Yet, the Bible study work that the Witnesses have pursued for many years in the homes of the people has excelled at that! One instructor helps one, two, or three persons (seldom more) to consider printed material on a Bible subject that the student has reviewed in preparation. The student is encouraged to explain what he understands, paragraph by paragraph, and then this is discussed—truly a personal Bible study. Given the application of such sound instructional principles, it is no wonder that Jehovah’s Witnesses flourish as they do. Of course, they do not have to learn these principles from a university. They acquire them from a superior source—the Bible.—Matthew 28:19, 20; John 6:45.
Racial Harmony Replaces Racial Tension
More than 20 years have flown by since I became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. John and Leon, my stepsons, now grown, are both baptized and serve faithfully. In 1976 our son Graeme was born. It is a privilege to raise him also in the way of the truth. Our family has been blessed because Julia is again able to pioneer, while I auxiliary pioneer at least three times a year. Around us in South Africa, there has been a dramatic escalation in racial tension. One sees it in the graffiti on buildings and feels it in the air. Yet, amid all the racial polarization, a modern miracle is taking place. With the relaxation by the State of laws on association, Jehovah’s Witnesses are now able to meet together fairly freely, especially at large assemblies. I have been privileged to share in organizing some of these assemblies for all racial groups. There we see nonracialism at work, people educated by the lofty standards of the Bible to be truly color-blind! Here are people who see what others are inside, not just the color of their skin.
Jehovah’s Witnesses today form the only true global brotherhood of mankind. Soon, in his new system of things, Jehovah will “wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore.” Along with millions of my brothers and sisters worldwide, I look forward to that delightful, righteous, nonracial new world.—Revelation 21:3-5.