Growing Up With Jehovah’s Organization in South Africa
As told by Frans Muller
WHEN my brother David and I approached the evening train that we usually took out of the Cape Town central station, we were surprised to see the sign “Whites Only.” The Nationalist Party had won the election in 1948 and had introduced the policy of apartheid.
Of course, racial segregation had long been practiced in South Africa, as it had been in most countries in Africa during colonial times. But now it was being enforced by law, and we were no longer allowed to share a coach with South Africans of darker skin color. Forty-five years later, apartheid is being dismantled.
During the whole period of legalized apartheid, which presented challenges to carrying on our ministry in the way we would have liked, I served as a full-time minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Presently, at the age of 65, I can look back over the marvelous growth of Jehovah’s organization in southern Africa, and I am grateful for the privilege of growing up with it.
A Christian Heritage
When my father was a youth, early each morning he was required to read the Bible aloud to my grandfather. In time Father developed a deep love for God’s Word. When I was born in 1928, my father was serving on the church council of the Dutch Reformed Church in Potgietersrus. That year my uncle gave him a copy of the book The Harp of God.
Father, however, told Mother to burn the book, saying it was from a sect. But she kept it, and one day when Father happened to pick it up, it opened at the heading “Does God Torment Anyone?” Although he felt sure that the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called, were wrong, his curiosity got the better of him, and he started reading. He could not put the book down. In the early hours of the morning, as he got into bed, he said: “Ma, I’m afraid they have the truth.”
The next day, Father cycled 30 miles [50 km] to get more books from the nearest Bible Student. Regularly, he would read deep into the night. He even tried to convince the Dutch Reformed minister about the Bible truths he was learning, hoping the church would make adjustments. His efforts were to no avail, so he resigned from the church and started preaching zealously. Bible truth became his life and the most important thing in our home. It was in this environment that I grew up.
Later, Father became a pioneer, or full-time minister. He traveled great distances in an old Model T Ford to preach. After a couple of years, the needs of our growing family forced him to stop pioneering, but he remained very active in the preaching work. Some Sundays we would travel up to 60 miles [90 km] to preach with him in the town of Pietersburg.
A Successful Business
Father eventually opened a small retail general merchandise store. Soon it doubled in size, and a second store was opened. Some rich farmers went into partnership with Father, and in time they together operated a wholesale store plus a chain of six retail stores scattered over a wide area.
Some of my older brothers joined the business venture and now had the prospect of becoming rich. However, our spirituality began to suffer. We became more acceptable to worldly friends and neighbors, who invited us to their parties. Seeing the danger, Father called a family conference and decided to sell the business and move to Pretoria so that we could do more in Jehovah’s service. He kept only one store, which was cared for by hired help.
My brothers Koos and David began pioneering, thus joining my older sister, Lina. During one month in 1942, our family of ten spent a total of 1,000 hours in the preaching work. That year I symbolized the dedication of my life to Jehovah by water immersion.
Why I Left School Early
In 1944, while World War II was at its height, Gert Nel, a traveling overseer of Jehovah’s Witnesses, asked me whether I was planning to enter the pioneer ranks. “Yes,” I replied, “in two years, when I finish high school.”
Reflecting the outlook of many of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the time, he warned: “Be careful that Armageddon does not catch you sitting on the school benches.” Since I did not want that to happen, I quit school and entered the pioneer work on January 1, 1945.
My first assignment was in Vereeniging, near Johannesburg, and my partners were Piet Wentzel and Danie Otto. Often I would spend more than 200 hours a month preaching. In time, Piet was reassigned to the city of Pretoria, and Danie had to stop pioneering to assist his elderly father on the farm. This left me as the only Witness to care for 23 home Bible studies in Vereeniging.
Shortly afterward, I received from the branch office a letter that assigned me to Pretoria. Although I did not understand the reason for the new assignment at the time, I later realized that it would not have been wise to leave an inexperienced 17-year-old on his own. I still needed a lot of training and might have become discouraged.
After serving in Pretoria and getting needed experience, I was invited to become a special pioneer. Piet Wentzel and I then arranged to give practical ministerial training to young ones who came to Pretoria to pioneer. By then Piet had been assigned as the traveling overseer in the area. He later married my sister Lina, and they now serve together at the South Africa branch office.
Among those who came to pioneer in Pretoria was Martie Vos, an attractive young woman who had been reared in a Witness family. We were romantically attracted to each other, but we were still teenagers, too young to get married. However, when we received assignments to other places, we kept in touch by correspondence.
Bethel Service and Gilead School
In 1948, I was invited to serve at the Watch Tower Society’s branch office in Cape Town. At the time, there was no common residence for the 17 of us who worked in three rented offices and a small factory nearby. Some of us were accommodated with families, and others lived in boarding houses.
Each workday the 17 members of the Bethel family came together for morning worship in the changeroom of the small factory. Many of us had to arrange for our own lunch. Then, after a full day’s work, we would travel to our living quarters in different parts of Cape Town. It was on one of these trips, as already mentioned, that my brother David and I were surprised by the sign announcing, “Whites Only.”
When I first arrived at the Cape Town office, I realized I still had much to learn, so I asked Brother Phillips, our branch overseer: “What must I do to catch up?”
“Frans,” he answered, “don’t worry about catching up. Just keep up!” I have always tried to do that, and I have learned that by keeping up with what Jehovah’s organization provides in the way of spiritual food and direction, a person will keep growing with it.
In 1950, I was invited to attend the 16th class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead for missionary training. The school was then located at South Lansing, New York, about 250 miles [400 km] north of Brooklyn, New York. While working temporarily at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, I observed the very heart of Jehovah’s visible organization firsthand. The whole-souled devotion of those taking the lead there filled me with deep appreciation for Jehovah’s organization.
My Continued Ministry
After returning to South Africa, I was appointed to serve as a traveling overseer in northern Transvaal, where I had grown up. After corresponding for six years, Martie and I were married in December 1952, and she joined me in the traveling work. The appreciation our Christian brothers had for our visits was heartwarming.
For example, once while serving a congregation in a farming community, we stayed with a family who apologized for not having milk for the tea or coffee. Later we learned that they had sold their only milk cow in order to have enough money to buy gasoline to take us to visit distant parts of their territory to witness to the farmers. How we loved brothers of that kind!
At times I felt inadequate for the circuit work, especially when dealing with problems involving older persons. Once I felt so emotionally drained that I told Martie that she should not be surprised if we were reassigned to the pioneer work because of my lack of experience. She assured me that she would be happy to serve in any capacity as long as we could remain in the full-time ministry.
Imagine our surprise when we arrived at the next congregation and our mail contained an assignment to serve in the district work! For nearly two years, we traveled throughout South Africa and Namibia, then called South-West Africa. However, because of the apartheid system, our work was often difficult. Frequently we were denied permits to enter black townships and sometimes were not given permission for assemblies.
In 1960, for example, we obtained permission to have a district convention in Soweto. The black brothers from distant congregations had already bought train and bus tickets to come, but the government heard of our plans and canceled permission. Discreetly, we approached a friendly superintendent in a town 12 miles [20 km] the other side of Johannesburg. He kindly provided us with even better facilities, and we had a wonderful convention, enjoyed by more than 12,000!
How the situation has changed in recent years! Now, with apartheid being dismantled, we can freely meet together anywhere in black, white, colored, or Indian areas. Everyone, regardless of race, can sit together and enjoy fellowship. Only language differences influence where a person may wish to sit.
A Painful Lesson
Back in 1947, my father made a big mistake. His store, located over 120 miles [200 km] from where he and Mother were living, became unprofitable because of dishonest management, so he moved back alone to manage it himself. Long periods of separation from Mother resulted in his falling into temptation. As a result, he was disfellowshipped.
This impressed upon me in a painful, personal way that being zealous for Bible truth is not enough. All have to adhere to Bible principles. (1 Corinthians 7:5) After many years, Father was reinstated as part of the Christian congregation and served faithfully until his death in 1970. My dear mother remained faithful till she died in 1991.
In 1958, Martie and I attended the biggest convention ever held by Jehovah’s Witnesses, at Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds in New York. We simply overflowed with joy at being part of Jehovah’s wonderful organization. Being with that large crowd of more than 253,000 on Sunday afternoon was an experience we will never forget. Here, to us, was the reality of the ‘great crowd out of all nations’ peacefully assembled together. (Revelation 7:9, 10) Martie stayed behind in New York to attend Gilead School, and I returned to the district work in South Africa.
In 1959, after Martie returned from attending the 32nd class of Gilead School, we were invited to serve at the South Africa branch office, which was then situated near Elandsfontein, east of Johannesburg. Over the years, I have seen the advancement of the organization in so many ways, especially its growth in love and empathy. I have learned that Jehovah directs his organization through Jesus Christ and will use those who make themselves available.
In 1962, I returned to Brooklyn, New York, to attend a ten-month branch training course. This proved helpful when, in 1967, I was appointed as the South Africa branch overseer. In 1976, Branch Committees were appointed, so now the responsibility for making important decisions in South Africa falls on the shoulders of five experienced Christian elders.
Life Under Apartheid
Apartheid laws affected the operation of our branch. When the Elandsfontein Bethel Home was constructed in 1952, the law required an additional building at the rear to accommodate the black and colored brothers. The law also required that they eat separately from whites in so-called African quarters. Later, it was arranged for them to eat in the Bethel kitchen. This was the eating arrangement when we arrived at Bethel in 1959. Everything in me rebelled against this separation on the basis of race.
In time, the government withdrew permission for our black brothers to stay in the building at the rear of the main Bethel Home. These brothers had to stay in a black township about 12 miles [20 km] away. Some lived in rented homes and others in a hostel for single men. This disagreeable situation continued for many years.
In the meantime, the Elandsfontein Bethel had to be enlarged. After extending it three times, we had reached the limits of our property. The Governing Body directed that we should look for new property in a locality where the local authorities would hopefully allow us to build a Bethel complex where our black brothers could also stay. Every morning the Bethel family would pray that Jehovah would somehow open the way for this.
What a day of rejoicing it was when we at last found a suitable piece of land on the outskirts of Krugersdorp, to the west of Johannesburg! However, we were again required to construct a separate building for our black brothers. We complied but could not get permission for more than 20 black persons to be accommodated there. Thankfully, by the mid-1980’s, things started to change. The government eased up on its stringent apartheid laws, and more black, colored, and Indian brothers were called to serve with us at Bethel.
Now we have a happy, united Bethel family, where individuals, regardless of race or color, can live in any of the buildings they choose. Also, after years of struggling, we were at last given legal recognition as a religion. A local legal association has been formed that is registered as “Jehovah’s Witnesses of South Africa.” Now we have our own marriage officers, and in black residential areas, Kingdom Halls are springing up like mushrooms.
How Jehovah’s organization has advanced since the early days when I served in the Cape Town branch office! From a small family of 17 without a Bethel Home, we have now grown to a Bethel family of over 460, having a modern Bethel complex with sophisticated computers, rotary presses, and a beautiful Bethel Home! Yes, I have had the privilege of growing up with Jehovah’s organization in South Africa. We have increased from about 400 Kingdom publishers when I started in the ministry some 50 years ago to almost 55,000 today!
I thank Jehovah that I have, for the past 40 years, had such a supportive wife at my side. “My cup is well filled.” (Psalm 23:5) Martie and I are grateful to be part of Jehovah’s spirit-directed organization and are determined to continue serving Jehovah in his house, in Bethel, and to keep up with his forward-moving organization.
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SOUTH ATLANTIC OCEAN
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Piet Wentzel and Frans Muller (left) in the pioneer work in 1945
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Frans and Martie Muller