Bishop of Kokstad: Tulani Victor Mbuyisa
In June, the diocese of Kokstad got a new bishop. Maurizio Langa CMM spoke with Bishop Thulani Victor Mbuyisa.
In the 1970s, eChibini wasn’t known for its beauty. Living conditions were hard, and the area had no electricity, no running water, no proper roads, and very few schools. And in this place, near eXobho (or Ixopo) in KwaZulu-Natal, the future bishop of Kokstad was born on February 13, 1973.
Bishop Thulani Victor Mbuyisa was the worldwide superior of the Congregation of Mariannhill Missionaries (CMM) when Pope Francis appointed him bishop of Kokstad earlier this year. He received his episcopal ordination in June. It is a far cry from growing up in eChibini, but the new bishop remembers his roots. He recalls growing up in the deeply rural area as being challenging. He would wake up early in the morning to milk the cows and then quickly drive them to the paddock or grazing area. From there, he would rush home with a bucket of water for washing, before dressing for school.
His family was small and big at the same time, he remembered. Small in the sense that he came from a family of five: his now late father Sphiwe Themba Beatus Mbuyisa, mother Nomathemba Theresa Mbuyisa (also known as Nomakisimusi, which means “the one born on a Christmas Day”); and his siblings Nokuthula Mbuyisa Magubane, Mondli Cyril Mbuyisa and Nhlanhla Emmanuel Mbuyisa. On the other hand, the bishop said, he came from a big family in the sense that he grew up with his cousins.
He attended Mariathal Primary School in eXobho from 1979-85. But then his parents sent him and elder sister Nokuthula to live with maternal grandmother Philomena Mazikode Mkhize. The idea was mainly to keep the grandmother, who was living alone, company. Another reason was that her house was close to the school.
Bishop Mbuyisa grew up in a close and loving family, and also a staunchly Catholic one. “My grandmother was very conversant, and she had great influence on me. She was a devoted Catholic and a member of the Sodality of St Anne.”
So the Church played a central role in his upbringing. From an early age, the future bishop was an altar server. “This was an exciting time because I enjoyed serving the priest at the altar.” Young Thulani went on to join the choir and youth group at his parish, Mariathal mission. “Our lives were very much centred in the Church, and activities that took place at church”, he recalled.
Mariathal mission was a melting pot of activities which were carried out by the Precious Blood Sisters, and the Brothers and priests of the Missionaries of Mariannhill. “The mission became a home to us, and the priests and religious Brothers were very welcoming,” Bishop Mbuyisa recalled. “We went to the mission not only for Holy Mass on Sunday but also during the week after school for other activities, such as helping to pick fruit in the orchard,” Bishop Mbuyisa recalled.
Waking Br Herbert
Growing up during apartheid and without television at home or in the neighbourhood, the Mariathal parish house became a centre of convergence for many of his peers. He said they would gather at the mission to watch soccer games involving Kaizer Chiefs (his favourite team) and Orlando Pirates — and this meant sometimes disturbing the siesta of the religious or priests at there. Sometimes Br Herbert would scream at them: “Why are you disturbing me?” But then he would get up, open the door and give the youngsters sweets and carrots before allowing them in to watch the game.
Young Thulani enjoyed his schooling. Most teachers came from the neighbourhood, he remembered, and that made it difficult for one to misbehave. If one stepped out of line, punishment was severe — and there were no boundaries between home and school. “If the teacher comes from the neighbourhood, he will come home and report what had happened at school, and you are once again punished. If one came late to school or failed a test, you would always get beaten. This is how we grew up,” Bishop Mbuyisa said.
His grandmother was a strict disciplinarian. When he and his siblings and cousins came back from school, grandmother made sure that they ironed their school uniform in preparation for the following day. Such routine, he said, was the same with church in that they had to have their clothing ready and shoes polished the night before. The strict regimen taught him to be disciplined and organised. Bishop Mbuyisa recalled that there was no gender distinction when it came to house chores. “We all, boys and girls, had to kneel and smear our house floor using cow dung. We all had to do it.”
After primary school Thulani attended Nokweja High School in eXobho from 1986-91, but his first choice had been Little Flower High School in eXobho, which was run by the CPS Sisters at the time. He was academically perfectly qualified for admission, but there was a snag: under apartheid, Little Flower was designated a “coloured school”. “They told me that my marks were very good and that they could take me if I changed my name and surname to English ones. The fact that I am light in complexion meant that there would be no problem since I looked like a coloured.” He kept his name.
Gradual call to vocation
Thulani completed high school in Mariathal in 1992, and the following year he joined the CMM novitiate in Mariannhill. He cannot remember exactly when the idea of joining religious life started. Bishop Mbuyisa vividly remembers that as a young boy he wanted to become a lawyer.
While he was still at high school, the Congregation of the Missionaries of Mariannhill opened a pre-novitiate house at Mariathal mission. This presented the opportunity for engaging with young men from other African countries who had come to join the CMM postulancy. That was an eye-opener, because in his home village young Thulani had never met young people from outside South Africa. “With the apartheid system, we grew up as if we were not part of Africa. We were not exposed to African literature and African history,” the bishop recalled.
Engagement with the formator at the pre-novitiate and young men at the postulancy ignited his vocation to the religious life and priesthood.
The call to join the CMM was inspired by many members of the congregation through their way of life and conduct, Bishop Mbuyisa said. One such person was his former parish priest at Mariathal, Fr Joseph Steger CMM. “His life inspired me in many ways. He is kind — and I enjoyed his Holy Mass as an altar server because they were shorter than those celebrated by other priests.” As a young deacon and priest, he’d be assigned to do pastoral work under Fr Steger at St Michael’s mission. “Fr Steger is still alive, but now retired. He was one of the best priests to work under and introduce you to pastoral work,” the bishop noted.
As part of his ongoing formation and training after his first profession as a Missionary of Mariannhill, the future bishop was sent to St Joseph’s Theological Institute in Cedara, near Pietermaritzburg, where by 1999 he successfully completed bachelors degrees in philosophy and theology. He made his perpetual profession on February 2, 1997, and was ordained a priest at Mariannhill monastery on March 4, 2000. Subsequently, he completed licentiate and masters degrees in canon law at St Paul University and Ottawa University, Canada. He went on to train and form novices at CMM houses in Mariannhill and Nairobi, Kenya. From 2010 he served in leadership positions at the congregation’s headquarters in Rome, and in October 2016, he was elected superior general of the CMM, becoming the first black leader of the worldwide congregation.
New job as bishop
That job came to an end with his appointment to head the diocese of Kokstad. Bishop Mbuyisa’s first challenge in that role is getting to know the priests, religious communities in the diocese, and the faithful at large. “To know who they are, how they live, what brings them joy and what are their challenges is a starting point to familiarise myself with the dynamics of the diocese,” he said.
The diocese of Kokstad has a historical link with Mariannhill in that until it was established as a vicariate in 1935, the then-District of Kokstad had been part of the Mariannhill vicariate. Bishop Mbuyisa noted that some bishops in their congratulatory messages noted that “now Mariannhill is going back to Kokstad”.
He is only the sixth bishop of the diocese; his last three predecessors — Bishops Napier, Slattery and Mpambani — all went on to become archbishops.
The new bishop is aware of the mammoth task entrusted to him. It will be necessary for him to work closely with all the relevant stakeholders in the diocese. He envisages a synodal way, which calls the Church to remain as a steadfast listening and proactive institution. “Instead of coming with already-made programmes, I commit to engage with the stakeholders so that together we can engineer the path that we will tread on together,” he stated.
And there are times when a bishop needs to relax. Bishop Mbuyisa does so by reading, preferably law stories, listening to music, and playing marimbas. While he might not have any sporting trophies in his cabinet, he was a formidable football player in his youth, and still loves watching games on TV — now without the need to wake up Br Herbert.
This article was published in the July 2022 issue of The Southern Cross magazine
- Bishop of Kokstad: Tulani Victor Mbuyisa - September 6, 2022
- Bishop Neil Frank OMI: A New Shepherd with a Mission - July 3, 2022