Until a few years ago, Mondli Myeza was part of the criminal underworld, a wanted gangster with a string of serious crimes to his name. Today nothing could be further from that dark existence, one that this graduate of the Christian Bible Institute admits, nearly cost him his life.
A public benefit organisation and part of the His Church ministry, it was begun in 1995 by senior pastor Fiona Des Fontaine, with a vision of reaching the people of KwaDabeka, an informal settlement in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, with about 175 000 mostly Zulu-speaking people.
Many of them live in shacks or other makeshift homes with no running water or electricity.
Many households receive little or no income. KwaCare’s focus is on poverty alleviation through community outreach projects.
“Crime might look like the route to getting rich,” he says. “But I tell my people, don’t do it. All the flashy cars and things that stolen money can buy, will not remove the darkness that will remain in your heart forever.”
His Church, high on the hill overlooking the N3 highway in KwaZulu-Natal, is the spiritual home he says has bought him more joy and fulfilment than he can remember.
“I cannot imagine my life without the church,” he says. “Fellowship, sharing, listening and praying – these things are as important as breathing.”
Myeza’s ministry with His Church includes services and fellowship at a venue in KwaDabeka, a residential area near Pinetown, where a new church is being established.
He is closely involved with the non-profit organisation KwaCare, an outreach programme which supports families from the poorest of poor areas. He also lectures at the Christian Bible Institute.
His journey from a life of crime to being saved from the brink of self-destruction is extraordinary.
Gentle and quietly spoken, Myeza, 34, is the last person you would imagine has a criminal past. But the raw facts of his life “on the dark side” tell a different story.
“There is no pride in anything that I did in my criminal years,” he says. “Sorrow, regret, yes plenty of that, but I truly believe that by sharing my story, I might just be able to persuade those who believe crime pays, that they are wrong.”
The former dangerous criminal did not come from an impoverished background. “I was born in Ulundi and my parents moved to Umlazi when I was 6. They had the means to send me to decent schools and I was accepted at a top Durban high school. So blaming poverty – I can’t do that.”
He believes one of the reasons why young boys like himself were attracted to crime was the lack of good role models in the townships.
“Our heroes were the gangsters. They had the big fast cars, the latest gadgets and beautiful girls. It seemed an easy and exciting route to instant wealth.”
In retrospect, it wasn’t. He was expelled from school “for truancy and theft”. “I remember my class master walking with me to the headmaster’s office to receive my expulsion letter. He seemed so sad. I think of that often and wish it had all been different.”
On his way home, Myeza burnt the letter and fooled his parents that he was going to school. Instead, he was hanging out with his criminal buddies. “I tried to get into other schools, but no one wanted me with such a poor record.” He was finally accepted as a grade 11 learner in Greytown and after matriculating he was offered a bursary to study accounting at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
But he once again became embroiled in crime – everything from theft to armed robberies.w
“It’s shameful, but it’s almost as though I was trapped in a black hole and there was no way out.”
He was arrested in Piet Retief for conspiring to rob a bank. “There had been a police informer in our group and we were apprehended and taken to court.”
During the court proceedings, Myeza and one co-accused tried to escape from the holding cells. “As I was running, the police were shooting. The person in the dock with me was killed and I was shot several times. My life had come to an end. I had never thought of asking God for guidance but I pleaded with Him to forgive all the wrong things I had done and take me away, to end it all.”
But God, he says, had other plans. After three months in hospital, Myeza spent three and a half years in prison. “During those years, my greatest solace was in prayer and reading the Bible.”
Two years after completing his jail sentence, he enrolled at the Christian Bible Institute, the educational arm of His Church, where he studied for three years.
Now happily married, Myeza says he believes that young boys today, especially those in the townships, are slowly moving away from crime.“There are better role models these days, people with good education and work.”
If there are lessons he would like to share with those who have fallen by the wayside they are: “God has the power to transform lives; any life, however bad can be repaired; that God’s plans are better than anything we can devise – and prison no matter what anyone says, is not pleasant!”
Mswati’s $157m church
Swaziland is preparing to build a 30 000-seater national church structure estimated at $157 million, at the behest of King Mswati III.
It will be built in Lobamba, Swaziland’s traditional capital, which is a few kilometres from Mbabane.
Each year around Easter, the monarch joins thousands of Christian pilgrims, made up mostly of African Zionists, for services in the national stadium. He now wants a mega church built and has appointed a committee comprising government agencies and church organisations to raise funds for the structure.
The committee is led by Reverend Nicholas Nyawo, who is also the head of one of the royal investment powerhouses, Tisuka Taka Ngwane. Letters soliciting funds for the project have been sent out to businesses and individuals in Swaziland.
However, the idea has not been well received by some human rights defenders who say the focus should be on more pressing social challenges, such as education, health and the crippling drought.
Nyawo said the project was progressing well, but would not say how much money had been raised. But Senzo Hlatshwayo, a leading religious figure in Swaziland, said progress had been hampered due to slow financial contributions.
“It may take time to build the bigger national church structure, but we will get there. It took Israel 70 years to build the temple, but with the benefit of technology and this being a modern world, we will achieve our goal sooner,” he said.
Sibusiso Nhlabatsi, an attorney and member of Swaziland Lawyers for Human Rights, is opposed to prioritising the church construction, saying even though he and most Swazis were aligned to the Christian faith, there was no urgency in investing in the project.
A country with a huge poverty challenge and runaway unemployment figures could not afford this kind of luxury.
“The reality on the ground suggests this is quite an ambitious project, considering the fact that our people are poor," he said.
"As things stand, a majority of Swazis can hardly survive without donor funding. They rely on donors even for most basics with little or no intervention from government.
"About 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and cannot be expected to donate towards the project,” he said.
Nhlabatsi said the country should rather prioritise empowering citizens with proper education and skills, and support entrepreneurship to grow the economy so more people could find employment. He said only then could the population afford to contribute to such projects.