Reverend Charlotte Sibanyoni is pretty unforgettable. Whether you meet her in a YouTube video as she prances about the University of Pretoria (UP) campus or as a first-year in her Hebrew class, where the 26-year-old is an assistant lecturer (and younger than some of her students), she makes her mark.
A lecturer in the Department of Ancient and Modern Languages, if Reverend Sibanyoni ever does become a full-time minister in the NG Kerk, where she was ordained three years ago – becoming the first black woman to be ordained in the Dutch Reformed Church – she will be the one that believers flock to hear. She is a compelling storyteller who animates her tales with the exact words each speaker used. No wonder she says that while students might have bunked the occasional class pre-lockdown, they don’t want to miss Hebrew – “because that’s the energy I create in my class”.
Reverend Sibanyoni obtained her Bachelor of Theology degree, her Hebrew honours and her Theology master’s with distinction. And while the star student, who is now doing her PhD in Hebrew, seemed to breeze through her studies with the same zest with which she engages the world, the reality is far different.
Reverend Charlotte Sibanyoni.
Having spent some time in a children’s home, then living alone in a backroom while attending Hendrik Verwoerd High School (renamed Rietondale), Sibanyoni’s future seemed uncertain – until she got a pivotal phone call when she was in matric.
She had been secretly recommended for the R80 000 that a UP lecturer was offering to a worthy student. “That call changed my life,” she says. It meant she could go to university. “I want to do what you do,” she told the man she called “Dad’’, the late Johan van Niekerk, a Dutch Reformed minister who had invited the schoolgirl to live with him and his wife, Rina. “Ek is ’n NG dominee en ons land is nogal snaaks,’’ (I am a Dutch Reformed minister and our country is quite strange) van Niekerk used to say about how his family’s life had become intertwined with this remarkable girl’
Sibanyoni started at UP in 2013, and says she did not have a clue that becoming a minister involved learning Hebrew and Greek. And, by her own admission, she was useless. She failed both subjects in June, scraped through Hebrew at the end of the year (“I just made it, with mercy”), then had to write a supplementary exam for Greek. By second year, she was scoring in the 70s, and in her third year she got 85% for Hebrew.
Much of this success she attributes to lecturers such as Professor Gert Prinsloo, who made her write things out again and again on the blackboard in his office, which she says even thinking about “gives me a headache even now”.
She has come a long way since then. In fact, she says: “I'll be the first black woman in SA to have a PhD in Hebrew, you know.” When Reverend Sibanyoni is not dazzling her students with quizzes, which UP’s Department for Education Innovation taught her about, she is focusing on Psalm 137, the subject of her PhD. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, as we cried and we wept…” she recites. “It’s a beautiful psalm,” she says, adding that it has been used by movements such as Black Lives Matter, and inspired Bob Marley to compose a song.
Reverend Sibanyoni is interpreting the psalm cross-culturally, using a methodology called spatial reading, and her thesis will include how she, as a black person in post-apartheid South Africa, interprets it.
The reverend is empowered by the fact that many of her students have decided to follow her academic route. She is also heartened by the increasing number of women choosing to become ministers. “This is so beautiful. This is power. This is just where we’re supposed to be.”
Reverend Sibanyoni cares deeply about commemorating women through initiatives like Women’s Month. She is acutely aware of how women are abused and how the justice system fails them. When a friend had her drink spiked at a Hatfield club and was raped, she advised her to report it to the police. “The policemen,” Reverend Sibanyoni says, emphasising the last syllable, “the people who were supposed to help her, said: ‘Are you sure it wasn’t your boyfriend; you didn’t say yes to this?’ They never took the case further.”
On the issue of gender-based violence, she has this to say: “Gender-based violence can be stamped out through ongoing conversations with men, the community and stakeholders, including government. “Men should learn how to communicate and channel their emotions in a healthy way.”
She herself experienced a traumatic event and needed counselling after men broke into her house in the middle of the night. “I was alone, and they took everything I owned. They negotiated for 10 minutes if they should take me with or not…” The police took 90 minutes to arrive, noted there was no physical damage, said her insurance would cover the theft, “and my case went cold”.
“Being in ministry, not a month goes by when you don't hear about a woman being hurt – physically or emotionally,” says Reverend Sibanyoni, “It’s a topic very, very close to my heart.”
As for the path that her life has taken, she seems to bear no bitterness. Her mother, with whom she initially lived in a Pretoria suburb, now lives in a Mamelodi squatter camp. “She has always been in my life. She just had a lot of financial struggles and couldn’t afford to look after me. But she tried her best to help me.”
Others have helped her too, such as the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and the NG Kerk, which paid for her master’s. “I'm at a PhD level and I’ve never paid fees. I have walked this journey with a lot of grace.”