Reverend Dr Simon Gqubule was born on 18 February 1928 at a place near Cookhouse, Transkei (now Eastern Cape). His family did not have a lot of money; his father earned two pounds and five shillings a month which was not enough to support the family and put him through school. However, his Chaplain managed to arrange a bursary for him and it was through this that he attended a teaching college.
He attended the Healdtown Missionary Institution near Fort Beaufort – the same school attended by the likes of Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Robert Sobukwe, who he was friends with at the school and who sparked his political consciousness, later recruiting him to join the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL). He matriculated in 1947 and qualified as a teacher in 1949 at the same institution. In 1950 he started teaching in Grahamstown but his passion for the church saw him join the Methodist ministry in 1951. He attended the then University College of Fort Hare (now the University of Fort Hare), taking Greek and Latin and obtaining his Bachelor’s degree in 1956, which he followed up with a degree from Rhodes University in 1957 – the same year he was ordained a minister. This was followed by his chaplaincy at the Indaleni Institute near Ixopo in Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal), and continuing his theological studies in Geneva (Switzerland), London (England) and Edinburgh (Scotland), obtaining a Bachelor of Divinity from London and a Master of Theology from Edinburgh in 1971.
In 1960 he taught at the Lovedale United Theological School in Alice (remaining there for almost thirty years) where he taught Systematic Theology, New Testament Studies, and New Testament Greek. He also taught at the University of Fort Hare.
In 1963 the Federal Theological Seminary of Southern Africa (Fedsem) was established, which he was a member of. Fedsem was a multiracial seminary for training (mostly Black) candidates for the ministry and it was also linked to the Black Consciousness Movement, making it an enemy of the apartheid regime. From its establishment until four years after, Rev Dr Gqubule was the only Black lecturer at the seminary. Furthermore, he became the first Black principal of John Wesley College (which was part of the Federal Theological Seminary at Fort Hare) and the first Black president of the seminary. The government saw the school as a place for fostering Black intellectual opposition to apartheid and ordered Fort Hare to expel the seminary in 1975. In response, Rev Gqubule moved the seminary to Umtata; however, the institution was expelled again after only a few months by the then leader of the Transkei region, K. D. Matanzima, who saw it as a negative influence. Rev Gqubule then moved it to Edendale, Pietermaritzburg, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) where it remained for five years as students slept and studied in caravans, before moving it in 1980 to Imbali in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, after raising R3million from overseas donors. In time he became president of Fedsem, the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA), and vice-president of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), of which he was the first Black president.
In 1978 he became the first Black student to obtain a PhD degree from Rhodes University. In 1980, he was a visiting professor of New Testament at the Toronto University School of Theology, Canada.
By 1972, Rev Dr Gqubule was voicing his stance that universities in South Africa had to be open to students of all races from all over Africa to liberate both Blacks and Whites. Through this, along with his affiliation with the MCSA and the SACC, he helped fight the apartheid regime. His belief in freedom and democracy prompted him to join the United Democratic Front (UDF) in February 1988, in which he led the Pietermaritzburg branch. In addition, during the conflicts between the African National Congress (ANC) and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), he was involved in the attempts to negotiate peace between the two factions.
From 1980 to 1987, he was the vice-president of the SACC and the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), using these platforms to publically attack the apartheid government. His international stature protected him from arrest which forced the government to resort to harassment, detaining his children periodically until he was served with a banning order in 1988. He was placed under house arrest, which restricted him to the Pietermaritzburg magisterial district. These restrictions were lifted in December 1989.
He was a visiting lecturer in Greek and New Testament at Wesley College in Bristol, England, in 1990. At the end of 1991, after thirty-one years as a theological teacher (he started teaching at the age of 22), he decided to leave the seminary. He then became Superintendent Minister of the Mount Coke Circuit, followed by Bishop of the Queenstown District of the Methodist Church of South Africa from 1992 to the end of 1998 when he retired.
Rev Dr Gqubule’s passion for teaching saw him spend the majority of his retirement years involved in several educational projects such as the Masizakhe Educational Project and the Ilitha Lemfundo Educational Enhancement Centre, a private initiative which runs Saturday classes for Grades 10, 11 and 12 learners in Uitenhage. He focused mainly on learners who were financially disadvantaged as he sought to help them improve their lives the same way his Chaplain had done for him. In 2014 he was recognised by Port Elizabeth’s Herald newspaper when he was awarded The Herald GM Citizen of the Year Award for his dedication and selfless involvement in the betterment of his community, assisting the youth of Nelson Mandela Bay to prosper. He was also presented with a Fort Hare University Honorary Doctorate, a Rhodes University Honorary Doctorate in divinity, and the Distinguished Old Rhodian Award for his devotion to teaching and learning.
He also received one of the highest accolades that the country bestows – the National Order of Luthuli in Silver in April 2016 – for his excellent contribution to the liberation struggle and the fields of education and religion. The Order of Luthuli is given to South Africans who have contributed significantly in the fields of the struggle for freedom, the advancement of democracy, nation-building, human rights, peace, justice, and conflict resolution.
Rev Dr Gqubule passed away after falling ill at the age of 88 on 26 May 2016. A Special Provincial Official Funeral was declared for him by former President Jacob Zuma. At the time of his death, he had been serving as Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary’s (SMMS) First Grand Chancellor from 2015. He was greatly respected and an influential figure in his church, community and academic circles.
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