Facing the Challenges
Cornelia Nomvula Johnson was born in PE in 1930. She was five years old when her mother died, and she moved in with her aunt and uncle who raised her as their own. Her aunt was a very religious woman and very involved in the Methodist church.
Even after they arrived safely in Johannesburg, life wasn’t easy. Pascal recalls how they all crammed into a small apartment in Hillbrow, but how they were still thankful and optimistic. His father was a pastor, and he continued doing missionary work in Johannesburg relying on financial support that wasn’t always predictable. They believed, however, that they were primarily cared for by God and not people and they trusted God to provide for the family.
After her aunt died, Nellie (as she was affectionately known) was forced into a marriage with a man she didn’t know at the tender age of 16 years. “I had known suffering at the hands of that man, but I refused to let him break my spirit,” she recalls the painful period in her life. “I had eight children with him of which only 6 reached adulthood. I used to hide from him and kept the children out of his way.”
We Shall Overcome
Nellie finds it hard to talk about all the challenges she faced in her life, and she avoids dwelling on the past. She put all the bad things firmly behind her and prefers to remember the good. She prefers to look ahead and focus on what she still wants to do with her life. At the age of 87, that’s a rare attitude. “The Lord is saving me because there is still so much to do,” she giggles. “I made a special agreement with the Lord,” she explains. “I was abused by my husband, so, I said to the Lord: if you can give me energy and strength to give my children a better living, I will work for you, my Lord, I will serve the people until I die.”
She admits that her experiences were part of the reason why she decided very early in her life that she wants to create a safe place for women and children who suffered at the hands of the very men who were supposed to protect and care for them. “I wanted to be there for the abused women and abandoned children of Mbekweni township outside Paarl.” Nellie has opened her home and heart to strangers in need of help, caring and feeding people with nowhere else to go.
Although she’s not a social worker by training, she’s one at heart. It comes naturally to her, and she completed a course at Mosaic Training Centre in Wynberg to better equip herself for counselling the victims of domestic violence and abuse.
Never one to keep quiet about injustices, she was elected secretary of the Secretary of the Fruit & Canning union to try and improve working conditions for factory workers while she was working at Langeberg Canning factory.
During her long and eventful life, she has always been involved in the community and politics in various capacities. From teaching Sunday school to being part of the delegation of women who marched to the Union Buildings in April 1954. The march was for the launch of the Federation of South African Women. Their aim was “to bring the women of South Africa together to secure full equality of opportunity for all women, regardless of race, colour or creed; to remove social, legal and economic disabilities; to work for the protection of the women and children.”
A true activist, she believes that you need to be the change you want to see. So it came that she started the first preschool in Mbekweni in 1974 called Vukukhanye (isiZulu for ‘arise and shine’) when there was nowhere for the little ones to go during the day when the parents had to work. She encouraged others to start backyard créches as well.
Being the first Bible Woman of the local Methodist Church gave her the ideal opportunity to organise and empower women spiritually and politically through her appointment. Among her many credentials and achievements, she was awarded the Premier of the Western Cape’s Award for meritorious and exemplary conduct worth following in 2007.
At the End of the Day
In spite of all her accolades, this humble granny serves God every day. “I promised to work for the Lord, and that’s why He is sparing me for so long.” At face value, it would be easy to underestimate this tiny senior citizen of Mbekweni, but her life is an impressive series of positions held and initiative taken throughout the last eight decades, and her impact can be clearly felt today. Makhulu Nellie Johnson might be diminutive in stature, but she can rest assured that she will leave behind a formidable legacy.
Makhulu’s Happy Toddlers – 0738248515 / 021 8683502