When he was 14, Peter Makapela and his cousin Xolani joined scores of other schoolchildren in Cape Town, South Africa, to protest miserable conditions in the area’s schools for Black children.
It was 1989, the height of public resistance to South Africa’s racist apartheid regime that brutally oppressed the country’s Black population. Under apartheid, the 10% of the country’s population that was white controlled everything, depriving Blacks, who made up almost 80% of the population, of political, social and economic power.
Black children, especially in rural areas, were forced into crowded one-room schools that lacked books, trained teachers and equipment. Peter, industrious and smart, resented his white peers who faced none of those problems in their schools, and he chafed at the obvious injustice he saw all around him.
Peter was excited to find at least 100 other Black kids and teens, many wearing their school uniforms, when he and Xolani arrived at the protest site. But his excitement quickly turned to fear as he watched police armed with rifles and clubs begin to encircle the protesters with barbed wire. Suddenly, several ear-splitting shots rang out and a cloud of gas enveloped the group.
Peter coughed and gasped for breath, panicking and confused. Others began shrieking, “Pepper spray!” Children began darting in every direction, seeking clean air but finding only barbed wire. Peter and Xolani lost each other in the crazed crowd as they ran in circles, desperately scanning the fence to find a way out. Peter saw others running toward a narrow opening through the smoke, but policemen were lined up to club anyone who broke out of the barbed wire.
“I don’t want to get beaten; there’s got to be another way out,” Peter thought. He turned and decided his only way of escape was over the 5-foot barbed-wire fence. Driven by adrenaline, Peter rushed toward the fence and jumped. He almost cleared it, but his pant leg got caught on the wire as he descended, leaving him hanging upside down, helpless.
A policeman ran to Peter and yanked him down by his arm, leaving Peter screaming in pain. Writhing on the ground, Peter looked up at the fence and realized a chunk of flesh from his leg was hanging there.
As he began to go into shock, he heard a shot and felt a body collapse on top of him. Warm blood ran over Peter, who gasped for air and crawled from underneath the body of an old man who had been fatally shot by the police.
Peter passed out. When word of the violence spread, harried relatives raced to every clinic and hospital searching for Peter and Xolani. Although they found Xolani, they could not find Peter. Peter’s mother returned home and donned mourning clothes, believing her son had been killed.
They eventually found Peter in another hospital, where he stayed for some time. Because of the injury, Peter could not go to school for four months. In extreme pain and suffering from chronic nightmares, Peter kept replaying the brutal scene in his mind.
“There never was enough to eat in the three-room shack he shared with his mother and three siblings and 14 other extended family members.”
“I hate white people,” he thought. “They’re very bad people. I’ll hate them until the day I die.”
Born in a rural village in rural Eastern Cape, Peter had been abandoned by his father, and his mother had left her young son to be raised by his grandparents while she moved to Cape Town to work. Peter was one of several grandkids who lived in a rondoval, a round, one-room mud-brick hut common in the South African countryside. Every night, his grandparents would call the kids to the adjoining kitchen hut and read the Bible and have a church service before their meal, which often was just a bowl of pap, a low-nutrition starch similar to grits.
When Peter was 12, he went to live in Cape Town with his mother, who earned a modest living selling vegetables from a cart. Peter initially struggled to adjust to the hustle and bustle of a big city, and to life with aunts and uncles who seemed always to be drinking. Meal-time sermons ceased, and Peter’s biblical instruction faded. Although many things about his new life were different, the grinding poverty remained the same. There never was enough to eat in the three-room shack he shared with his mother and three siblings and 14 other extended family members.
Life in the city also made it easier to see the effects of apartheid: segregated neighborhoods and transportation, no voting rights, mandatory identification passes, limited employment and education opportunities. Peter chafed against the blatant racism, and his injury only fueled his inner fire.
Although Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and apartheid officially was dismantled by 1991, political and social unrest still rocked the country. And anger still filled Peter’s heart. “I was the first to take a stone and throw it at white people,” Peter said. He began drinking heavily, spending all his free time playing soccer.
One day a white woman passed by Peter’s home. Few white people other than police ever came to the area, and Peter was intrigued. He began following her out of curiosity, and she soon introduced herself as Laura Haas, a British missionary who had come to the neighborhood to pass out food parcels, tutor local children, and spend time with families.
From that day, Peter would sit with her and listen to her talk about Jesus, and he would tell her about his life.
As he got to know Laura, Peter’s anger began to cool.
“That white woman — she’s not like the others,” Peter thought. “I thought all white people were mean and bad, but maybe I was wrong. This one says she loves Jesus; maybe the nice ones are the ones who say that.”
“I thought all white people were mean and bad, but maybe I was wrong.”
Peter began to apply himself in school with a new vigor, eventually passing an important exam that allowed him to go to college. Working long hours at a grocery store to pay tuition and other expenses, Peter often went without food and slept only a few hours per night.
One Saturday, Peter ran from his grocery store shift to catch the very end of a sermon at a church camp he had been invited to visit. He opened the doors to find the crowd crying and lifting their hands as they praised Jesus.
“What happened? What did I miss?” Peter asked a friend.
“The pastor just preached about how Jesus is the way the truth and the life, and that Jesus must be in your heart,” his friend replied. He proceeded to tell Peter all he could remember about the pastor’s sermon, and the secondhand recap led Peter through the Holy Spirit to trust in Jesus as Savior.
He walked to a corner and prayed and cried, “Jesus, I need you in my heart!”
“I was a changed person,” Peter recalls of that evening. “There was such joy in my heart! I wanted everyone to receive this Jesus and feel what I was feeling.”
He became involved in church and the young adult ministry, even preaching while on church mission trips. Pastor Siegfried Ngubane took Peter under his wing and began mentoring him, becoming the father figure Peter had craved.
The pastor helped Peter get into a Bible college, where he spent the next three years, thrilled finally to be getting an education in the subject he was the most passionate about: Jesus.
Peter graduated in 2004 and eventually returned to serve at a church in his old township. He married Pastor Ngubane’s niece, Mpumi, in 2006, and the couple has three daughters. “I became the father I wished I had when I was growing up. I love being a parent, and I love my daughters,” Peter explained.
Soon after his marriage, Peter had the chance to start a new church in Nomzamo in Strand, South Africa, a 60,000-person community near Cape Town. Peter and Mpumi and a few others went door to door, inviting the community to the new Christ Church Strand.
“We had no strategy, no help, little funding and no connections,” Peter said. “We just trusted God. By God’s grace we received a piece of land that someone was kind enough to purchase for us. We installed a small shack and had crates for chairs. There were no toilets and no electricity. We were the only church in the area. In 2007, we had seven people come to our church. In 2008, our attendance increased by 100% — seven more!”
“I want you to really see how people live in this community.”
One day in 2010, Peter was approached by a health care worker who treated people with diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV and AIDS. “Pastor Peter,” she said, “I would love for you to come with me on my home visits. I want you to really see how people live in this community.”
Peter agreed. As he entered people’s homes, Peter began to really see the hidden lives of the community he was trying to reach for God. “I could see for myself that there was no food in the homes. People can’t take medications unless there is food to accompany it. And a lot of people take medication for HIV/AIDS. I knew we had to address this issue of food insecurity. We needed to be a church that met real needs.”
At that point, about 30 people were attending Peter’s church, and most of them were low-paid domestic workers who also lived hand-to-mouth. Peter asked them to bring whatever they had in their home to help the less fortunate.
“They brought the small bits of food they could and we made soup with it, and that’s how we started our soup kitchen,” Peter explained. “We continued to do that for the whole month. And now, that small soup kitchen has expanded to four feedings per week in two locations serving a hundred people.”
Today, about 100 people attend Christ Church Strand on any given Sunday, and several community groups are held in homes. The church now offers multiple programs in addition to the soup kitchen as it works to improve the lives of people in the community.
In 2012, Christ Church Strand opened a Monday-through-Friday preschool for working parents. About 75 children attend the all-day school, which employs five staff members and provides breakfast and lunch for all the children.
The church’s preschool is one of only two in the area, Peter said, and it offers multiple benefits to so many families. “Kids are so glad to be fed at our church because some of the kids know they won’t eat for the weekend,” he said.
The church also offers after-school programs and sleep-away camp for kids and teenagers. More than 100 youngsters who want to learn more about Jesus make up the church’s youth department.
“In our community, we have a challenge to keep kids out of trouble,” Peter said. “Most kids live with single parents who commute to jobs far away. Our aim is to influence them to turn to God. We teach life skills because they come from backgrounds where these things are not encouraged.”
Peter and the church also have been trying to help community members get jobs — the 2022 unemployment rate in the township currently stands at 43%. He has fostered a sewing school at the church and paid for driving lessons for several individuals so they can work as truck drivers. The church is constantly looking for funding so it can help more community members obtain skills for employment.
“He knows his country also still bears the scars of apartheid and racism.”
Pastor Peter Makapela still has a deep scar where his flesh was ripped off his body when he was 14, and he knows his country also still bears the scars of apartheid and racism. But he no longer believes anger can bring about change or topple the walls of division. Today, he believes there is only one answer: Jesus Christ.
“By the grace of God, when I came to know Christ my heart was radically transformed,” he explained. “Because it is impossible when one has received the grace of God to continue walking around with hatred. It’s impossible when one has received the grace of God to continue being a racist.”
One of Peter’s favorite hymns was written by a faith hero of the past, Xhosa Rev. Tiyo Soga, who in 1856 became the first Black South African ordained as a minister.
“Lizalis’ idinga lakho says that all nations and all races must be saved, all knees in this world and all tongues will proclaim your glory,” Peter said. “The truth that Soga wrote about was true then and is true now: One day all races will declare the glory of the Lord, not just white or Black, all of us. And in our own small corner of the world, Christ Church Strand is trying to influence our land for Jesus Christ.”
Christina Ray Stanton wrote an award-winning book about surviving the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Out of the Shadow of 9-11: An Inspiring Tale of Escape and Transformation. Her faith articles have appeared in numerous publications all over the world. She also is the author of Faith in the Face of COVID-19: A Survivor’s Tale.