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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Africa, Southern, Theosophy in

Johannesburg Lodge received its charter on April 14, 1899, and it bears the following names: Louis L. Playford, ChiefMagistrate of Johannesburg, Herbert Kitcher, Electrical Engineer and Lewis W. Rich, Attorney. The Anglo-Boer War also started in 1899 on October 11 and ended on May 31, 1902. During the war, the Lodge was dormant. In the winter of 1902 Playford held a revival meeting at his house and became the first lodge President, Kitcher, the Secretary, and Bell the Treasurer. Their first public lecture was on January 25, 1903. InMarch 1903, the first issue of the South African Theosophist was published.

1903 was a memorable year, for the membership expanded from 16 to 123. This rapid growth was undoubtedly influenced by Miss Pope who came to South Africa at the request of Playford and organized the work of the Lodge. In 1904 several new lodges received Charters: Durban June 14; Cape Town September 27; Pretoria February 27; and Harmony Lodge (Johannesburg).

On August 22, 1905, Mahatma GANDHI gave a lecture to the Johannesburg Lodge entitled “The Real Life” and although he was not a member he contributed in many ways to Theosophy in Johannesburg.

The lodges amalgamated into the South African Theosophical Society in 1909 (Charter dated April 27, 1909). It changed to the “Theosophical Society in South Africa” at the Convention of May 1911 and to the “Theosophical Society in Southern Africa” in 1932.

The first Convention of the National Society was held in The Pretoria Masonic Hall on September 30, 1909. The first General Secretary was Henry Dykman, followed by E. C. Nelson from 1910 to 1916 who was an important driving force and founding member of the Society. The 1909 Charter named 7 lodges — Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, Pretoria, Germiston, Pietermaritzburg and Harmony (Johannesburg). In 1914 lodges were formed in Bulawayo and Salisbury in Rhodesia and in the Cape. In 1945 de Aar, Port Elizabeth and Kimberley. The first lodge premises built in South Africa was by Pretoria in 1928.

In 1929, due to large distances, it was decided to form two Sections: the Central Southern African Section with S. Ransom as General Secretary and the South African Section with Margaret Murchie as General Secretary. Murchie had previously been General Secretary from 1916 to 1920. In 1937 the two sections became one again as the Theosophical Society in Southern Africa with L. Membrey as the General Secretary, followed by W. A. Humphrey until 1938. By 1929 there were 29 lodges and in 1932 a lodge was formed at Lorenco Marques in Mozambique. In 1934 there were 354 members.

Clara CODD, previously a prominent suffragette and very capable woman, arrived from England and took over as General Secretary in 1938. Her dynamic lectures, editorship of the National Magazine The Link and several books made a huge impact on the Society and membership increased from 347 in 1941 to 521 in 1944, when Jan Kruisheer took over as the first National President of the Southern African Section. He was responsible for revising the Constitution and also centralizing and streamlining the work of the Section.

In 1946 Eleanor Stakesby-Lewis, an architect, became National President and ran the Section extremely well for 7 years until her husband took over in 1953 when they moved to Salisbury in Rhodesia and continued doing excellent work in building up the Society in Rhodesia. In 1954 Ivan Midford Barberton, an artist and sculptor from Cape Town, became National President and during his term of office the Society was at its zenith in Southern Africa with 17 lodges and 625 members, mostly due to the tireless efforts of those who had gone before, the Stakesby Lewises in Rhodesia, the very capable National Committee and the work of the Lodge Presidents and Committees.

Mary Patterson, an American International Lecturer arrived in South Africa and took over in 1958 as National President and unfortunately died in office in 1962. The Acting National President, R. O. Hartig also died late in 1962. L. de Wet took over and in 1964 Betty Nairn became National President and the Headquarters moved to Rhodesia until 1967 when P. Scarnel Lean took over and changed the National Leadership title to General Secretary. Lean, well known as a public relations consultant and able lecturer, was responsible for re-stimulating the Society which had seen a deterioration as a result of wars in Mozambique and Rhodesia, plus political strife and terrorism in South Africa.

Roy Charlesley from Rhodesia took over for a short while in 1969-70. Then Lily Membrey, a retired school teacher who had previously been General Secretary in the thirties assumed the task again. She was also the Administrator General for the Co-Freemasonic order in South Africa and had also been Chief Knight for the ROUND TABLE for many years. In 1972 Anna Bischoff, a retired nurse, became General Secretary and remained in office for 10 years. She was ably assisted by her husband Jacob Bischoff who was National Treasurer until his sudden death in December 1981. During the 1970s the Rhodesian Lodges declined further, due to the bush war which carried on until 1980 when the country became Zimbabwe. Much internal strife continued during the 80s with the country becoming a single party Marxist state. In South Africa, meanwhile, the country was being handicapped by economic sanctions and was ostracized by most countries in the world over the apartheid (racial segregation) policy of the Government. Arthur Bunton took over as General Secretary in 1982 and worked on promoting membership in the society which had declined from 400 in 1972 to 283 in 1982. Television had been introduced in South Africa in the late 70s and was growing in popularity; attendance at lectures and weekday meetings declined as a result and so it was a daunting task for Bunton and the National Committee who did manage to increase membership.

At the Easter Convention of 1992, Thomas George (Tom) Davis, a mechanical engineer, became the new General Secretary in a rapidly changing Southern Africa, still plagued by political strife, civil war and violence.

In 1993 the General Secretary extended a hand of friendship to the East and Central African Section and attended their Convention in Mufilera in Zambia. The Annual Conventions of both Sections were then changed in 1994 to biennial to allow delegates to attend each other’s conventions in the future, as both were held during the Easter break.

Southern Africa was represented for the first time since 1966 at the WORLD CONGRESS in Brazil in 1993 and at the International Convention in Adyar in 1994 by the General Secretary, as a result of the recent improved attitude toward South Africa. In 1994, the political scene changed dramatically in South Africa with the ending of apartheid and first elections with universal franchise. Since then, there has been more religious freedom and an equitable distribution of jobs. However, as a result of rapid demographic changes in city centers, this caused an escalation in crime, serious urban decay and the break down of infrastructure and social services. In the past few years, though, as a result of severe measures by the government to reduce corruption and crime and clean up city centers, there has been a noticeable change in emphasis away from freedom to do whatever one wanted, to a more responsible and disciplined attitude toward one another.

In January 1995 the General Secretary made a pilgrimage to Baudhanath outside Katmandu in Nepal, to have a pre-arranged audience with the Abbot of the Tibetan Buddhist Monastery there and offer a gift of C. V. Agarwal’s book The Buddhist and the Theosophical Movements.

In 1998 Southern Africa celebrated 100 years of Theosophy. The Johannesburg Lodge was formed in 1898 and received its charter in 1899. The international President Radha Burnier was the special guest. The Centenary Celebrations were opened by the Gauteng Premier Dr. Motshekga. He had been associated with Pretoria Lodge for many years and was made an honorary member of the Society at the Convention.

In December 1999 The World Parliament of Religions was held in Capetown. Several theosophists from USA, Spain, Britain and South Africa took part in a Peace March from the Gardens to District Six behind the Southern African Section’s large banner. The General Secretary, Tom Davis, gave a talk on the history of the Society in Southern Africa and took part in two seminars. His wife Ann also participated in one of the seminars. The Vice President of Durban Lodge John Govender gave a talk about Gandhi and the Theosophical Society.

In October 2000 the first “All African Convention” was held in Nairobi, Kenya. During the Convention the Pan African Theosophical Federation (PATF) was formed and Tom Davis, the General Secretary of the Southern African Section, became the first Chairman.

On January 16, 2001, the new PATF Constitution was ratified at a meeting of PATF delegates at the World Congress in Sydney and handed to the International President for approval. The first PATF newsletter was sent out via e-mail on September 17, 2001.

The PATF web site came on line in February 2002. The web site was created by Herta Vasiloudis (The European Representative for the Southern African Section and the PATF) and her Son Sven, a graphic designer. They are two South African members who live in Austria.

During the last five years (1999 to 2004), the security and financial situation in Zimbabwe has seriously deteriorated to such an extent that the Lodge in Harare is not able to function. It has lost most of its members through death or members leaving the country. To travel there became very hazardous. The conflicts have been resolved in Namibia (language: German and Afrikaans), Angola and Mozambique (language: Portuguese). These countries are gradually returning to some semblance of peaceful coexistence. The first special road, called the Maputo corridor, has been built to link Maputo in Mozambique to Pretoria to improve bi-lateral co-operation and trade. A multi-lane toll highway to link the rest of Southern Africa with East Africa will ultimately go through Zimbabwe and Zambia to Tanzania and Kenya with link roads to other countries. However, the road link development will not be possible until Zimbabwe has a stable non-dictatorial and reasonably uncorrupt administration.

During April 2004 at the Biennial National Convention in Pretoria and during the year, the three Lodges of Durban, Capetown and Pretoria celebrated their centenaries.

T.G.D.

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