The Rev. Dr. Sipo Mzimela, 77: South African native never forgot his homeland

The Rev. Sipo Mzimela’s spiritual journey was a long one.

From his boyhood home of South Africa to the U.S., and several points in between, Mzimela (pronounced mm-zimela) traveled the world in search of a good education and God.

In 1960 there was a massacre in the South African township of Sharpeville where police fired into a crowd of peacefully protesting men, women and children, killing 69 and wounding 176. The country’s apartheid regime, which was supported by white church leaders, attempted to justify the murders as “God’s will,” Mzimela said in a 1988 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article.

“I didn’t want any part of a god like that,” he said at the time.

He fled his country in 1962 and found his way to New York where he graduated from the General Theological Seminary and was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1976 in the Diocese of New York. He eventually settled in Atlanta and became an assisting priest at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church.

Not long after Nelson Mandela’s 1990 release from prison, Mzimela returned to South Africa to help the country prepare for the coming election. He stayed on and became a cabinet minister, returning to Atlanta in 2002. But when he came back he brought a little of home with him, importing South African-made arts and crafts to sell in metro Atlanta.

“He had a true global Christian heart,” said Harriet Kay, a member of the church. “His essence was based in a true, profound love and respect for others.”

The Rev. Dr. Sipo Elijah Mzimela, of Decatur, died Saturday from complications of pneumonia. He was 77.

His body was cremated by A.S. Turner and Sons, and a memorial service is scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday at St. Bartholomew’s.

Born before apartheid laws were imposed, Mzimela was educated by Christian missionaries as a boy. He went on to the University of South Africa, earning a degree that enabled him to teach, before leaving the country because of political pressure.

While in exile from South Africa, Mzimela took refuge in Zambia and Tanzania. He moved to then-Czechoslovakia where he studied revolutionary training and later to western Germany, where he earned a master’s degree in business administration. He lived in New York for 10 years and served as the African National Congress representative to the United States and the United Nations and earned a doctorate from New York University.

Mzimela came to Atlanta in the late 1980s, drawn by old friends from South Africa, he told a reporter in 1988. Through his work at St. Bartholomew’s, he met Gail DeCosta, a business consultant, and they married in 1989. A second marriage for both, they had no children together but blended their existing families.

Mzimela’s return to South Africa in 1994 was politically motivated. The Inkatha Freedom Party, of which he was a member, asked him to assist in drafting the new South African constitution, DeCosta said.

“He agreed because this is what he’d been fighting for all of his life,” his wife said. “There was still a lot of fighting among the black political parties and he was very instrumental in bringing those parties into agreement, really at the last minute.”

Not long after his return from South Africa, Mzimela and DeCosta became the guardians for one of their granddaughters.

“Sipo had seen so many horrible things in the world, but he still believed in good,” said Margaret Hylton Jones, a member of St. Bartholomew’s. “That is part of why he stood out among others.”

In addition to his wife and granddaughter, Mzimela is survived by two daughters, a stepdaughter and seven grandchildren.