The Rev. Dr. Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo, a South African-born activist who won political asylum in the U.S. and taught at Morgan State University, died of respiratory failure Dec. 10 at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She was 70 and had lived on Mondawmin Avenue.
Born in Polokwane in South Africa, she was the daughter of Naome Malope Mahlangu.
According to a family biography, she spent her teen years in Soweto and was trained as a nurse at the Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg. She became aware that black patients were treated differently by white doctors and questioned why the nursing matrons or directors were white.
As her political activism increased, she was accused of being a Communist when she challenged apartheid rule. She joined the Student Christian Movement and was elected secretary of the Student Representative Council.
Arrested and held in solitary confinement for 21 days, she was not allowed to meet with family, her pastor or a lawyer. She later fled to Botswana as a refugee and lived at a camp. She left the country and came to Baltimore in 1981.
“I was testing justice and I found it is not a myth, but reality,” she said in a 1984 Sun article after the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service granted her political asylum.
In 1991 she returned to South Africa at the invitation of the South African Council of Churches to run a resettlement program for other returning exiles.
The experience did not turn out well, according to a 1992 article in The Sun.
“She resigned after seven months and headed back to Baltimore recently, saying the struggle in her country is not only against white rulers who oppress blacks, but also against black activists who don’t have a clue about how to be administrators or leaders of a government,” The Sun said.
"I’ve learned how people behave, and unless we change from activism to professionalism, we’re going to have serious problems in governing, " she said in an interview before leaving Johannesburg.
She said an estimated 40,000 political dissidents fled the country because of apartheid and that more than 6,000 returned in the seven months she was in charge of the repatriation program.
After returning to Baltimore, she said she would use her experience with suffering to better understand the suffering of AIDS patients and substance abusers.
She joined the Baltimore City Health Department and entered a program in which she was a liaison with historically black churches to warn about the medical dangers associated with the use of illegal drugs and of the spread of HIV/AIDS.
“As a public health professional and a minister, she saw the epidemic differently,” a Sun article said.
She earned a Bachelor of Science degree at Morgan State University and a master’s degree in theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University. She received a Doctor of Ministry degree at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, in 1992. She also studied at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
She was ordained a deacon in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and became an assistant pastor at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Baltimore. Her ordination took place at Waters A.M.E. Church.
“There is more to a human being than the body and the mind,” she said in a Sun interview. "There is also a spiritual inside. I want to minister to all three.”
Dr. Mahlangu-Ngcobo was in Baltimore when Nelson Mandela was released from jail. She assisted in organizing his 1990 visit to Washington, D.C.
“She was a dynamic, bold and powerful woman,” said Ginny Robertson, founder of the On Purpose Woman Community. “I remember her grace. She was loving and gentle. There was also a mothering aspect to her personality. I was impressed at who she was as a woman.”
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She was also a resident chaplain at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In 2000, she founded Kalafong AME Mission Church in Baltimore. The church was formed to assist immigrants spiritually, socially and economically, and also with legal issues.
She was also an adjunct professor of health at Morgan State University.
In 2013 she appeared at a Baltimore celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday.
"I was waiting for this day for a long time," she said at the Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church. “I know people lost hope ... but we can celebrate 95 years of Nelson Mandela’s life — hallelujah!”
Survivors include a son, Arthur Lovey Mahlangu; a daughter, daughter Ntokozo Ngcobo; three grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.