Bishops in Southern Africa to Hold Virtual Plenary Assembly amid COVID-19 Surge

Members of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) during their plenary assembly in January 2020.

Members of the three-nation Conference of Catholic Bishops in Southern Africa have decided to have their first Plenary Assembly in 2021 virtually due to the rising reported cases of COVID-19 and related restrictions, the leadership has announced.

“In the light of the current COVID-19 surge and the restrictions imposed by the State President, as well as uncertainty of what will happen later this month, the Bishops of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) have decided to hold a virtual Plenary Meeting as opposed to the physical meeting that was anticipated,” the leadership of SACBC says in a Thursday January 14 statement.

The virtual meeting that will bring together Catholic Bishops and heads of Dioceses in South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland is scheduled to take place January 19 – 22.

The announcement published on SACBC’s website also indicates that the installation of Bishop Xolelo Thaddeus Kumalo as the Local Ordinary of Witbank Diocese that had been slated for January 24 has been postponed.

Previously at the helm of Eshowe Diocese, 66-year-old Bishop Kumalo was transferred to Witbank Diocese by Pope Francis on 25 November 2020, where he will succeed Bishop Giuseppe Sandri who passed on in May 2019.


SACBC leadership has also announced the postponement of the February 7 ordination of the Bishop-Elect Robert Mphiwe for Rustenberg Diocese until further communication.

The 48-year-old Bishop-Elect, who had been serving as the Vicar General of South Africa’s Pretoria Archdiocese was appointed 25 November 2020 to succeed Bishop Kevin Dowling, the 76-year-old member of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists).

The virtual Plenary Assembly and the postponements come amid a surge in the reported cases of COVID-19 in South Africa, reportedly caused by a new mutation of COVID-19 identified as 501.V2 variant.

The variant has seen the Coadjutor Archbishop of Durban, Abel Gabuza hospitalized since January 10, with various Prelates among them the Archbishop of Durban, Wilfrid Cardinal Napier appealing for spiritual solidarity.

The new variant has claimed the lives of six Catholic Sisters from the Daughters of Saint Francis in Port Shepstone, Marianhill Diocese who succumbed to coronavirus complications “within a period of a week, from 10-17 December 2020,” the Conference of Catholic Sisters in the country reported.

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The resurgence of the pandemic, which has so far infected at least 1.3 million people and claimed 35,852 lives in South Africa saw President Cyril Ramaphosa announce, on 28 December 2020, a return to level three lockdown characterized by longer curfew hours and a 14-day ban on all gatherings including faith-based ones.

The restrictions led to the closure of churches and resuspension of public Liturgies and gatherings in some ecclesiastical jurisdictions.

On 29 December 2020, the Archbishop of Pretoria Archdiocese, Dabula Anthony Mpako announced a closure of all churches for public liturgical services, a decision he said would be reviewed after the 14 days prescribed by President Ramaphosa.

On the same day, the Auxiliary Bishop of Cape Town, Sylvester David announced that public Masses, meetings and gatherings – with the exception of funerals – in his jurisdiction are “prohibited until 15th January 2021 when the State President will make a further announcement.”

In Swaziland’s Manzini Diocese, which falls under the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Johannesburg in South Africa, Bishop José Luis Ponce de León, on January 8 resuspended the celebration of public Liturgies in line with the government’s ban on all forms of gatherings following an increase in reported cases of COVID-19.