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Christian Resistance to Apartheid in South Africa

A brief history, by Kim Thoday

(Throughout the history of the Church, those who have truly mirrored the life and prophetic call of Jesus have been few. Yet the few have been significant in the shaping of this world and the heralding of the dawn of God’s kingdom. Our post-age is no different in this respect. Popular and establishment ‘Christianity’ struggles as the seduced bedfellow of the dominant cultural milieu. However, in every era God raises those who critique the principalities and powers with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. During the period of Apartheid in South Africa, whilst the role of the Dutch Reformed Church in shaping Afrikaner nationalism is well-known, there was a countervailing Christian tradition that questioned South African government policies, stretching back to the nineteenth century. It is this tradition that I wish to bring to light, for it was a movement of God in a desperate hour. It is an abiding example of the exodus tradition and one that can strengthen our contemporary determination to follow Jesus’ example of solidarity with the poor and oppressed against the tide of a globalised corporatist ascendancy).

My article will attempt to show that resistance to white hegemony emerged from both liberal and radical strands within the mainline bodies of the Church in South Africa. While dissidence always remained the prerogative of a minority of churchmen, as Afrikaner dominance and racism solidified from the time of union, it would be the radical strand that became the effective heart and soul of Christian resistance. Radical Christian leaders were those whom allowed themselves to be converted by the blacks with whom they were engaged in mission. For them a new biblical imperative emerged. By identifying themselves with the oppressed they ultimately fought more passionately and deliberately against the systemic evil of white hegemony.

Implicit Christian resistance to racism began most clearly in the Cape colony, in the nineteenth century. This was a result of the comparatively liberal stance of many of the Protestant missions. That is, while many Protestant leaders remained unconsciously ethnocentric and hence, white supremacy was taken for granted, nevertheless, it was felt that not only the souls of black heathens could be saved from eternal damnation, but that they could be educated on white terms to be good citizens of Empire. This liberal attitude was also a reflection of the mid-Victorian liberal mind set that had been imported from Britain and the quite extensive contact that had existed between blacks and whites since the first of the Frontier Wars and which had been maintained to facilitate an agricultural and trade base for the colony. The everyday contact (though limited and racist by postmodern standards) of whites with blacks should not be underestimated as a pre-requisite for later resistance to white oppression. This will be an important recurring motif.

It would be the graduates of the Christian missions (notably Lovedale) whom would largely form the black elite of the Eastern Cape. It was they and the coloureds in a few urban centres in the Western Cape who were able to take advantage of the Cape colony’s non-racial qualified franchise. Thus, in the Cape, Africans were allowed to vote (until 1936) provided they met quite stringent and discriminatory education and ownership criteria. Many black students went on to take up employment as journalists, clerks, interpreters, teachers, preachers and so on. In other words, since the latter half of the 19th century, a significant minority of blacks in the Cape entered the middle levels of society; a phenomenon which was anomalous to the rest of South Africa.1 It is arguable then, that those Christian missions which were located in the Eastern Cape were responsible for sowing the seeds of a new (still essentially masculine) African, who had access, albeit limited, to white institutions; who knew the horizon of his rights under the Westminster parliamentary and legal system and who had been given a sense (at least in principle) of his worth and value as a Christian. Many educated Africans believed that Christianity had given them progressive values and a new sense of their place in the world.2 Andre Odendaal argues that it was the blacks who had been educated by these Christian missions ‘… who formed the nucleus of the new emergent political organisations,’ in the late nineteenth century.3 Ultimately, it was the emphasis of the Christian missions combined with the liberal politics of the Cape, that prepared the political ground for the formation of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in 1912; later reformed as the African National Congress (ANC).

In the 1950s Trevor Huddleston commented ‘… that the overwhelming majority of South Africans of the “white group” have no conception whatever of human relationships, except that based on racial domination.’4 From the earliest days of Afrikaner invasion of southern Africa, whites had psychologically immunised themselves against viewing the indigenous peoples as fellow human beings. At best they were there to serve white economic and political interests. At worst, they were abstractly perceived as the ‘native problem.’ ‘The native,’ said Huddleston, ‘is a problem; he is never a person.’5 This immunisation came to be most notoriously evident in the missiological doctrines6 of the Afrikaner Dutch Reformed Church (DRC). The DRC became the co-conspirator of apartheid and some critics have argued, its progenitor.7 While not nearly as debilitating, the immunity was also a problem even for more liberal Christians. The dilemma for white liberal Christianity was that while it tried to improve the status of Africans, it did not challenge the oppressive structures to which it was umbilically tied and partly as a consequence, it was not in touch with the black experience of living under a white regime. It organised and theologised at a distance, with all the assumptions of cultural superiority and Christian paternalism. White ignorance of black experience would only intensify after the union of South Africa as the social and political divide between black and white widened with the increasing adoption of segregationist legislation such as the 1913 Land Act and the Pass Laws.

Concrete resistance to the white regime came through a radical Christianity as distinct from conservative or liberal Christianity. This radical strain can be traced back to last century, particularly within the Anglican communion and also within the fewer Roman Catholic missions.8 The figure of Anglican Bishop Colenso of Natal (1853-63), is noteworthy. Long before the missiological concept of enculturation had entered the English vocabulary, Colenso was practising it with the Zulus of Natal. He quickly came to believe that the missionary endeavour was only legitimate if it protected and preserved tribal customs which were compatible with Christianity. Edgar Brooks and Colin Webb, in their History of Natal, described Colenso as ‘… a great tribune of African freedom’ who ‘… set a tradition which has never died out.’9 A critical element in the Colenso tradition was his empathy and identification with Zulus. In contrast to his liberal colleagues Colenso lived with those whom he engaged in mission; he began to take their side in issues, to see life from their point of view. He became so radical in this that eventually he ‘ … did not wish his Zulu converts to pray to Christ as God.’10 It was this radical theological stance and strategy that led him to be formally tried and found guilty of heresy. Nevertheless the tradition of a minority of white missionaries attempting to live alongside blacks and enculturate the Gospel, that is, to facilitate the expression of Christianity through indigenous symbol and custom, continued on. This attitude posed a direct threat to white superiority, which viewed African custom and religion as inferior and pagan.

Brookes and Webb, suggest that later Anglican priests such as Bishop Reeves and Father Trevor Huddleston stood in direct line and lineage to the Colenso legacy.11Huddleston spent twelve years living and working with the urbanised African mainly in Sophiatown in the 1950s. His order included black priests and was committed to the work of advocate on behalf of the black community. Identification, led the order to see first hand the daily brutality and injustice of the white racist regime. It seems that the more one physically took sides with the African poor, the more one was open to a conversion to their experience. And consequently, the more overtly oppressive the government became, the more one’s protest became politicised. Huddleston speaks of his explicit politicisation occurring in the early 1950s when he was due to speak at a rally that had been organised against the Government’s scheme to forcibly remove the Africans from Sophiatown. The police arrived with rifles and a tommy gun to arrest only one man. It was at this moment that he realised just how far the South African Government had moved towards a totalitarian regime.12 It was from a radical immersion within the political and social problems of the African experience of oppression on this occasion and many subsequently, that Huddleston and other radicalised clerics realised that the present Government needed to be broken and that it needed to happen soon. Such religious figures spoke this message publicly at protest meetings alongside the ANC and from the pulpit, many times alienating their white constituents. They risked their lives, their vocation and many were detained, harassed and later banned.

Resistance to white supremacy also came from within the heart of Afrikanerdom, although the lead was given mainly by one man, namely, Beyers Naude. In many ways he became the symbol of resistance par excellence. It was one thing to radically resist from without, it was entirely something else to do it from within. Naude was a member of the Afrikaner Broederbond and for a time became Moderator of the Dutch Reformed Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK). Many in prominent Afrikaner circles perceived his leadership and intellectual potential and predicted that one day he would be prime minister.13 It was his solid Afrikaner heritage and these impeccable Afrikaner qualifications that make him the archetypal symbol of the process of politicisation and theological radicalisation. Like Huddleston and others, it was exposure to the plight of blacks that began the process of change in heart and mind.14 It ought to be admitted however, that it is never just circumstance or experience that modifies or revolutionises a person’s thinking and living. A change of heart is also dependent upon certain attitudes that have already been formed, through which experience is filtered and interpreted. This was certainly the case with Naude. Even during his academic years, he was already showing signs of independent thought, religious scepticism, a healthy distrust of theoretical detachment and the signs of political and theological dissent.15

Naude’s resistance burst on to the South African stage in the wake of the Sharpville massacre in March, 1960. Soon after, World Council of Churches (WCC) representatives met with their South African member churches in Cottesloe and produced the Consultation Statement which moderately questioned the biblical and theological basis of apartheid.16Under pressure from Prime Minister Verwoerd the NGK withdrew from the WCC. Naude was left standing alone. He said later ‘… I was convinced that those resolutions were in accordance with the truth of the Gospel.’ 17

After Sharpville, the Verwoerd Government moved swiftly to completely suppress black resistance so as to focus on implementing its grand system for total separation of blacks from whites, known as apartheid18. From this point on, Naude would prove to be a tenacious and influential adversary of the apartheid system. Naude later described Sharpville as the moment when his conscience ‘came out of hiding.’19 Naude became convinced that an independent ecumenical movement of individual Christians opposed to apartheid needed to be formed urgently. By August 1963 he had founded the Christian Institute (CI) which functioned as a grass roots network for study, discussion, publishing and ecumenical protests.20 A month after its establishment, Naude was forced to resign as NGK Moderator and was then denied clergy status within the NGK. It is difficult to appreciate the personal and emotional cost of Naude’s decision to take such a public stand against his own race and religion in this period when race and religion were the primary determinants of Afrikaner nationhood. His resolve was especially courageous because at this time he did not know whether he would be accepted by the black community as a campaigner in solidarity, because after all he was an Afrikaner.

In short, Naude was prepared to risk everything for the fight against apartheid. This eventually endeared him to all in the resistance movement, both black and white. In the years that followed Naude and the CI were smeared by both the DRC and the Government . The CI was frequently branded communist, its staff detained and overseas funding stopped. Naude became the target of the Security Police, right-wing terrorism, and libel suits. In 1972, Naude and the CI staff refused to testify before a Government enquiry on the basis that it was not judicial.21The result was that Naude had to stand trial – a trial which would drag on for three years. In October 1977, following the CI’s vehement attack on the Government over the June 1976 Soweto uprising, it was declared an illegal organisation. Naude and eighteen other leaders were to face the punishment of the apartheid state; they were banned. Naude’s banning was suddenly lifted eight years later in September 1984.22In a interview in 1988 Naude graphically described what banning entailed: “A banned person cannot be quoted by the press. A banned person cannot write anything with a view to publication. A banned person can never meet socially with more than one person at a time. A banned person is restricted to a specific area of a city or a town. A banned person is not allowed to enter any educational institution or any place where any material is being prepared with a view to publishing. A banned person is not allowed to give any educational instructions to anybody except his or her own children. So, for all practical purposes, a banned person becomes a non-person. A banned person is simply removed from the public eye, and the public voice.”23

The CI and its leaders had been silenced after an amazingly successful 16 years of ever deepening and committed struggle against apartheid. In the years following the Nationalist victory in 1948 and the construction of the apartheid state, the CI had been the one real torch light for black resistance once the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) had been banned. Naude and the other leaders had increasingly been influenced by the black consciousness movement and Latin American liberation theology. These became important tools of biblical exegesis. Increasingly, Naude and others became aware that the God of the Bible was the God of the poor and the oppressed. Black consciousness and liberation theology swept aside the Westernised doctrinal interpretations of Scripture. The radical nature of the Gospel of Jesus the poor man from Nazareth, was being rediscovered. The situation called for a development of a black theology, that is, an African theology which took ‘ … seriously the plight of the poor, the underprivileged, the outcasts and the oppressed.’24. This is precisely what happened. From the beginning of the 1970s the CI became a place where black theology would be articulated and developed.

With the CI and its leadership suppressed, the torch light of a Christianity that had been purified and reminded of its essence was handed on to a new generation of black radical Christian leaders from the late seventies and throughout the eighties. Naude’s mantle was effectively transferred to Desmund Tutu. The radical Christian movement against apartheid had now found its appropriate black voice. The fusion of black consciousness and an authentic Christianity had now found its nemesis in a leadership of Africans for Africans. There were many other distinguished black Christian leaders during this time such as Dr Manas Buthelezi, Alan Boesak and Frank Chikane. These leaders mounted a formidable resistance movement against the Government at a time when most other resistance forces had been savagely and mercilessly crushed. It was these radical Christians who lead and kept black resistance alive and vigorous, by creating a climate of self-esteem and hope amongst their oppressed brothers and sisters.25

In having played a major role in keeping black resistance alive at it most desperate hour, the Christian resistance movement was extremely successful, although it had been the product of immeasurable human cost and suffering by a minority within the Church whom had handed the daunting task on from at least the time of Bishop Colenso. Without the long suffering commitment of dissident Christians, both black and white, the fall of apartheid and the relatively peaceful moves towards a truly representative democracy in South Africa may not yet have eventuated.

1With the exception of an Indian elite in Natal. 2The Foundation of the ANC. 3 Andre Odendaal, ‘The Roots of the ANC’ in Ian Liebenberg, Fiona Lortan Bobby Nel & Gert van der Westhuizen (eds), The Long March: The Story of the Struggle for Liberation in South Africa, Pretoria, Proes, 1994.p.3. 4Trevor Huddleston, Naught for Your Comfort, Doubleday & Co., Garden City, New York, 1956. p.19. 5ibid, p.82. 6 Allister Sparks, The Mind of South Africa: The Story of the Rise and Fall of Apartheid, Heinemann, London, 1990, p.160. A missions policy of developing racially segregated churches was officially adopted by the DRC in 1935, which was 12 years before the Nationalist ideology of apartheid was fully developed. 7ibid p.153. The DRC theologian Kuyper’s doctrine of ‘sovereignty in one’s own sphere’ was selectively used by the builders of Volk Nationalism which systematised the idea of the Afrikaner nation as being a separate and sovereign ‘social sphere.’ Jim Wallis, ‘Into the Crucible of Fire: The Church Steps Forward in South Africa,’ in Sojourners, August-September, 1988, p.14. Most significantly, membership in the highest circles of Afrikaner power and the DRC were practically synonymous. 8Huddleston, op.cit., p.75. 9Edgar H Brookes and Colin de B Webb, A History of Natal, University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, 1965. p.105. 10ibid, p.108. 11ibid, p.105. 12Huddleston, op.cit, p.72. 13Jim Wallis, ‘ “To Love When Others Hate”: An interview with Beyers Naude.’ in Jim Wallis (ed) Sojourners, February 1988, p.15. 14Charles Villa-Vicencio, ‘A life of resistance and hope,’ in Charles Villa-Vicancio & John W De Gruchy (eds) Resistance and Hope: South African Essays in Honour of Beyers Naude, pp.7-8. 15ibid.p.7. 16ibid., p.9. 17ibid. 18Beyers Naude, ‘The Christian Institute of South Africa: A Short History of a quest for Christian Liberation,’ in Ian Liebenberg, op.cit., p.166. 19Jim Wallis op.cit., p.15. 20John W De Gruchy, ‘A Short History of the Christian Institute,’ in Ian Liebenberg, op.cit., p.16. 21op.cit., p.24. 22Charles Villa-Vicencio, op.cit., p.11. 23Jim Wallis, op.cit., p.19. 24Bobby Nel, ‘The Story of a Black Theology of Liberation in South Africa,’ in Liebenberg, op.cit., p.144. 25Johan Kinghorn, ‘The Churches Against Apartheid,’ in Liebenberg, op.cit., p.151.

Blessings in Jesus’ name

Kim Thoday, Hewett Community Church of Christ, South Australia



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