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Westminster Presbyterian Church Belconnen

Seminar: Apartheid and the South African churches crisis

I am going to make an attempt to explain the South African situation. It is merely my attempt, but the thing that struck me having heard about South Africa here, and then going to South Africa is there are certain things that are not reported in the general coverage of the situation we receive. Some of these are specific to South Africa but there are also issues that Christians face in different ways in all societies. South Africa is a tragic situation - no ifs, ands, or buts - it is a tragic situation. How did it get there? I suggest to you that there are two important things to know about the South Africa background. I will talk particularly about the Afrikaner, the Dutch background, because the Afrikaner were particularly behind the apartheid situation which subsequently collapsed and lead to the present crisis there. So I start with two important things about the Afrikaner background.

European culture integral to Christianity?

First of all, some of you may be aware of the Synod of Dort - the great debate within the Dutch Reformed Church on the doctrines of election and of grace. There is an aspect of that debate that does not come through in the cannons of the Synod of Dort, yet it was part of the pamphlet war, the debate that lead up to the Synod of Dort. It was this question: why is it that Europe is Christian and not Africa or Asia?

The Remonstrants, the Arminians, say it is because European civilisation prepares you to be Christian. The Calvinists say, "No, we are no better than they. It is purely the unexplainable choice of God. We were not chosen because we are European. There is nothing better in being European than being any other culture. We are chosen through the grace of God." The Calvinist line officially wins out at the Synod of Dort, but later Arminianism comes back into the church and infiltrates the church. Hence, you have the position: being European, and European culture, somehow is integral to being Christian. European culture and Christianity have to be kept together. There are other versions of that same error. If you read the story of the missions to Aborigines in early Australian history, you will find the very same error. You cannot be a Christian until you have adopted European culture. That is a first aspect in the background to apartheid.

The Boer War and British imperialism

The second crucial aspect you have to understand is the Boer War. You hear things about British imperialism, and, generally today, imperialism is on the nose, and sometimes one is provoked to say, "The imperialists weren't as bad as they're made out to be." However, the Boer War was a very nasty British imperialist war. It was a war that is very hard to defend. Remember there were Australian contingents who fought on the British side in the Boer War.

Europeans had settled in the Cape of South Africa: first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British. The stage is reached where the British have taken over the Cape. Many people living in the Cape did not want to be under this British government. A lot of them were Dutch, and we call them Boers, but they were not all Dutch; a lot of them were Scots, some of them were English. They did not like the English government, so they migrated north. They established the Orange Free State and the Transvaal as independent settlements. The British decided they did not like this and the result was a very nasty imperialist war.

In that war, the Boers could not cope militarily with the organised British forces. In set battles the British were certain to win. However, what the Boers then did is what any group does in that sort of situation. They resorted to guerrilla tactics. Now, one of the reasons they could resort to guerrilla tactics was because they were basically a farming people. The men went off into the hills and fought as guerrillas. The women and children stay on the farming homestead and give supplies to the guerrillas.

Now, in that sort of war the regular armies lose. We are familiar with the standard pattern: Vietnam, Iraq What the British did was to resort to the first use of concentration camps in history. They burnt the farms, and took the women and children and put them into concentration camps. They died like flies in the concentration camps. This was a very, very sad aspect of British history. I do not believe that they set out to kill them. It is rather that winning the war took precedence over other concerns. We went to Potchefstroom on a previous visit, and the memorial to the women and children who died in the camp there is very sad. (Remember quite a proportion of those who died in the camps were of British descent.) As a tactic it works, the Boers give in and stop their guerrilla campaign. It works, but it works at terrible cost.

The Boers, the Afrikaner element, then became convinced that there was a campaign to destroy them and their culture and they became determined to preserve their own culture and integrity as a national, cultural, ethnic, linguistic group. Couple this with the idea that there is something intrinsically Christian with being European. So that was the background to the ideology of apartheid.

The apartheid ideology and implementation

The defenders of apartheid would tell you, when it was going on, that all they were doing was preserving their own distinctive culture. They claimed they were opening the door for other racial groups to preserve their distinctive culture; the blacks, the Asians, the Indians who had migrated to the Natal. In theory it was a great idea.

However, what happens is that it was implemented in a way that is very, very nasty and that counted against the blacks particularly. That was the tragedy. It is like other tragedies: the modern Jewish tragedy where a particular attempt to preserve the Jewish race, has very negative consequences for others.

The result in South Africa was a small group of whites dominating other racial groups. The Indians concentrated around Durban, were segregated, but basically managed to get on with their lives. The blacks tend to be the main victims. There were horrible situations where the blacks were put in homelands, but economically it was not feasible for them just to live in the homeland, so they had to go as migrant labourers to places like Johannesburg, to the mines; and be separated from their families, Thus the system worked only by exploiting and taking advantage of the blacks.; hence the reaction of the black community and the struggle against apartheid. In that struggle, the people who supported the struggle were largely people who were on the left of the political spectrum; Marxists and Leftists. So the anti-apartheid movement became largely a left-wing, or Marxist movement. Offences against the apartheid laws, including minor offences such as not carrying the mandated internal passports, led to imprisonment in quite horrific conditions.

The collapse of the apartheid system

Eventually the apartheid system collapsed. There was pressure from outside; it was not sustainable internally, and I think people knew that it was not morally sustainable. It collapsed, and with that collapse came a terrible demoralisation of the Afrikaners in particular, and to some extent, the white population in general. The Reformed Church in South Africa is largely Afrikaner, and due to the struggle for Afrikaner culture the church had largely supported apartheid. Hence it undergoes a sort of moral collapse. Allow me to give one example. As far as I can judge the most faithful of the Reformed Churches was the GKSA [Die Gereformeerde Kerke in Suid-Afrika], who are colloquially called the Doppers. On the whole, the Doppers were not as extreme in their approach to apartheid as were the other churches. They had a Christian university in Potchefstroom, and it was a good Christian university. With this whole collapse of morale; they handed their university over to the state. The one Christian institution of higher education in South Africa, one of the great Christian institutions of higher education in the world, was just abandoned. It is a symptom of the demoralisation which has hit the Reformed community. I spoke to an Afrikaner pastor, a good man, and basically what he said was to explain that they did it because they were trying to preserve their culture; which they felt to be so under threat. He went on to explain that now their children were asking them, following the publicity now given to the abuses of the apartheid system, how could you have possibly have gone along with it. How can they answer their children?

It was not that the theory itself was bad. The problem was in the implementation, and the unwillingness to protest publicly once abuses emerged in the implementation. I suggest to you that there are historical parallels: why was it that the German population as a whole went along with the Nazi movement? It was fear of communism. And fearful national groups, including Christians sadly, can close their eyes to what is happening. That was the tragic trap that the Afrikaner church fell into in South Africa.

Now, having used biblical justification for this argument about separate cultures, arguing that God has given each people a separate culture, the Bible itself comes under fire in the churches. Even during the apartheid years, while politically and socially conservative, the Afrikaner churches were strongly influenced by anti-biblical ideas. The reaction going on against conservative ideas is facilitating that trend. The Afrikaner church is in great, great problems. There are faithful remnants, but they are basically in huge problems.

On the broader scene, the resistance movement had been telling the blacks that once we overthrow this system, then there will be wealth and prosperity for everybody. Naturally the promise did not eventuate. So people decide to take what they feel is owing to them by force. There has been a tremendous upsurge of violence, of robbery, of theft, of murder. I'm told South Africa has the highest murder rate in the world. The government, growing out of the struggle against apartheid, has been infiltrated by Marxism. Some, such as Jacob Zuma are quite specifically Marxist but others, while not card-carrying Marxists, are on the Left. One of the characteristics of Marxism and the Left in general, is that it believes that crime is a social phenomenon - it is not in the heart of man; it is a social phenomenon. Hence, all you have to do is change the social circumstances and crime will go away. Thus the government expends its efforts to change society and gives crime a low priority.

Questions from the audience

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is often talked about as a Christian model of reconciling different camps that were left over after apartheid. Do you have any thoughts - on what might happen, whether it works, whether it fits with a biblical model?

One of the great things about the present government in South Africa, and this view is held by white South Africans to whom I spoke, is that it did not do what Mugabe did in Zimbabwe; that is, it did not attempt to take it out on the whites. The greatness of Mandela is that he was not a vindictive man. That approach lies behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We cannot take out on people what has happened in the past. Evil was done on both sides. There were white crimes; there were black crimes. Basically, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said, "Look, what we've got to try and do is get it out into the open, and then forget it." Whether that is what a nation should do, I am not sure, yet I understand why they did it; and it is clearly better than the alternative, which would have been just turning on the whites, now that the blacks are in control.

You mentioned about what was happening in the Christian churches which have their foundation in the Afrikaner community. What at the same time was happening in the Christian churches based in the black community?

I am sure you have heard of David Livingstone. At the end of his life, David Livingstone wonders if he has any converts. He thinks there is may be one genuine convert in all his years of labour. In terms of the church, and this applies to all of black Africa, there are people who become Christian, but the genuineness is a major problem. In South Africa itself, there was a development called Zionism. African Zionism is a syncretism between African native religion, which is very much built on worship of the ancestors, and a form of Christianity. You will see these people: they dress in particular clothes, they are very moral, but they worship the ancestors. So a powerful influence within black society is a syncretistic Christian paganism. There has been a certain influence of Charismatic style movements. The impression I get is that there is not all that much genuine Christianity amongst the blacks. The saying about Christianity being a mile wide and an inch deep is used for black Africa. Another version of the same opinion is the saying, "There are forty million people in black Africa with AIDS; all of them have church membership." I am not in a position to judge the truth of such claims but I suspect that the tragedy of Africa is that, in spite of the great and heroic early missionaries, the church is very weak.

Yet God is at work. While the health and prosperity gospel is influential among Indians of Hindu background because it fits the materialism of Hindu belief, we met very encouraging believers who are discovering the wonders of grace. I am sure God is at work among others in similar ways.

Dr Noel Weeks is an honorary associate and former Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at the University of Sydney. His broad background includes the degrees of B.Sc. (Honours in Zoology) from the University of New England, B.D. and Th.M. from Westminster Theological Seminary, and Ph.D. (Mediterranean Studies) from Brandeis University, Massachusetts. A member of the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia, he is sought after as a speaker and writer on many issues.

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