South Africa’s ‘leper church’ disowns apartheid



Independent, Foreign News,  8 November 1990
John Carlin

In a stunning act of repentance, South Africa’s Dutch Reformed Church, to which the great majority of the Afrikaner population belong, yesterday formally declared apartheid to be a sin and confessed its guilt for the suffering and injustice caused in the name of racial separateness.

At a historic conference of more than 80 churches here, 30 miles west of Pretoria, the newly elected head of the DRC, Pieter Potgieter, stated his church’s new position yesterday by endorsing a personal statement by one of his ministers, Willie Jonker.

Provoking first a sharp intake of breath, then cheers and applause Professor Jonker, speaking from the podium, had declared: “I confess before you and before the Lord not only my own sin and guilt, and my personal responsibility for the political. social, economic and structural wrongs that have been done to many of you, and the results of which you and our whole country are still suffering, but vicariously I dare also to do that in the name of the DRC of which I am a member, and for the Afrikaans people as a whole.”

At the start of yesterday’s morning session Professor Potgieter said the delegates of the DRC wanted to identify themselves fully with the statement by Professor Jonker. He added: “We would like to see this decision … as the basis of reconciliation with all people and all churches.”

For good reason they had been the leper church of the world. It was the DRC which, in 1857, first introduced into Afrikaner society the concept of entrenched racial discrimination, ordering that the different races should worship at different churches. When the National Party came to power in 1948, the DRC actively pushed for apartheid, and provided a detailed Biblical justification for discrimination.

In 1986 a DRC synod moved away from this “theology of apartheid”, but not even Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who at the opening conference address on Monday had called on the church to repent, had imagined that “the National Party at prayer” would move so dramatically, so soon.

After Professor Potgieter had spoken, Archbishop Tutu had half his audience in tears when he replied: “God has brought us to this moment and I just want to say to you: I cannot, when someone says ‘Forgive me’, say ‘I do not’.”