Afrikaner Cleric Asks Blacks to Forgive

New York Times, 8 November 1990
Christopher S. Wren

A prominent Afrikaner theologian surprised a multiracial church conference discussing South Africa’s future today when he stood and begged black churchmen to forgive him and other Afrikaner communicants of the Dutch Reformed Church for having condoned apartheid.

The theologian, Prof. Willie D. Jonker, who is also an ordained minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, said it must acknowledge responsibility for the sufferings that apartheid had inflicted on the country’s black majority. His confession seemed bound to agitate many Afrikaans-speaking Christians.

The five-day conference, which attracted 85 black and white denominations, the most to assemble in South Africa, was convened to work out guidelines acceptable to all Christians in a changing South Africa. Seventy-eight percent of all South Africans call themselves Christians.

Professor Jonker, who is Professor of Systematic Theology at Stellenbosch University, the premier Afrikaans-speaking academic institution, has a liberal reputation in Dutch Reformed circles. He had been invited to address the conference today on the theme of “understanding the church situation and obstacles to Christian witness in South Africa.”

Tutu Responds to Professor

But when he was into the fourth page of his prepared speech, the slight, grey-haired professor pulled out another piece of paper on which he had scribbled his confession by hand.

It said, “I confess before you and before the Lord not only my own sin and guilt, and my personal responsibility for the political, social, economical and structural wrongs that have been done to many of you and the results of which you and our whole community are still suffering from, but vicariously I have also to do that in the name of the N.G.K. of which I am a member, and for the Afrikaner people as a whole.”

Professor Jonker used the Afrikaans initials of the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk, the largest of three white branches of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. The N.G.K. has been described as the governing “National Party at prayer” because of the influence that its members exert over white politics.

The Anglican Archbishop, Desmond M. Tutu, who contended on Monday at the opening of the conference that racial reconciliation must be followed by white reparations to blacks, asked for a minute to respond to Professor Jonker’s unexpected confession.

‘Confession Goes with Deeds’

“When that confession is made, then those of us who have been wronged must say, ‘We forgive you,’ and together we must move to the reconstruction of our land,” Archbishop Tutu said.

The audience of more than 200 delegates and observers, visibly moved by the words of both churchmen, sprang to their feet, and applauded.

But the Rev. Frank Chikane, a black Pentecostal minister who is secretary general of the South African Council of Churches, said later that “confession goes with deeds.” Mr. Chikane said the majority of people victimized for many years by apartheid expected compensation for their suffering.

Louw Alberts, a white Dutch Reformed layman who is co-chairman of the conference with Mr. Chikane, said it was the first time that so prominent a representative of the Dutch Reformed Church had confessed the sin of apartheid in public.

Shifts to Black Denomination

A few other Afrikaner clergymen, notably the Rev. Beyers Naude and the Rev. Nico Smit, broke previously with the Dutch Reformed Church over its tolerance of apartheid and taken their ministries into the black denomination, the Dutch Reformed Church of Africa.

“I am a member of the Dutch Reformed Church and I’ve been living with these things through all these years,” Professor Jonker told reporters after his speech. “But my decision to do it is my own. I am quite sure that there are many who will take exception to it. There will be many who will not feel I had the right to speak in their behalf.”

But the professor said he hoped that the majority of Afrikaners would agree with his confession.