South African churches unite against apartheid

The Baltimore Sun, 8 November 1990
Jerelyn Eddings

South Africa’s major Christian churches, as deeply divided over the years as its political institutions, took the unprecedented step yesterday of uniting in opposition to apartheid and denouncing it as a sin.

But in a demonstration of the differences that still divide the churches and their constituencies, the Dutch Reformed Church immediately disassociated itself from parts of a statement issued at the end of the historic conference.

The action came at the close of a five-day meeting of church leaders representing millions of South Africans, including whites who staunchly supported the government’s racial policy and blacks who suffered harassment and persecution because they fought against it.

“The very fact that we have met is for me an important one,” said Frank Chikane, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches and a prominent anti-apartheid figure.

“We have met. We have listened to one another. They have found it difficult to go the whole mile with us on the document . . . but I feel we’ve started a process, and I’m just hoping that the Dutch Reformed Church can move ahead and be with us.”

The process that began Monday included a dramatic confession of guilt by a leading theologian of the Dutch Reformed Church, who was later supported by the church’s top official.

“I confess before you and before the Lord, not only my own sin and guilt, but 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 from,” said Willie Jonker, a minister and professor of theology at Stellenbosch University.

The Rev. Pieter Potgieter, the church official, said he and his entire delegation “fully identify with the statement of Professor Jonker.” Such a confession, issued to a multiracial audience dominated by opponents of apartheid, was a major leap for the church that gave apartheid its moral foundation.

But the Dutch Reformed Church delegates had trouble with the conference statement that called for a political system that gives everyone an equal voice, or “one-person, one-vote.”

The statement also called on the church to “work for the return of all land expropriated from re-located communities to its original owners.”

Under the apartheid system, entire communities were moved to achieve the government’s ideal of separate areas for blacks, whites, Indians and “coloreds,” or people of mixed race. In the process, blacks lost homes and land and were removed to crowded townships, where they lived in government-owned housing.

Anti-apartheid delegates to the church meeting said repeatedly that an important element of any reconciliation between the former victims and former beneficiaries of apartheid would be a redistribution of the land and other wealth that was reserved by law for whites.

“There are certain political issues on which we had difficulty,” Mr. Potgieter said after the conference. “We had to say we are not exactly in line with them.”