Churchmen atone for apartheid sins

Churchmen atone for apartheid sins

The Guardian, London, Thursday November 8, 1990
Dutch Reformed delegates apologize to South Africa
David Bereford In Johannesburg

There were emotional scenes at a South African church conference yesterday as leading clerics indulged in breast-beating over the iniquities of apartheid and a tearful reconciliation with those held responsible for the system.

The conference, at the town of Rustenburg in the north· western Transvaal, heard – and after much theological debate accepted – a “confession of sin” from the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK; Dutch Reformed Church) for its role in the apartheid system.

The moment held considerable piquancy, because in effect it represented the first “apology” for apartheid from the white ruling establishment. The NGK is often referred to as the ruling National Party at prayer. The party’s politicians resolutely refuse to concede they have anything to apologize for over apartheid – dismissing it merely as a failed experiment. But its churchmen tend to lead the way.

The NGK’s confession was initially offered on Tuesday by a prominent Afrikaans theologian, Professor Willie Jonker of Stellenbosch University. He told the 250 delegates, representing some 80 churches, that he confessed to “sin and guilt” and “responsibility for the political, social, economic and structural wrongs” done to South Africa.

He said the apology was made on behalf of the Dutch Reformed Church “and for the Afrikaner people as a whole”. He was entitled to do so “because the Church at its latest synod has declared apartheid a sin and confessed its own guilt of negligence in not warning against it long ago.”

The validity of the confession was disputed overnight, when it was established that Mr Jonker was not a member of the NGK delegation and the Church was not a party to the confession. Yesterday morning, however, the Church’s moderator, Professor Pieter Potgieter, took the floor to announce: “The delegates of the NGK want to state unambiguously that we fully identity ourselves with the statement of Professor Jonker.”

The confession was accepted in a tearful sermon by the Anglican primate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “God has brought us to this moment,” he said. “I cannot, when someone says, ‘forgive me’, say I do not.”

Racial reconciliation is also proceeding in the educational field, as state schools line up to take advantage of a government offer allowing them to declare themselves multiracial provided they get overwhelming support from parents.

The load has been taken by the traditionally liberal Cape Province, where 32 schools have voted to open to all races. A handful or schools in the other three provinces have voted. Only one – a primary school in Zululand – has failed, by a single vote, to reach the required 72 per cent “yes” vote by parents.

Another 225 schools around the country have decided to poll parents on the issue. But liberal politicians have bitterly criticized the entire scheme, on the grounds that the government has made it unnecessarily difficult for schools to opt for multi racialism.

Meanwhile, South African police said yesterday that two whites had been arrested in connection with random attacks on blacks in the Transvaal town of Potchefstroom and would be charged with attempted murder, armed robbery and assault.

Another four blacks were reported killed in “unrest” around the country. But the township of Bekkersdal near Johannesburg – where more than 20 have died during the past week in fighting between supporters of the African National Congress and the Black Consciousness Movement – was quiet after the government imposed an overnight curfew.

The ruling National Party won a notable victory over right wing extremism yesterday, when it trounced the conservative Party in an important parliamentary by-election at Randburg, near Johannesburg. It held the seat with 10,882 votes, against 1,967 for the Conservatives, who lost their deposit.

The Conservatives had claimed that the campaign would be a mini referendum on the reform policies of President FW de Klerk and that their victory would force him to hold a general election.