“I confess” – and NGK breaks ice

The Weekly Mail, November 8 to November 15, 1990

A small miracle took place in Rustenburg this week as a wide cross-section of South African churches met to discuss their differences, reports Pat Sidley.

It took an emotional speech by a Stellenbosch academic and Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) member and a spontaneous response by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu to end 30 years of enmity among South African churches at a remarkable meeting in Rustenburg this week.

At the National Conference of Churches, attended by 250 delegates, DRC member Professor Willie Jonker confessed his guilt of the sin of apartheid and the harm it had caused. He confessed, he said, on behalf of the church and Afrikanerdom. “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 country are still suffering from.”

Tutu spontaneously forgave him.

The move caused a storm. The DRC sister churches and several others clergy present wanted clarity. Was the DRC confessing? And was the conference forgiving? Or was it one man’s confession heard by one individual priest? Did the DRC deserve forgiveness anyway?

The sister churches and some others felt compromised. It seemed too easy and glib after all the DRC had done – and the DRC had become the bogeyman of the conference.

Then the miracle happened. DRC moderator Professor Pieter Potgieter rose early the next morning to tell the hushed conference that the DRC totally identified itself with Jonker and confessed its guilt before the conference.

Anglican priest Malusi Mpumlwana had earlier said it was difficult, sometimes, to forgive, as conference co-chairman Frank Chikane had said and several black clergymen who had been imprisoned and tortured agreed with.

Tutu told the conference: “God has brought us to this moment, and I just want to say to you, I am deeply humbled, and I speak only for myself. I cannot, when someone says, ‘Forgive me’, say ‘I do not.’

Our brothers in the DRC came to me and said, “It is going to be up to us to show the genuineness of what we have said, in actions.”

But forgiveness and the reconciliation sought is not so simple and reflects the graver issues to be dealt with Institute for Contextual Studies director Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, SACC president Khoza Mgojo and many others said there could be no reconciliation without justice. The words used were “restitution” and “reparation” – but the resounding cry was “give the land back to the people”.

Potgieter was asked if the DRC’s desire for reconciliation and restitution involved land. He said the DRC in principle supported a bill of rights, but land was not specifically mentioned.

DRC sister churches, the “coloured” Dutch Reformed Mission Church, and the DRC in Africa, looked on in bitterness. The white church had consistently refused to form one united church.

“This confession means Andries Treurnicht and Carel Boshoff have confessed their sins,” said the Mission Church assessor Rev Russel Botman. “I want to hear them say that.”

But others in the gathering wanted to give the DRC a chance. Mkhatshwa and Mpumlwana – both victims of torture and imprisonment — warned journalists not to be too euphoric about the confession, but not to lose sight of the 1 sensitivity of the moment either.

Yesterday, Rhema pastor Ray McCauley said on behalf of Rhema and a number of other fundamentalist churches: “We confess that our silence in these areas was in fact a sin and that our failure to act decisively against all forms of apartheid made us party to an inhuman political ideology.

Anti-apartheid cleric Beyers Naude thanked Jonker for his confession but was not so generous to the DRC, saying it needed to address specific problems.

There was a smaller miracle in the DRC family. The delegations, who had sat separately and until Wednesday had not addressed a single word to one another were forced to talk. And they will be meeting again early in December.