Apartheid a Sin, Clergy Conference Says

New York Times, 7 November 2011
Christopher S. Wren

A watershed five-day conference of 80 black and white church denominations in South Africa ended today by formally condemning apartheid as a sin and supporting restitution for its victims.

“Some of us are not in full accord with everything said in this conference,” the final declaration said, “but on this we are all agreed, namely the unequivocal rejection of apartheid as a sin.”

But a consensus on how to end apartheid and usher in democratic practices was frustrated when the delegation from the Dutch Reformed Church, to which most white Afrikaners belong, disassociated the denomination from some parts of the declaration. They took this action even though several passages to which they had objected were eliminated or watered-down during debate.

The Dutch Reformed delegates said that they found the conference “an enriching experience” but that they could not endorse anything that went beyond their church’s views, contained in a document called “Church and Society 1990” that the church adopted at its last synod, in Bloemfontein last month.

Their statement in Afrikaans said the delegation accepted the final declaration “as an indication of the position of most churches in South Africa toward the matters referred to and would endorse it to the extent that ‘Church and Society 1990’ allows it.”

Some Stances Called One-Sided

Other delegates had been encouraged that the Dutch Reformed delegation supported a public confession of guilt made on Tuesday by an Afrikaner theologian, Prof. Willie D. Jonker, for having condoned apartheid. The moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, the Rev. Pieter Potgieter, explained today that the synod endorsed this position last month. But the delegation disagreed with passages that, the statement said, “are stated very one-sidedly.” The statement did not specify the points of contention.

During the discussion, the Dutch Reformed Church delegation, while accepting a definition of apartheid as “an evil policy,” dissented from its subsequent characterizations as “an act of disobedience to God” and “a denial of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Louw Alberts, a Dutch Reformed Church layman who was co-chairman of the conference, said later that the disagreement seemed to be a semantic one. Denial, in Afrikaans, he said, could be translated as rejection of Jesus.

The Dutch Reformed Church delegation also expressed opposition to a phrase linking military conscription to the violence of apartheid. South Africa requires all white men to serve at least a year of active military service, which most Afrikaners support as a patriotic duty.

The delegation further took issue with a paragraph that called for “the negotiation of a new constitution by a body fully representative of all South Africans” and that asked the Government to discuss mechanisms for a “non-racial national assembly to govern in the transition until a new constitution would be agreed upon.”

This paragraph echoed a proposal by the African National Congress, which President F. W. de Klerk has already rejected, that a constituent assembly be elected to draft a new constitution and function as an interim government. These passages were deleted to make the declaration more palatable to the Dutch Reformed Church, but its delegates said they could not be bound by anything that exceeded church policy.

‘Sincere Change’ Nonetheless

“We are not moving ahead of our church because of the way our church order works,” Professor Potgieter said later, “but we think that what we have decided in Bloemfontein two weeks ago is an apt way of saying to the world that we have made a very sincere change on apartheid.”

At a news conference, the Rev. Frank Chicane, a co-chairman, expressed regret that the Dutch Reformed delegation “found it difficult to go the whole way with us on that document.”

“I understand their constraints. They have to account back to their constituents,” said Mr. Chicane, who as general secretary of the South African Council of Churches has preached a liberation theology consistent with the controversial passages.

At the last major conference in 1960, delegates from the Dutch Reformed Church endorsed a considerably less forceful declaration, only to see it repudiated by their white membership.

The declaration is not binding on the church denominations, whose delegations will now take it back for discussion by church members.