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The Message to the people of South Africa — 40 years

6 May 2008

In September it will be 40 years since the “Message to the people of South Africa” was published.

The “Message” was a comprehensive rejection of the apartheid policy of the South African government of the time on theological grounds.

While Christian groups had criticised apartheid previously, most of the earlier criticisms had not explicitly rejected the principles of apartheid, but merely criticised the way it was applied.

The Message to the people of South Africa was a new departure, saying that apartheid was not merely bad in practice, but was wrong in principle. It was not merely heretical, but it was a false gospel.

The Message was intended to be a turning point in Christian responses to apartheid.

Unfortunately, from the point of view of publicity, the release of the Message was upstaged by the government’s banning of the MCC cricket tour because the England side included Basil d’Oliveira, a South African-born coloured.

For this and other reasons, the response to the Message was disappointing.

One result of the Message was the formation of “Obedience to God” groups, and in some quarters there was a hope, and even an expectation, that this might lead to the formation of a Confessing Church in South Africa.

In the event, the “Confessing Church” never happened.

One of the abiding questions is, why not?

One answer may be that many people were simply too chicken.

Many of those responsible for drafting and publicising the Message were clergy, and they perhaps feared for their position, their stipends and their pensions if they went out on a limb.

One of those most committed to “Obedience to God” was Bill Burnett, then General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches which, with the Christian Institute, had sponsored the Message.

I believe that the failure of the “Obedience to God” movement led to Bill Burnett’s disillusionment with the ecumenical scene. Soon after that he was elected as Anglican bishop of Grahamstown, and he began to plug the charismatic renewal movement within the Anglican Church in South Africa. He said afterwards that “The one who does God’s work is God”, and I got the impression that he attributed the failure of movements like “Obedience to God” to the impossibility of human beings obeying God without the power of the Holy Spirit.

The challenge of a “Confessing Church”, of course, is that one has to “think sect” (in the sociological sense of the term “sect”). It means abandoning the pretence at respectability and being marginalised, It meant that the church would have to go underground, as many opposition political movements had done earlier.

To my knowledge Bill Burnett made one more attempt, when he was Archbishop of Cape Town, and presided at the Anglican provincial synod in 1979. There was a motion to the effect that the church should stop applying for permits for things like multiracial functions. At the time I recorded this in my journal

Synod resumed after Mass and breakfast, and there was further discussion on the motion by Canon Albertyn asking the bishops to look into all the different permits that were needed for the church to do its work, and then not to apply for them. It seemed very badly worded and rather pointless to enquire into all the permits that were needed if one is not going to apply for them anyway.

I spoke, and said that we lived in a permissive society — everything is illegal, but one can apply for permits to live and work from various government bodies, but quoting Colossians 3:1-4, I suggested that our minds should be set on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of the Father, and not on earthly things like permits. I said that some would accuse me in this attitude of maintaining the status quo, but that was precisely what I was maintaining. Christians are called upon to proclaim the status quo, because we are what we are through our baptism; the status quo was established by Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection, and the world can truly be said to be in rebellion against that status quo. I said that we must also look at II Corinthians 5, where we are no longer to judge anyone in the flesh, or as the New English Bible puts it, we are not to let worldly standards count in our estimate of any man — and race is a worldly standard, and those are things we have died to if we are in Christ.

So we should not look into all the permits required before refraining from applying for them. We should realise that we are dead to permits and racial distinctions, and behave accordingly. If the world doesn’t like us for such flagrant neglect of its standards, then it must deal with the problem its own way. If they want to put us in jail, then we will go singing. When I got back to my place Bishop Lawrence passed me a note saying how much he appreciated what I had said.

There were a few amendments, which improved the motion slightly, but not very much. Eventually it was carried, with some more amendments, and Bill then spoke. He said he was often called upon to apply for permits for various church functions and gatherings, and that it was a role he disliked. But he thought his position as guardian of the institutional church required him to do this sort of thing, though he would rather not do it. He said he thought that Synod was saying he should abandon this role, and that he would be happy to do so, if that is what synod wanted. He did not personally care very much for the institutional church, and was prepared to see it crumble.

Archbishop Bill Burnett asked if synod was asking him to let the institutional church crumble if necessary. There was an embarrassed silence, and synod said nothing.

Behind this lay a whole lot of things that might not be apparent to people unfamiliar with apartheid South Africa. The church owned land and buildings, that, in the case of the Anglican Church, were registered in the name of the Provincial Trusts Board. In terms of the apartheid laws land in “white” areas had to be registered in the name of “white” persons (whether judicial or natural persons), land in “coloured” areas had to be registered in the name of “coloured” persons, and so on. By refusing to play the permits game, therefore the church could lose all its land and buildings, and be reduced to the position of the church in the Soviet Union, where the church was, in effect, not allowed to be a judicial person, and therefore could only use temples with the permission of the state, which owned them — permission that was usually not granted.

So Bill Burnett was challenging the church, once again, to “think sect” rather than make yet another empty gesture.

But obedience to God was too difficult, and “thinking sect” was something that the clergy, black as well as white, were not prepared to do. People in South Africa could talk of a “confessing church”, but were not prepared to take the consequences of actually being one.


As a missiologist and church historian I think it would be good, on the 40th asnniversary of the “Message”, to discuss what went in to making it, and what it achieved or failed to achieve, and why.

In the circumstances of the time, perhaps hopes were higher than at other times — 1968 was the year of student power, when students in Paris embarked on resistance. It was the year of the Czechoslovakian rebellion against an authoritarian state. So at least some people in South Africa had the hope that the church in South Africa could make a difference.

In the hope of promoting discussion about a possible reassessment of the role of the Message in the history of South African Christianity, I’ve posted a shorter version of this in the Christianity and Society discussion forum. If you would like to join in the discussion, I hope you will join us there, or leave a comment here, or, better still, do both. There is also a files section there, where you can find the text of the Message, and also the texts of other similar confessional documents.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 May 2008 8:54 am

    Some people would argue that the ‘Belydende kring’ (Confessing circle) amongst predominantly reformed people aimed at being this Confessing church that you are refering to. It was this kring/movement that was one of the spaces of ferment that fired on many ‘struggle pastors’ and the leaders of the UDF and later MDM in the eighties.

  2. 5 June 2009 12:06 pm

    Steve, this is a brilliant post, just the thing I’ve been looking for. I’ll be reading this a few times, thank you.

    Forgive my ignorance, but who published “Message to the people of South Africa”? Was it all Churches in South Africa?

    Wow, isn’t this an interesting question: is “synod was asking him to let the institutional church crumble if necessary”? Here it is clear that there was a direct conflict between church and state, and down one path (and would this have been the path of closer obedience to G-d?) lay, perhaps, the destruction of the institutional church. If that was indeed the dilemma place before synod, the question could be rephrased as, “Do we love the institution of our church more than we love G-d?”

    And history reveals the answer. When Jesus asks us to lay down our lives, he is asking us to lay down what we love most for his sake. And what happens when we love most is the church – can we lay that down and crucify that? And to do this precisely in order to remain faithful to Christ?

    • 5 June 2009 3:21 pm


      I think you need to recognise that there is a distinction between the church and the “institutional church”. Christ loves the church, and it is not for us to crucify Christ’s beloved.

      Perhaps I can illustrate it by yet another story, which I wrote when I was deported from Namibia — you can find it here.

      It is the state that crucifies the church, not its members. And you can see that in the story, to which I shall add yet another postscript. A friend and I are writing an article on our security police files, and what they reveal about the attitudes and mentality of the Security Police and the whole apartheid state.

      And the incidents I wrote about in that story are covered in some detail in the police files. It would be interesting to calculate what it cost the taxpayers to bring the whole weight of the state apparatus bear on preventing one little old lady from receiving communion before she died. Correspondence between the magistrate and the security police, who tried to persuade the public prosecutor to prosecute, and he refused, somewhat to their chagrin, I suspect, so they recommended that I be deported and banned instead. And all this was sent to the SB headquarters in Pretoria, then to Kompol (don’t you just love those Soviet-style abbreviations?), and from there to the department of justice, who had to type up a report for the Minister, and had to consult the Department of Foreign Affairs, and all this time and paper and manpower is costing the taxpayers money, and all this bureaucratic apparatus and activity because they want to stop one old lady from receiving communion before she dies.

      Consider that old lady — because SHE is the church. We don’t have to crucify her — the state does — at the taxpayers’ expense.

      And that relates to what Bill Burnett said, seven years later, because I went to Ovitoto without a permit to take communion to Aletta Tooromba.

      I know exactly what the Anglican Church chickened out of because I’ve been there, and I’ve seen it all in the Department of Justice files.

  3. John de Gruchy permalink
    15 July 2009 8:11 pm

    Steve, I am very glad you are revisiting the Message. I was on the staff of the SACC at the time and responsible for its publicity. I also edited a little book about the Message (The Message in Perspective) and there is a whole section on the Message in my book “The Church Struggle in SA” (new edition SCM 2004) as well a stuff on the “Confessing Church” both there are in many other places. Beyers Naude was the main mover behind the message together with Bill Burnett. Best wishes, John

    • 16 July 2009 5:43 am


      Thanks very much for commenting. I need to read the new edition of your book — it’s nearly 30 years since I read the old edition! How time flies!

      I was overseas when the Message was being prepared, and only returned just before it was published, but John Davies sent me as copy of his paper on Pseudo-Gospels in the Church, so I had a fair idea of some of the thinking behind it.


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