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Tales from Dystopia III: Theological education in a totalitarian state

15 December 2009

This is the third in my series of Tales from Dystopia posts — stories of what things were like in South Africa and Namibia under the apartheid regime. In this one I shall say something about theological education and training for ministry, sparked off by my diary of forty years ago, reproduced below.

Totalitarian states have always seen theological education as a threat, as a form of education outside their control. The story of Dietriech Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church seminary at Finkenwalde in Nazi Germany is fairly well-known in this regard. Under Stalin most theological seminaries in the Soviet Union were closed. And in South Africa and Namibia the apartheid state also saw theological education as a threat, partly because it was an independent form of education outside its control, and partly because, even though there was some degree of segregation in seminaries, it was not enough for the apartheid ideologies. Denominations tended to have their own seminaries, where students of different ethnic groups were trained together. The government would have preferred “own” seminaries for different ethnic groups, interdenominational but under government control.

Forty years ago, on 15 December 1969, I visited the Paulinum Lutheran Seminary at Otjimbingue in Namibia. I went with Rick Houghton, who had just arrived from the USA to teach at the Anglican seminary of St Mary’s at Odibo, in Ovamboland near the Angola border. There were six students at the Anglican seminary, and for some time there had been only one teacher, Dr Clifford Nobes, also an American. The Paulinum trained students for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of South West Africa, which operated in the south of the territory, and the Evangelical Lutheran Ovambo-Kavango Church, which operated in the north. My diary entry follows:

After Office I and Mass in the morning Rick Houghton and I set out for Otjimbingue, to see the Lutheran Seminary there. We stopped at Okahandja to ask when the bakkie would be fixed, but they said they could only start work on it at the end of the week. We wanted to have lunch at the hotel at Wilhelmstal, but there was a notice on the door saying it has been closed by the Liquor Board at the beginning of the month, so we drove thirty miles on to Karibib and had an excellent lunch at the hotel there, though it was very expensive.

At Karibib we turned off to the south and headed for Otjimbingue. As we drove towards the mountains the country became more and more barren, and finally it looked almost desert. In the middle of the most desolate stretch of all lies the Paulinum, but it should really be called the John the Baptist Seminary of the Essenes or something like that. All the students and most of the staff were away, so we spoke to Pastor Wessler, who was virtually the only one there. Rick was keen to speak to him about possible cooperation with St Mary’s. A plan had been made whereby some students from St Mary’s would come to the Paulinum, and after a few years a member of the staff would join them, but this would mean that only three students would be left at Odibo, with two teachers.

So he [Rick] said they would like all the students to come, and one of the teachers as well, while the other teacher would remain at Odibo to train the catechists. Pastor Wessler said that the board of the college would approve, but the boards of the churches were more reluctant. Under the Odendaal Plan Otjimbingue is to become a white area, and the seminary will have to move, possibly to Okambahe. But he said it was also becoming more difficult to get their Ovambo students down, and the government is putting on more and more pressure. It is really aimed at killing the church. The church leaders, Pastor Wessler said, are timid, and fear that the Anglicans will be the first to receive the government’s wrath, so the longer they can keep us out, the longer will be their reprieve. But I think this timidity is short-sighted. They must stand up the to government with prophetic denunciation, and say what is right and what is wrong. In this cringing in the face of evil they are deluding none but themselves. The devil and the government are not fooled by it, and God is not fooled by it.

Pastor Wessler showed us round, wearing an old-fashioned “missionary” pith helmet. It was oppressively hot – far hotter than Windhoek. The buildings are too far apart. They should be compact, with enclosed courtyards, which can be planted with green lawns. Their equipment is very impressive – they have a library, publishing facilities at Karibib, everything. They are far more organized than we are. I was especially impressed with Pastor Wessler himself. He is not timid, like Diehl, and not collaborationist, like Rieh, but sees what is right and wrong. He is a good and wise man.

We left, and decided to go back to Windhoek the other way, over the Khomas Hochland. The man at the shop, who sold us petrol, said it would take five hours. Rick drove at first, but wasn’t used to driving a small car. He changed down too late, and ripped off the exhaust pipe driving over a tree. In the end I took over driving. It was a narrow winding road through the hills. About thirty miles from Windhoek we saw a house silhouetted against the last glow of the sunset – a big house, which looked empty and somehow like the archetypal haunted house. I made a note of the location, and determined to come back and see it again. If it is empty, we might even be able to rent it or squat in it when we are kicked out of 41 Klein Windhoek Road.[1] When we got back, letters had come from Muz Murray of Gandalf’s Garden magazine, saying Ikon has joined Cosmic.  Gandalf’s Garden seems a strange mixture of the good and the crack-pot – a “mystical scene magazine” or overground free press, as it calls itself.[2]

I should add that about 18 months after our first visit to the Paulinum the leaders of the Lutheran Church finally did decide to stick their necks out. The World Court at the Hague had ruled that South Africa’s occupation of Namibia was illegal, and the South African government asked for responses from the churches. The Lutheran leaders surprised everyone, including possibly themselves, by sending an open letter to the South African prime minister, B.J. Vorster, and a pastoral letter to be read in all their churches on 18 July 1971. A couple of months later there was a meeting between the Lutheran Church leaders and Vorster, at which Pastor Rieh, the timid and cautious one, stood up to Vorster when he maintained that allegations of torture of political opponents of the government were untrue, and were simply ill-disciplined members of the security forces who would be dealt with if complaints were made through the proper channels. Rieh responded that they were not talking about “isolated cases”, but an apparatus for giving electric shocks, which many police stations were equipped with.

Students at the Paulinum had a hand in drafting the two letters, which probably shows that the government was right to fear theological education, and seminaries that were not under its direct control. Two of the students, in particular, became friends of ours. One was Zephania Kameeta, who later become bishop of the Lutheran Church, and a cabinet minister after Namibia became independent; the other was Hiskia Uanivi, who later fell out with Swapo and lived in Angola under the protection of the Angolan government, returning after independence.[3]

Within South Africa itself, in the early 1960s, some theological seminaries of different denominations were forced by the government to move because they had black students, and were situated in areas that the government had designated as “white”. Four of them decided to cooperate in setting up a federal seminary at Alice, in the Eastern Cape, near the University College of Fort Hare. The church leaders thought that there might be useful cooperation between the seminaries and the university, and some academic cross-fertilization. I think they underestimated the paranoia of the apartheid government.

The Federal Theological Seminary opened in January 1963 with four constituent colleges: St Peter’s (Anglican), St Columba’s (Presbyterian), John Wesley (Methodist) and Adams (Congregational). This was along similar lines to collegiate universities like Oxford, Cambridge and Durham in England. In a normal society it might have developed into such a collegiate university, but in South Africa the National Party government found the presence of independent educational institutions next to Fort Hare a threat to their plans to indoctrinate the students in the apartheid worldview. Fort Hare was intended to be a tribal college for Xhosa-speaking students, but the Federal Seminary had students from all over the country.

In 1973, a bare ten years after it had opened, the land and buildings of the Federal Seminary were expropriated, on the pretext that they were needed for a teacher training college, and the staff and students entered a period of nomadic existence, in temporary quarters in Umtata, Transkei, and later at Edendale, near Pietermaritzburg. Eventually land was acquired at Imbali, near Pietermaritzburg, and the seminary was housed there, though in a more unitary fashion than at Alice. A few years later it was closed by the churches themselves, but that is another story, that needs to be told by someone else. [Update: since this was written the story has been told here: The Native School that caused all the trouble by Philippe Denis | Goodreads.]

In February 1972 I was deported from Namibia, and spent the next four months travelling round South Africa trying to promote Theological Education by Extension (TEE). It seemed to me that that was a more mobile and flexible model in a situation in which the government was likely to close any residential seminaries that threatened its ideology. TEE was not important just because of the hostility of the South African government, however. People like Ralph Winter and Ross Kinsler were promoting it as an important way for the churches to train leaders more quickly than residential seminaries could do it.

After four months of that, I was banned because the Minister of Justice was satisfied that I was engaging in activities that “furthered or were calculated to further any of the objects of communism”, and so had to give up that. But others continued to work on it, and as a result of their labours a Theological Education by Extension College was established, whcih still flourishes today.

Notes and references

[1] We later discovered that the old house we had seen, about 30 miles west of Windhoek, was called Neuheusis.

[2] The “Cosmic Circuit” was an exchange group of “underground, overground and free press” magazines, in various parts of the world. We produced a magazine called Ikon, which joined it, and we received many of the other magazines in exchange – underground newspapers from the USA, mystical magazines like Gandalf’s Garden, and even a pen pals magazine from Finland. I left that bit in because it also forms part of the background to the story — the hippie scene of the late 1960s.

[3] By a coincidence that is amazing, to me anyway, I was interrupted in the middle of writing this sentence by an SMS from Hiskia Uanivi, saying that his wife Albertina Eises has just died. May her memory be eternal!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Trevor Stone permalink
    17 December 2009 2:01 am

    Many thanks for such an interesting article. I am still trying to understand the hardships our friends endured in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Sadly many stories have gone untold as dear friends pass on.

    Question: Would Namibia be a better place if the Government had promoted a Truth & Reconciliation Committee?


  2. 7 May 2011 12:43 pm

    Dear brethren in the Lord Jesus. I like your site and thank you very much to enable me to say something benefiticial to all African Leaders. Is it possible that I can get the contact details, email or telephone numbers of Pastor Hiskia Uanivi

    And for those of you who are not yet members of the Association of Church Leaders in Africa and wish to become members, please contact me directly at

    It is very important that we in Africa work together towards saving of souls and eradicate poverty whilst working on our morals. We wish to successfully forman African parliament of church leaders and who knows, we may change the world into a peaceful place. Your expertise are therefore highly required. First sumit is set to take place in Bellville in November 2011 and we need more representatives on the African continent e.g. Kenya, Mozambique, DRC, Tanzania etc. Founding pastor, Agnes Simon. 0812277890 Namibia


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