Church versus State in South Africa — book review
This book was a trip down memory lane. It is the story of the Christian Institute of Southern Africa, which was founded in 1963 and banned by the South African government in 1977. Its short 14 years of existence were full of drama and excitement, which grew out of things that people often regard as dull, like theology and the study of the Bible.
The Christian Institute was intended to be a grassroots ecumencial organisation, and it began when some theologians of the three Afrikaans Reformed Churches in South Africa began to have doubts about the theological justification of apartheid which those denominations were giving to support the National Party government’s policy. That was in the late 1950s, and the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town in those days, Joost de Blank, who was of Dutch ancestry, believed that the policy of apartheid was evil, and he demanded that the Dutch Reformed Churches be expelled from the World Council of Churches unless they renounced it. The result was a consultation between WCC staff and the South African membet churches in Cottesloe, Johannesburg, in 1960. The NG Kerk representatives and the other member churches got on fairly well, and issued agreed joint statements, though the Nederduitch Hervormde Kerk representatives dissented (the NHK was theologically liberal, but politically conservative).
The government was furious, and the NGK representatives at Cottesloe found themselves out on a limb. Both the NGK and NHK withdrew from the World Council of Churches, and fell into line with the government position, supporting apartheid. Those who attended the Cottesloe consultation, and others who thought like them, looked for other ways of maintaining ecumenical contacts, and the result was the formation of the Christian Institute. Denominations might join councils of churches, but individuals could join the Christian Institute, even if their denominations had no official ecumenical contacts. Beyers Naudé, the minister of the NGK congregation at Aasvoelkop (Northcliff) was asked to be director, and the synods of his church vindictively defrocked him as a minister for doing so.
This is told in some detail in Walshe’s book. Those who founded the Christian Institute were members of the Dutch Reformed Churches, and mainly of the largest of them, the NG Kerk. But the Institute was also resolutely opposed by the leaders of those churches, through the power of a secret society, the Afrikaner Brotherhood (Broederbond), which, like the Freemasons, sought to gain control of key positions in church, state and society, in order to advance their interests, and what they saw as the interests of the Afrikaner people. They ensured that anyone who sympathised with Naudé and the others did not dare to do so openly.
Other denominations had no such constraints, and the formation of the Christian Institute was welcomed by them, and ecumenically-minded clergy joined the institute, as did some laity, mostly urban whites of a liberal inclination. The government saw the Christian Institute as a threat primarily because its founders were white Afrikaners, which were the government’s core constituency. It was a threat because it could weaken their supporters’ faith in the rightness of the ideology of apartheid.
For most of the 1960s this was the main thrust of the work of the Christian Institute; it was to persuade Afrikaners that apartheid was unChristian. But other denominations needed to hear the message too. The propaganda for apartheid grew in intensity, and was aimed at the whole population. In 1968 the Christian Institute, in conjunction with the newly revitalised South African Council of Churches, issued “A Message to the People of South Africa” a statement of exactly what was theologically wrong with apartheid. While it provided useful ammunition for polemics against the defenders of apartheid, on the whole neither the Message nor the polemics changed anyone’s mind. Many blacks who read the Message agreed with it, but said, “We know this, and have known it for a long time. It is whites who need to hear it. Take it to the whites.”
But the whites weren’t listening, for the most part, and a new generation of blacks developed Black Consciousness and Black Theology and a new determination to change the system. In the 1970s more blacks joined the Christian Institute, and in October 1977 it was banned.
Peter Walshe has told the story pretty well, I think, though there are some interesting omissions of things that I was very familiar with and closely involved in, but I have to some extent made up for them in my contribution to Oom Bey for the future, a collection of essays on the significance of the witness of Beyers Naudé for the future of South Africa.
One of the things that Peter Walshe mentions, but does not bring out strongly enough, was the tension within the Christian Institute between bureaucratic centralism on the one hand, and a mass movement on the other. The Message to the People of South Africa had sparked the vision, among some people at least, of a Confessing Church, similar to that in Nazi Germany. At the time the Message was released, several “Obedience to God” groups were formed, that could have been the nucleus of such a confessing church. But the leaders of the Christian Institute thought that this might weaken their insistence that they were not a church, and weaken still further their already non-existent links to the Dutch Reformed Churches.
I and some others pointed out that in Natal there were many black people, mostly peasants, who have been members of the recently-disbanded Liberal Party. If they were recruited as members of the Christian Institute, and encouraged for form small interdenominational study and action groups, it could become a mass movement, rather than all the action taking place in offices in Johannesburg. According to Walshe, the Christian Institute leaders started to move in that direction around 1976, by when it was too late. But he does not mention that they had an opportunity to do so in 1969, but let it slip. And some rapidly-growing youth groups in Durban were also effectively disowned by the Christian Institute head office because some in the head office, like Bruckner de Villiers, though it might interfere with his plans to form a new political party to the left of the National Party but to the right of the already right-wing United Party.
The Christian Institute did a lot of good work, and helped to stir quite a lot of Christians to action, but at some crucial points it also failed to follow up the action effectively. That, however, was not a unique failing of the Christian Instiotute. It was common to most Christian groups and organisations in the country.