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Forty years ago today: The Lutherans stuck their necks out

18 July 2011

Forty years ago today the Lutheran Churches in Namibia (there were two of them — the Evangelical Lutheran Church of South West Africa and the Evangelical Lutheran Ovambokavango Church) — made public two letters. One was an open letter to the Prime Minister of South Africa, B.J. Vorster. The other was a pastoral letter, read in all their congregations.

The open letter had been released to the press, but the pastoral letter had not.

Both said much the same thing, however: that South Africa had violated human rights in South West Africa, and that South West Africa must be a free, unitary and independent country.

These letters were the first official response from the Christian Churches to the previous month’s judgment of the World Court that South Africa’s presence in Namibia was illegal (see Notes from underground: Namibian turning point – forty years ago today). It was an unexpected blow to the South African government, and together with the World Court judgment constituted a turning point for Namibia.

Back in 1966 the World Court had been asked to make a ruling on South African rule in South West Africa, and declined to do so, saying that those who had brought the case (Ethiopia and Liberia) had no legitimate interest in the matter. The result of that decision was that the National Party government in South Africa went all out to incorporate South West Africa into South Africa as a fifth province. On 1 April 1969 a lot of government functions were transferred from the local territorial authority in Windhoek to Pretoria, and South Africa took direct control, even of such things as the Department of Water Affairs. The “homelands” policy was pushed ahead with all speed, and resistance to it was vigorously crushed. The World Court judgment and the Lutheran letters put the brakes on, and marked the turning point.

For many years the South African government had told Christian churches that criticised apartheid, like the Anglicans and the Roman Catholics, that they should be more like the Lutherans, who kept quiet. The Lutheran Churches “kept out of politics”, and so, as far as the South African government was concerned, they were well behaved.

So the Lutheran Open Letter, and the simultaneous Pastoral Letter, were a great shock to the South African government. It was the last thing they expected. And the Lutheran Churches together represented more than half the Christians, and half the people, of Namibia. Actually there was a third Lutheran Church in Namibia, the German Evangelical Lutheran Church, but it had nothing whatever to do with the two letters, and indeed rejected them).

For a long time the South African government had also been urging the Lutherans to split their joint theological seminary at Othjimbingue into separate seminaries for different ethnic groups. The government wanted the Ovambo to be trained in their “own” seminary in Ovamboland, the Hereros to the trained in another, the Damatra in another, and the Namas in yet another, in accordance with the concept of “ownaffairs”. At Otjimbingwe they were all trained together, and, horror of horrors, the Anglicans were discussing the possibility of moving their seminary from Ovamboland to Otjimbingwe in a kind of arrangement similar to that of the Federal Seminary in South Africa (where Anglican, Congregational, Methodist and Presbytarian colleges shared the same campus, had a joint library and so on).

The South African government was too late. To split up the seminary would aid its policy of “divide and rule”. But it was the students at the seminary at Otjimbingwe jointly who had played a significant part in the drafting of the Lutheran Letters. They had formed friendships across ethnic lines, and could see no threat in the concept of “one nation, one Namibia”, which National Party doctrine taught was the worst possible evil.

And so the Lutherans stuck their necks out, and Namibia was never the same again.

And the changes thus wrought also had an influence on the liberation of South Africa itself.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 18 July 2011 8:31 pm

    What a political tsunami was set in motion by the June 21st World Court decision, soon to be followed by these Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) statements!

    On June 21st I was driving from Johannesburg to “South West Africa” to volunteer for the Anglican Church, in a very roundabout route via Durban and Cape Town. I didn’t even know about the World Court decision and the wave of political activism that I would be wandering into at my destination, St Mary’s Highschool at Odibo, in the “homeland” Ovamboland.

    On my first day as teacher and principal, the students were already fired up, expressing it at first in the form of mistrust and hostility. (“Why are you here? Are you a BOER?!” etc)

    And no wonder their routine was to rush out of the classroom at noon to listen to the Voice of Africa on a transistor radio, to get news about the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity (OAU), broadcasted in English from outside of the country. They formed tight circles around the person in the centre with the radio, and translated the news outwards to the locals who streamed from the surrounding village and bush and gathered around the outside of the nucleus of these students in the only school in the country who taught in the medium of English.

    At the time of the ELC statement (18th July ’71) I had been at Odibo for a mere 10 days. It must have been a major factor spurring them on to all their organizing of students in the government school that followed. They didn’t tell me what they were doing, though it was obvious ‘something was up …’, but I did know that the ELC’s Bishop Leonard Auala was definitely a hero in their eyes.

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