Tales from Dystopia IX: SACC Consultation on Racism 11-14 February 1980
At the beginning of 1980 I was asked to be one of four representatives of the Anglican Church (then known as the Church of the Province of South Africa, or CPSA) at a consultation on racism being organised by the South African Council of Churches at Hammanskraal, about 50 km north of Pretoria.
What follows is not a historical account of the consultation, but rather one person’s point of view on it. I’m posting it here partly as a link to the preceding posts which are part of a conversation on racism, and partly because it is a historical event that caused some puzzlement to people who weren’t there (and even to many who were). Klippies Kritzinger, of the Missiology Department at Unisa, mentioned it in one of the study guides in his course, because one of the results of the consultation was an ultimatum about the formation of a Black Confessing Church, which never came into being. In relation to the preceding posts about racism, the Consultation helped to confirm for me some of the ideas I already had about racism, and to refine them. It was four days of sustained discussion of racism among Christians of different backgrounds and experience.
When I was asked to attend the consultation, I was Director of Training for Ministries in the Anglican diocese of Zululand, living in Melmoth, and responsible for arranging training meetings for self-supporting clergy, and post-ordination training for church-supported clergy. I had been asked to do that by the Bishop, Lawrence Zulu, who had himself previously been a lecturer at the Federal Theological Seminary in Alice.
I mention this because one of the things that the Consultation gave me a new insight into was the nature of interdenominational discourse. People talked past each other because they had little understanding of each other’s context and experience. Methodists, for example spoke from the experience of a connexional church, where everything important was decided by a conference that sat like a great octopus waiting to devour its victims. The conference was impersonal. You could address it, but you couldn’t talk to it. Anglicans, however, had different experiences based on which diocese they were in. Authority was personal, in that it was represented by a bishop with a human face that you could talk to rather than a conference which wasn’t there when the meeting was over.. Some of the things that Methodists said about authority in the church were incomprehensible to Anglicans, who did not experience that degree of bureaucratic centralism – and vice versa. And the experience of Anglicans differed from diocese to diocese. I came from Zululand, where 95% of the clergy and 99% of the laity were black. And so at this Consultation it became clear that people had different concerns based on their denominational structures and experience. Lutherans were concerned about “pastors” and “missionaries”, Methodists about centralised structures, Dutch Reformed about “older” and “younger” churches, and so on.
When I was asked to attend the Consultation I was told that its purpose was to evaluate the World Council of Churches’ Programme to Combat Racism (WCC PCR) after 10 years. Such consultations were being held throughout the world, arranged by regional councils of churches at the request of the WCC. The Programme to Combat Racism (PCR) had been controversial in South Africa because, among other things, it had a “Special Fund” that made financial grants to movements engaged in guerrilla warfare, including the ANC and PAC of South Africa. At the time the South African Prime Minister, B.J. Vorster, had demanded that the South African denominations that were members of the WCC should resign from that body. We were told that the activities of the PCR were far wider than the Special Fund, but in the event we were never told what the activities of the PCR were. We were therefore in no position to evaluate them, nor were we asked to do so. The group of SACC staff who organised the Consultation organised it as a general discussion of racism in South Africa, with no reference to the PCR. If I had known that, I would have prepared for it quite differently, and so, I suspect, would others who attended. I knew little about the PCR, so waited to be given information before discussing it, but the information was not forthcoming. But we all had experience of racism, and if I had known that is was going to be a general discussion I would have tried to discuss it with others in Zululand before going, to get their opinions.
So I drove the 500 km to Hammanskraal, arriving on the afternoon of 11 February 1980, and registered for the consultation, and was given a huge wad of papers to read, which I started to do before tea.
At tea I met John Warden, another Anglican representative, from the Anglican Diocese of Pretoria, who like me was disturbed that there was no information at all provided about the World Council of Churches’ Programme to Combat Racism, apart from the Special Fund. I was concerned that one could not evaluate something about which one had no information, and that we were therefore wasting our time. John said that we were always told that the Programme to Combat Racism was “far wider” than the Special Fund, but in fact nobody knew anything about it, but always spoke of the Special Fund, and it seemed that the Special Fund tail was wagging the dog of the rest of the Programme, though John suspected that there was nothing there, and that in fact the whole thing was a blind.
We got together after tea, and Dan Vaughan, a staff member of the SA Council of Churches, said that the evening would be free for study of papers, but most work would be done in groups, and I was to be a group leader. I didn’t want to be. The group leaders were to meet after supper, which meant that there would be far less time to try to digest the material.
So we met to discuss after supper, and I suggested that people should be free to choose which groups they wanted to be in, to discuss whatever subjects interested them, but that was turned down on the grounds that there was a lot of work to get through, and everyone might choose the same group. As a “group leader” I at least was able to choose, and so I chose to be in the group that was discussing manifestations of racism in the church on the first day, and structures and membership of the church on the second. Other groups were to discuss racism in politics, in industry, in education and various other facets of society.
I thought that the decision to allocate people to groups in advance was a bad one. They could have asked everyone to sign up for the things that interested them, and if the result was unbalanced, then ask those who had a second choice to move to one of the groups that was too small. Arbitrary allocation of people to groups meant that someone with valuable knowledge or expertise in one area might not be able to contribute, because they were stuck in a group dealing with a topic that did not interest them and that they knew nothing about.
I chose the group dealing with racism in the church because it seemed to be the most practically useful one. The churches were powerless in most of the other areas, which were entirely beyond their control and they could only hope to influence indirectly. All we could really do would be to pass resolutions “deploring” racism “in the strongest possible terms” (though the strongest terms never actually appeared in such resolutions). In the group dealing with racism in the church it would not only be possible to identify instances and examples of racism, but to try to come up with practical ways of countering or eliminating racism. The ball was in our court. When it came to politics, however, the churches were relatively power-less. The government called the shots, and even discussing it was probably illegal in terms of the Improper Interference Act. We could conceivably have called on members of the church to engage in massive civil disobedience campaigns, but since racism was rife in the church itself the response to that would probably have been zero.
I asked how we could evaluate the Programme to Combat Racism when there was no information on the Programme available to us, and was told that it was available in that among the papers was a copy of an article by Albert van den Heuvel, which mentioned it. I went to my room and tried to read some of the material, but then John Warden came in and talked for a while. He seemed very uptight about it all, and while I had similar misgivings to his about many aspects of this consultation, I saw no reason to get so uptight and threaten to walk out and go home, but perhaps that was because my home was further away than his.
Then in walked Chris Aitken, the General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church. I was at school with him at St Stithians, where we started in 1953, and hadn’t seen him since he left in 1957.Another one who dropped in was Jimmy Palos, who said he is joining the Council of Churches staff. He said he had met me at Rhodes 12 years ago, but I did not remember meeting him. He seemed a bit unaware of what was happening
The next morning, Tuesday 12 February, I woke up at 5:00, and prayed for the consultation, and read some of the papers. After breakfast we had a Bible study by Stanley Mokgoba, which was a very good analysis of racism from a biblical and theological point of view. He asked why black Christians found themselves more at home with black heathen than with white fellow-Christians and vice versa. He based it on Galatians.
Then John Rees, the former general secretary of the South African Council of Churches and now of the Institute of Race Relations, spoke, and said he did not like the Programme to Combat Racism giving money to guerrilla movements because he regarded that as “tokenism”.
After tea we divided into groups to discuss manifestations of racism in the church. We had a couple of SACC staffers in our group — Ann Hughes, who works for the Dependants Conference, and James Madiba, of the Choir Resources project. Church representatives were David Mosoma, of the Tsonga Presbyterian Church; Brian Jansen, of the Lutheran Church; Ben Ngidi, of the Congregational Church, and Maredi Cheou, a businessman, also of the Lutheran Church.
We divided church activities into various headings, to see how racism is manifested. Ministry – Appointments & Salaries: In general, race is a factor in the appointment of pastors. In salaries, there was generally the same minimum for black and white, but in some churches foreign missionaries have a different pay structure. In some churches, white ministers getting above the minimum would be reluctant to serve in poor black congregations.
Congregational structures: In some churches, race is often a very important factor in determining areas of pastoral oversight. Language is sometimes involved, but is often used as an excuse. Racism is sometimes manifested in church names, e.g. Tsonga Presbyterian Church (shortly after the Consultation the Tsonga Presbyterian Church changed its name to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, perhaps influenced in this, to some extent, by the consultation). In some churches, the family of a white pastor serving a black congregation worship in another church.
Training for Ministry: Generally different institutions serve different races, thereby not only manifesting but promoting racism. Qualifications for admission to training often show racial bias, e.g. language and academic qualifications.
Administration, Leadership, Finance: The medium of communication and skill advantages possessed by whites can mean that leadership is concentrated in white hands.
Mr Maredi Choeu seemed to have an odd assortment of good and crackpot ideas, and went off into long anecdotes about racism which was in society but not necessarily in the church. He said the architects of apartheid were the children of German missionaries, so he would support any suggestion that the children of missionaries should be sent to their home countries for education, because having grown up among blacks, and gone to school with them, they said they knew blacks. and nobody would dare to contradict them. He gave as an example Dr Eiselen.
After lunch we continued in groups, and reported back after tea. John Warden, who was clearly very conservative politically, came to me at tea time and said he was thinking of going home, because one of the black kids in his group was “smouldering” as he put it, and said that violence was the only solution. He said they were supposed to examine attempts to combat racism, and to analyse their success or failure, but they hadn’t even listed them, much less analysed them.
One group proposed that there should be a “black confessing church”, which sounded to me like starting yet another denomination, and since there were already several thousand black denominations, so I did not how starting yet another one would make any difference. We continued after supper with the same sort of thing.
We began the next morning with a Eucharist, and then I went to breakfast and sat next to Rykie van Reenen, the reporter for Beeld and Rapport, and I told her how much I had enjoyed her reporting of Sacla, which had been accurate and sympathetic, yet the reports in the same papers of the Anglican Church’s provincial synod in Grahamstown four months later had been distorted and unremittingly hostile.
As we began Desmond Tutu (then General Secretary of the SACC) said he had been praying, and that the Lord had given him no peace about the fact that the Dutch Reformed Churches were hardly represented at all, and said that he had been given something that he was sure the Lord wanted him to say to our brothers in the Dutch Reformed Churches. He read out this statement, and a number of blacks got up and asked that it be accepted as a message from the consultation as a whole. Roelf Meyer, the only white member of the Dutch Reformed Church present, objected, saying that the Dutch Reformed Churches were on the other side of the struggle. It seemed to me that he was not concerned to be Christian at all, because even if one does perceive them as enemies, we must still love our enemies, but he seemed to be full of bitterness, possibly at the way his own church had treated him.
Desmond Tutu said that the government had stopped talking to him after he had said in Denmark something about boycotting South African coal exports, and though I don’t think I heard what he said, there was apparently a great big tizwoz in the press and in government circles about it. In my cynical way I suspect that the fuss was because many cabinet ministers have coal shares, and so they stand to lose out where it hits their own pockets. For the same reason they are not encouraging ethanol as a motor fuel, because they’ve got their money in Sasol. Personally, I thought that in view of the energy crisis, we should not be exporting coal anyway, even if it were not something that might hurt apartheid.
There was a Bible study by Charles Villa-Vicencio, and then we went into groups again.
Our group was supposed to discuss church structures, organisation and membership, but Ben Ngidi said he thought we ought to discuss the formation of a black confessing church. He said that the time had come to form a black confessing church. I said that if that were so, then we should be leaving this consultation right now, because it would be an admission that racism had defeated us, and that we saw absolutely no point in combating it at all. Certainly it seems to contradict all that we had discussed so far. as it would be attempting to entrench racism in the church. Furthermore, it carried the suggestion that blacks were orthodox because they were black, and that whites were heretical because they were white, and therefore the whole idea is racist from the start. Ben said blacks responded to the gospel from a situation of poverty and oppression, and whites from a position of power and privilege, which I thought was a gross oversimplification — one of yesterday’s groups had reported back saying that they thought it was evil that the government should be trying to form a black middle class. But this was, in worldly terms, a middle class consultation. We were a bunch of people who were largely male, largely clergy, and largely middle class.
I gave an example of how members of the black middle class exploited the black poor. In Zululand there was a resettlement are called Nondweni, where people who had been ethnically cleansed from “white” farms and locations near white towns like Vryheid had been dumped. Nondweni was far from any town or other places of employment, so most people there were unemployed and destitute. A few had an income from money sent by relatives who were migrant workers in towns far away. And the very first public building that had been erected in Nondweni was not a school, not a clinic, not a church, but a bottle store. And it was owned by a very respectable black middle-class businessman who was a faithful member of his church. But all the blacks present seemed to think that that was quite legitimate. One said “maybe he gives bursaries”, and so showed their middle-class bourgeois nature, and I wanted to laugh.
There was an earnest white American lady who had joined us for the day, whose name I didn’t catch, but she spoke to me at lunch and was very patronising. She spoke of “us” and “them”, and said that while she agreed with what I was saying, I couldn’t tell “them” that, because “they” wouldn’t listen to me. I thought that if we could not be honest with each other, and say what we really thought, and perceived people in the group as “us” and “them” on the basis of colour, then we were in fact part of the disease.
And this is the point that led me to tell this story now, because it is the point that impinges on the discussion of “whiteness”, and so I think it is worth reflecting upon it a bit more.
Ben Ngidi was dead right when he said that blacks responded to the gospel from a situation of poverty and oppression, and whites from a position of power and privilege. That is still true even today, but it was even more true back then, when the entire legal system and the power structure in the country was geared to entrenching white privilege. But it was also an oversimplification even back then, as the example from Nondweni illustrates. And just as whites tend to easily forget the power and privilege that whiteness gives them, so middle-class people, both black and white, tend to easily forget the power and privilege that middle-classness gives to them. Race is significant in these things, but it is not the only significant thing, which is what the proponents of “Whiteness Studies” seem to suggest.
But the racism of the well-meaning American lady, with her talk of “us” and “them”, left me quite gob-smacked. I suppose that she might have been, in American terms, a “white liberal” such as those described in the article by Tim Wise that Roger Saner recommended to me in an earlier comment. But she clearly based the “us” on whiteness, and that struck me as racism. Ben Ngidi and I could argue hammer and tongs, and quite vociferously, but even if we disagreed, we could remain friends, and as South Africans we were far more of an “us” even in our disagreements, than this American who based “us-ness” and “them-ness” purely on skin colour. She is one of the reasons that I resist American analysis of South African problems, and even more American solutions to South African problems.
I began getting a bit of a guilty conscience about this, however, thinking that my reaction might be a bit xenophobic and anti-American. We might bicker among ourselves, but let an outsider come in and start criticising, and we get all defensive, and the outsider becomes a “them” to our “us”. But hey (dare I say it?) some of my best friends are Americans.
But still, I do have a similar reaction to Tim Wise — who is he to pontificate about the racism of the likes of Ruth First and Joe Slovo and Jeremy Cronin? He’s on about the “white left” you see, and those are the first names that come to mind when I think about the “white left”. And “white liberals”? I suppose if you want to find white liberals nowadays you’d find them in the ranks of IDASA, and I doubt that Tim Wise knows any more than I do.
We continued group work in the afternoon, and then I spoke on biblical and theological categories. Ann Hughes accused me of being “academic”, and that for me summed up the biggest weakness of the consultation. For many of the participants the Bible and the Christian faith were not existential realities, but are something external to themselves, things which they have had to study in order to pass an exam as a prerequisite to holding a certain office or position within the ecclesiastical structure, but of little use to them in interpreting the reality of their lives. But I saw everything in South Africa in biblical and theological terms. I knew of no other way of dealing with them.
The previous day, when one of the groups reported back on the causes of racism, Dr Gomedje from Swaziland commented that the whole report could be summed up in one word — sin. Why do we beat arouind the bush, he asked, why don’t we just call racism what it is — sin? And several people sniggered at the naivety of the country hick from Swaziland. Desmond Tutu was quick to rebuke them, and said that that showed that we had nothing different to offer the world, and again at the group leaders’ meeting he appealed that the groups should come up with solutions rooted in scripture and prayer, because we were meeting as Christians. But people, certainly in our group, were showing themselves incapable of doing this. Scripture and prayer were “academic” – things you learned about in order to pass exams, but of no existential significance in everyday life.
We finally decided to list a few practical recommendations for combating racism in church structures, organisations and movements. But they all came from my own suggestions and nobody else in the group came up with anything positive or concrete. They just wanted abstractions. I suggested that the basic thing was membership, and that baptism and confirmation instruction should stress the importance of renunciation of the standards of the flesh, of which racism was one, and one of the most significant in South Africa. It should be based on the point that Stanley Mokgoba had made at the beginning – of white Christians feeling more at home with white heathen than with black Christians, and black Christians feeling more at home with black heathen than with white Christians and so on.
Now perhaps this was an example of white privilege. I, being white, could be vocal, and the blacks could sit and listen. But I don’t think so. Most of the blacks in the group were people of considerably more power and influence than I was. Maredi Choeu was certainly a good deal richer. I think a more important factor was forcing people into groups not of their own choosing. Most of the people in the church group would rather have been somewhere else, and so getting suggestions for practical action was like drawing teeth. I was the only one who had actually chosen to be there.
When we got back into plenary another group, which had first made the suggestion, called for the immediate formation of a “black militant confessing church”, and that led to a heated discussion, which continued after supper. Some were saying that the “black” in the title meant an attitude of mind, others said it meant skin colour and nothing else. I thought that the latter were more honest than the former. It occurred to me that if there was a “black militant confessing church” and if the Christian Leaguers went off and formed the white equivalent, the real confessing church might well emerge from the faithful remnant. But I never got a chance to say that, because it was then decided to exclude “whites” from the debate.
So the whites went off and had coffee, and Jimmy Palos gave us his interpretation of events, which I didn’t record, and so have forgotten. John Warden was saying that in a recent survey he had done, the Anglican Church was taking on more of the characteristics of a sect, and I said that that was good, in terms of what our group had said about combating racism as manifested in the church. “Think sect” as Will D. Campbell suggests. The very idea horrified Jimmy Palos.
But if racism was at the foundation of our society, what our society was built on, and we rejected racism as immoral and sinful, then we were already a sect in relation to “mainstream” society, and if we were trying to pretend otherwise we were simply deluding ourselves.
We had Mass the morning, celebrated by Sidwell Thelejane, and I helped him as a server. We resumed in plenary after breakfast, and then discussed a statement that had been produced last night about a black confessing church, and it had been agreed to say that unless there was a meaningful change within a year a black confessing church would be formed. I thought it would be better to discuss such a thing right away, rather than in a year’s time, because on it depended the whole raison d’etre of the consultation. And no one said what the change should be, and what would make it “meaningful”. There was a growing air of unreality about the whole thing.
We had more group sessions, but these were no more productive than before, which made it clear to me that people should have been free to choose the groups they were in, because they wanted to discuss anything but the topic we were supposed to be discussing, and we never did get round to evaluating the World Council of Churches’ Programme to Combat Racism. There was a leaders meeting afterwards to discuss the formation of a continuation committee, which would see that the “decisions” such as they were, were brought to the attention of church leaders, and it was followed by a plenary to elect delegates to go to a meeting of the All-Africa Conference of Churches meeting in Nairobi.
There was some discussion about how to pay for the Consultation, and Desmond Tutu said we could take it out of a fund that was meant to help the poor, as our consultation was intended to help the poor. I commented that all our words were like rain dripping into the sand, and that there had been a lot of talk about the “oppressive structures of society”, while the consultation itself was one of them, because the cost of feeding and housing the people who came, in one of the more expensive conference centres, which St Peter’s, Hammanskraal is, was paid out of a fund which was supposed to be helping the poor. There was no way that a bunch of well-fed middle-class clergy, meeting for ineffectual discussions, would be of any help at all to the poor. We ourselves were part of the oppressive structures of society, even while we were talkin g about them.
And so we all went home, and I contemplated how to convey the message of the consultation to the people back home. I pictured myself saying to the black bishop and the black archdeacons and the largely black diocesan council: “Unless there is meaningful change within a year, we are going to form a Black Confessing Church.”
So was it all a waste of time and money then?
No, I think some good did come from it.
The Tsonga Presbyterian Church adopted a less racist name. The “Black Confessing Church”, while it had little meaning for Anglicans, or at least not for those in Zululand, did have some meaning for people in the Dutch Reformed Mission Churches. One of the people who was most concerned about it was Allan Boesak, and he was involved in drawing up the Belhar Confession a couple of years later. So in effect a Black Confessing Church did come into existence among the Dutch Reformed Family of Churches – it is called the Uniting Reformed Church. And it even has some white members.
There are two other aspects of the consultation that are perhaps worth mentioning. I was chatting to David Mosoma at tea between sessions, and told him about the charismatic renewal movement which had affected the whole Anglican Church in Zululand. He was rather surprised, as people outside Zululand tended to think of the charismatic renewal movement as a largely white phenomenon, whereas in Zululand it had started among black Anglicans, and in some cases spread to whites from there. He asked me “where does that leave your Marxist analysis?” And I said “Much where it was before.”
This can be seen in a prequel to the consultation, which took place in Zululand a few months before. It was about the bottle store in Nondweni, and it was why I mentioned it in the consultation.
We had had a discussion about it in the Mthonjaneni Deanery, and someone had mentioned that the first public building to be erected in most resettlement areas was a bottle store, and given Nondweni as an example. We eventually drew up a motion for the diocesan synod, very mild and carefully worded, requesting the KwaZulu government to be very careful about issuing liquor licences in areas of high unemployment.
This seized the imagination of people in the diocesan office, and they said that this was a significant motion and they were going to devote a lot of time to it at synod, and that they were thinking of getting some expert on alcoholism to address the synod. And we said, thanks, but no thanks. Our motion is not about alcoholism, it is about exploitation of the poor and people making private profit out of public misery.
And when it was debated at synod people were standing up to say that drinking was a sin, and others were arguing against them and saying no, it is not drinking but drunkenness that is a sin. And we of the Mthonjaneni Deanery tried to bring the debate back on track by saying that it is not about drinking or drunkenness but about exploitation of the poor.
And after one such intervention Mr Gideon Mdlalose, whose brother Frank Mdlalose was Minister of the Interior in the KwaZulu government, which was responsible for the issuing of liquor licences, stood up and said “I am the man. I own the bottle store at Nondweni.” And so he confessed in front of the whole synod. But he added that if the bottle store at Nondweni were closed, they would just go to buy liquor at Nqutu, and if that were closed, they would just go on to Dundee. And someone responded, “Yes, but would the school children do that?”
But the purpose of our motion was not to attack Gideon Mdlalose. His name was not mentioned. Nor was Nondweni. We didn’t even say “resettlement areas”. We just said “areas of high unemployment”. The motion was not aimed at individual sinners, to point a finger at them. It was rather aimed, in a very small way, at structural injustice. And what became clear was that the synod was very uncomfortable with discussing structural injustice. It was much more comfortable discussing individual and individualistic sin. It tried ducking and diving every which way – alcoholism, drinking, drunkenness. Anything but systemic exploitation of the poor. And even the consultation on racism did the same thing, not knowing either the place or the people involved. “Maybe he gives bursaries,” someone said.
The problem with structural sin is that we are all complicit in it, and it is very difficult to see a way out. It is easier to talk about alcoholism, because we can feel superior to the alcoholic, and can even help people who are trapped in it. But the middle class clergy see the respectable upstanding middle-class exploiter of the poor, and think of the generous amounts he gives to the parish, without which the parish would be in debt, and so it is easier to talk about alcoholism.
At the synod, as the seconder of the motion, I got the penultimate word. I read Nehemiah 5:1-13.
There is no good people complaining that they are oppressed by whites, if there are also black capitalists making a profit and getting prosperous on the miserable degradation of their brothers. Race may indeed play a part in exploitation, but by treating it as if race were the whole problem we blind ourselves to the bigger part, and can fob ourselves off with the excuse that since the people we are exploiting are of the same skin colour as ourselves, it’s not racism and therefore OK.
But it’s still racism, and it’s not OK.