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Being missionary, being human – book review

21 January 2012

Being missionary, being human: an overview of Dutch Reformed MissionBeing missionary, being human: an overview of Dutch Reformed Mission by Willem Saayman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twenty years ago I was chatting to Willem Saayman at lunch time in the Unisa cafeteria, and he told me something about his time as a Dutch Reformed Church missionary in Namibia. He was there from 1974-1978, and spent a year in the Okvango, and the rest of the time at Orumana, in the Kaakoveld.

It was fascinating to me, as it told the other side of a story to which I had seen a very different side. He also told me that the Tomlinson Report, which laid out the blueprint for apartheid in South Africa (and the Odendaal Report, which was the equivalent in Namibia) had provided much of the motivation for many in the DRC to become missionaries, and were seen as providing the incentive and the opportunity for Christian mission.

I went in Namibia in 1969, and was deported in 1972. Though we were not exact contemporaries there, it was close enough for us to have experienced the same times, the same physical, spiritual, ideological and political climate. In my experience the implementation of the Tomlinson and Odendaal reports, and the evil ideology behind them, were precisely the opposite to what Willem described to me. They persecuted the church, and obstructed Christian mission at every turn. Those who implemented them seemed determined to destroy the Christian faith and went to great lengths to prevent its spread.

Willem, it seemed to me, knew the story from the inside. He knew both the good and the evil intentions, the good and evil results. I urged him to write it down, to tell the story, because I doubted that there were many other people who were both willing and able to tell it.

In one sense, he has now done that, in this book.

It is short (150 pages), and it surveys the history of mission of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa from 1652 to the present.

Willem distinguishes four “waves” of mission in the DRC: From 1179-1834; from 1867-1934; from 1954-1976 and from 1990 to the present. Each of these waves, or upsurges in interest in mission, had its own characteristics and importance, but the one that interests me most is the Third Wave, from 1954-1976. That was the one that fell entirely within the apartheid period, and was bound up with the ideology of apartheid.

Willem points out that apartheid did not begin in 1948, that its roots began much further back, and that most whites in South Africa were generally in favour of racial segregation in one form or another long before then. But the soil in which apartheid flourished is one thing, the roots and fruits another. In the past, the matters dealt with by apartheid were not central. They were referred to by preceding (white) governments as “the native question”. Apartheid, however was the main plank of the National Party’s election campaign in 1948. They promised to make “the native question” the main question, and to solve it once and for all. Apartheid became the official state ideology, an outlook, a worldview, a totalitarian vision of society to which everything had to be forced to conform. It was both qualitatively and quantitatively different from what had gone before. In the book Willem tends to play this down somewhat.

He does show how the mission vision of the DRC both shaped and was shaped by apartheid, by showing how it developed in both church and state, and how church and government influenced one another.

And that, in itself, makes this a very important book.

In one sense, it shows the huge gulf that existed, and still exists, between different denominations in South Africa.

The missiology department at Unisa, like many others, has taught the history of Christian mission from the perspective of “the Constantinian Era”. I have my doubts about that, and think that is a simplistic judgement (see Notes from underground: St Constantine, Scapegoat of the West), but given its widespread acceptance, one could say that in the 1970s in Namibia, the Dutch Reformed Church was in the Constantinian Era, while at the same time, in the same country, other denominations, and especially the Anglican Church, were in the pre-Constantinian Era, the era of persecution, of government obstruction.

The Dutch Reformed mission in the Kaokoveld enjoyed government favour, and the government tried to smooth its path. In Windhoek a Dutch Reformed minister hosted a pastor from Romania, Richard Wurmbrand, who told of the difficulties of Christians in far-away Romania, while Christians in Namibia were facing the very same difficulties at that very time — see Notes from underground: The martyrs of Epinga.

A big eye-opener for me in Willem’s book was the story of black farm schools, which, it appears. were seen by the Dutch Reformed Church as a missionary opportunity. The Bantu Education Act in effect nationalised church schools for blacks in the 1950s. All black schools were put under the control of the central government, and most of the Christian churches that had lost their schools in this way thought that it was because the government wanted to be sure that the teaching in the schools was politically correct according to the apartheid ideology. An exception was farm schools, which were controlled by farmers.

From the Dutch Reformed point of view, the mission opportunity was provided by mission-minded farmers who opened the schools for Christian teaching, thus providing a mission opportunity.

My experience was somewhat different.

In 1976-77 I was an Anglican priest in Utrecht in northern Natal, and found myself manager of several farm schools. These schools were held in Anglican Church buildings, but since the church was no longer allowed to run them, a farmer had to be found who was willing to become the “owner” of the school, and most farmers were not interested and not willing. The Bantu Education Department was forever on our case because many of the schools were on church land, and they said they must be on the farm land. And only children from that farm could go to them, whereas in fact children from several surrounding farms came. In one case the church building was on farm land, and the farmer was an absentee landlord, who owned several farms in the area, and one day he visited the farm and closed the church at gunpoint, and all along the road to the farm were armed police.

So there was a distinct apartheid between the Constantinian and the pre-Constantinian Church in South Africa, and neither side really saw the other. And in Namibia in July 1971 the Lutheran Church crossed from one to the other when it issued an open letter criticising the policy of apartheid, and supporting the position of the World Court that South Africa was occupying Namibia illegally.

In his book Willem barely mentions Namibia, and that is why I gave this book four stars rather than five. It is a very important book, and important to read. But I think the full story has not yet been told, and I still hope that Willem will tell, in the form of a memoir and narrative theology, the story of his time in Namibia. The generation who experienced that is passing, and only they can tell the story.

In 1976 I found

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