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Tales from Dystopia XI: Deacons and total onslaught

11 March 2012

The title is a bit misleading, because the question of deacons was separate from that of “total onslaught”, but in this case they just happened to conicide on the same day.

I had been a member of a Commission on the Diaconate in the Anglican Church, which had been asked by the Anglican Provincial Synod in 1989 to produce a report on the ministry of deacons, and report back to the next session of provincial synod in November 1982. I believed that the ministry of deacons had been neglected, and as part of the work for the report I was investigating the possibilities for training deacons if the diaconate were to be restored and taken seriously.

One of the posssibilities was that the University of South Africa offered a degree of Bachelor of Diaconology, which was a multidisciplinary degree, with some courses taken from the theology faculty, and some from social work. Such a multidisciplinary course might be useful for training Anglican deacons, but there was one obstacle — the degree could only be taken by the students of Huguenot College, Wellington, a Dutch Reformed institution, and by no others.

So I went to see members of the Theology Faculty at the University of South Africa (Unisa) to find out if they might be willing to widen scope of the degree to allow students who were not members of the Huguenot College, and therefore not Dutch Reformed, to study for the Bachelor of Diaconology degree, and also to widen the multidisciplinary nature of the course to include more options than social work. For example, in the early church, deacons often helped the bishop with diocesan administration, so perhaps an option could be theology and accounting. Some might have a prison ministry, and so they could combine theology with criminology. Some might have a community development ministry, and so combine theology with development. It seemed to me that there were many more possibilities for deacons than just social work.

So I made an appointment to see the Dean of the Faculty of Theology at Unisa, Professor David Bosch, to discuss these things. And this is what I wrote in my diary about the meeting and what followed. At the time I was visiting Pretoria from Melmoth in Zululand and staying with the Anglican Bishop-elect of Pretoria, Rich Kraft.

Thursday 11 March 1982, Unisa, Pretoria

Again went to Mass with Rich at the Cathedral, and then went to see Prof. Bosch at Unisa to discuss with him the possible widening of the syllabus for the Bachelor of Diaconology degree. He also had his second-in-command, Professor Roberts, and Trevor Verryn, and Ian Carrick had come along as well.

David Bosch seemed to have difficulty in understanding what we were asking for, and seemed to think it was a good deal more complicated than it is in actual fact. Prof Roberts seemed quicker to grasp the implications.

At 11:00 we broke up, and they said I could see a film that the Department of Foreign Affairs was organising. It turned out to be a series of overseas television programmes on the role of the church in South Africa, which were seen as part of the “church onslaught”.

There was a Dutch one, an English one and a New Zealand one, and a couple of them had interviews with Desmond Tutu, where the interviewer was pushing him very hard to say that he supported violence. There was also an interview with Oliver Tambo.

I think the foreign affairs blokes expected the audience (the theology faculty staff, for the most part) to be horrified at the smearing of South Africa’s name overseas, but they were a bit taken aback when people got up to say that those programmes were telling it like it is, and should be broadcast by the SABC. They said that could not be done, as banned people like Oliver Tambo and Beyers Naudé were quoted. One of the Unisa staff pointed out that the SABC had blanket permission to quote banned people and so on. I wondered if they would regard the theology faculty as already having succumbed to the church onslaught and gone over to the “enemy”.

Perhaps that was the whole object of the exercise.

The meeting about training for the diaconate was not very satisfactory, and nothing came of it. Unisa went on offering the Bachelor of Diaconology degree to Dutch Reformed students only, and those from other denominations continued to be excluded.

But the Foreign Affairs film show was an eye-opener.

My picture of Unisa (and that of many other people in places like Zululand) at that time (thirty years ago) was that it was a monolithic Broederbond-controlled institution, firmly committed to the “total strategy” to resist the “total onslaught”. And it seemed that the people from the Department of Foreign Affairs also had this view of Unisa, and were somewhat taken aback by the response, when, instead of being shocked by these foreign propaganda films produced by South Africa’s enemies, they nearly all said that the films told the truth and should be shown in South Africa too. It seemed that even in institutions like Unisa, one could find some of the 7000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal.

And then I wondered if the Department of Foreign Affairs people were being a bit more duplicitious than that, and that in fact they had been exepcting such a reaction, and had someone for the Department of Home Affairs, or the Security Police, sitting behind a curtain somewhere, taking names of those who spoke too loudly in praise of the films.

That’s how we thought in those days; wheels within wheels, suspicions within within suspicions. We expected people in institutions like Unisa to support the government propaganda line, and when they didn’t, we wondered if the more outspoken ones were spies or agents provocateurs.

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