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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.


The diversity and complexity of politics in South Africa are duplicated in the church, religion and theology. Because the churches are a reflection of society, they represent not only society's theological differences, but also all its political differences and tensions. In some churches, mostly the so-called white churches, religion is regarded as the source of everlasting and unchanging truth in a rapidly changing world. In these circles the church is seen as the conserver of the political status quo. There is also a large group of churches with mainly black members who believe that religion should be actively employed to eradicate all forms of racial discrimination. They see the church as a moderate instrument of political change.

A remarkably high percentage of South Africans belong to one or other Christian movement. According to the 1980 census this figure was 76,6 per cent. If the percentage is analyzed further according to the different racial groups, the figures are still more significant: whites 91,8 per cent, coloureds 87,5 per cent, blacks 74,1 per cent and Asians 12,5 per cent.

It is clear from these figures that Christian values could be the single most important binding element in South African politics. However, the various churches differ on how Christianity should be practised in South Africa. These differences have obvious political consequences. Seen against this background it is understandable that all South Africa's churches are under constant pressure to adopt a certain political point of view. This.has increasingly led church leaders to make political statements and in some cases they have been forced to act as political leaders. The statements and political visibility of church leaders such as Drs Beyers Naude, Allan Boesak and Johan Heyns and Archbishop Desmond Tutu constantly elicit positive and negative comments in the media.

Churches actively participate in politics in a number of ways. Even those that do not participate are regarded as adopting a certain point of view by their non-participation. They leave themselves open to criticism since they are seen to support the status quo. The following classification, based on a classification and discussion of churches by Jimmy Loader, a theologian at Unisa, includes a wide spectrum of churches ranging from those which passively participate in politics to the actively anti-apartheid churches.


Pentecostal Group

Conservative Gospel Churches Charismatic Churches

Independent Black Churches.



Roman Catholic Church

Other religions.


Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (rejected apartheid in 1986)

Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk

Gereformeerde Kerk.


At least four groups of churches in South Africa fall into the category of passive participants in respect of their involvement in political change. In other words, they focus on "spiritual matters" and avoid the political debate in theological and church circles. However, despite their apathy towards political issues, they are sometimes compelled to make political statements.

In the first group of passive churches are the pentecostal churches. Among the most significant church associations in this category are:

Apostolic Faith Mission this originated as a fully integrated church, but due to the rapid growth in the number of black members who could not understand English or Afrikaans, local churches based on ethnic groupings and each with its own minister were established. This system puts them on the same level as the three so-called Afrikaans sister churches.

Full Gospel Church this church has four different divisions, representing the four main racial groups in South Africa. In 1985, however, the synod decided to establish an integrated body which would make binding decisions for all the groups.

The second group of apolitical churches consists of the so-called conservative gospel churches. These are mainly small fundamentalist churches with English-speaking members. They do not belong to the South African Council of Churches (SACC), a body which is highly critical of the government. In many instances these churches are critical of the SACC, a fact given wide coverage in the media. The most important churches in this group are:

Church of the Nazarene

Baptist Church

Free Methodist Church

Free Lutheran Churches

Church of England in South Africa.

A third group of apolitical churches are those in the charismatic movement in South Africa. Although they focus on the charismatic experience rather than socio-political involvement, many charismatic churches and their leaders have become involved in politics. Thus, one of the office bearers of the Rhema Church, Ray McCauley, found himself in the midst of a controversy when he insisted that Nelson Mandela declare his Christianity. The most important churches in this group are:

Rhema Church

Hatfield Christian Church of Pretoria

Christian Fellowship International

Good Hope Ministries.

The last group in the category of passive churches is by far the largest of all religious groups in South Africa, and comprises the Independent Black Churches. These have become a haven for blacks uprooted by urbanization. The association tries to help its members survive the status quo rather than change it. In some cases its leaders have become involved in the political debate. These churches could play a possibly decisive role in politics if they were to devote themselves to it. Purely in terms of their support, 20,8 per cent of the total population, it would be misleading to use their present political apathy as a measure for possible future political action. Probably the most important church in this category is the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) in 1985 P W Botha was enthusiastically received at an Easter weekend gathering of the church's members at Moria, near Pietersburg. Subsequently Botha used the enthusiasm of the two million people present at that occasion to illustrate his popularity and the support he enjoyed in the black community. After this incident Zionist Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane found himself and his church at the centre of a controversy concerning the legitimacy of the government. Some of the hundreds of other smaller independent black churches form part of the African In-dependent Churches' Association.


Most of the churches in this group are members of the South African Council of Churches, an umbrella organisation for a variety of church associations with a total membership of seven million. These churches are highly critical of the status quo in South Africa and are supported in their criticism by the Roman Catholic Church with a membership of two million. (The Roman Catholic Church is not a member of the SACC.) In terms of membership and organisation, the South African Council of Churches is probably the largest ecclesiastical pressure group in South Africa, but its influence is limited. It opposes apartheid on biblical grounds. Similarly the Afrikaans churches until recently defended apartheid on biblical grounds.

Against this background, the "English" churches often clashed with the National Party government. Over the years the SACC protested against apartheid legislation in particular. In the sixties it launched a scathing attack on the entire apartheid philosophy in a document en-titled "Message to the People of South Africa". The SACC also launched the "Study Project on Christianity in Apartheid Society" (Spro-cas), investigating all aspects of South African society. The participants in this project eventually published a document in which they suggested an alternative political system. The government, however, dismissed it as political activism "in the guise of religion".

In 1961, criticism of government policy took a new form when the Christian Institute of South Africa (CI SA) was established under the leadership of Dr Beyers Naude. Al-though the CISA had open member-ship, the NG and Hervormde Kerke saw the CISA's criticism of the government in such a serious light that they forbade their members to join the CISA. In October 1977, the CI SA, along with numerous other political organisations, was declared an "affected" organisation; in reality this meant the CISA had been banned. At the same time Naudê was restricted. These government actions gave Naudê and the CISA inter-national status as "apartheid martyrs". Naudê's restriction was lifted in 1984, after which he was appointed secretary-general of the SACC. In April 1987, he was succeeded by the Reverend Frank Chikane.

Numerous NP Prime Ministers consistently refused to have talks with SACC delegations. In contrast to his predecessors P W Botha did, however, periodically invite the SACC to enter into discussions with him. Relations between Botha and the SACC deteriorated after church leaders in the group, such as the Reverend Frank Chikane, expressed support of sanctions and disinvestment as methods of enforcing political change. Two of the most prominent leaders of the SACC are Dr Allan Boesak (subsequently elected president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, a position he relinquished in July 1990) and Arch-bishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel peace prize in 1984. The visibility of its leaders and the organisation's political views meant that the SACC benefited from generous over-seas fund-raising campaigns. In 1988, for example, it received R4,5 million from abroad. Maladministration of funds and the political statements ofcertain SACC officials caused many member churches to revolt. English-speaking white churches in particular publicly criticized the organisation's leadership.

During 1985 the "Kairos Document: Challenge to the Church" was published, causing heated debates about the political role of churches. The document was compiled under the leadership of Chikane, then head of the Institute of Contextual Theology, and a number of black ministers and theologians in the Johannesburg-Soweto district. The central theme of the document was that, by analogy with the Christian tradition of a just war, revolution is also just for Christians. Many people interpreted this statement as support for the violent overthrow of the government in South Africa. Once again the majority of white church leaders in the SACC strongly opposed this notion of justified violence. In some conservative ecclesiastical circles the document was seen as propagating Marxist-orientated liberation theology. In the context of Asia and Latin America in particular theology is seen as a means to liberate the masses from domination and oppression.

During the partial state of emergency in July 1985, and the general state of emergency introduced a year later, church leaders played a prominent role in filling the vacuum left by the large-scale arrest of political leaders. During this period people like Archbishop Tutu, Dr Allan Boesak and the Reverend Frank Chikane were very visible. A delegation led by Tutu visited Lusaka in 1987. The "Lusaka Document", resulting from this visit, expressed the church's understanding of the armed struggle which the liberation movements sup-ported. In November 1987, the SACC identified itself with the Lusaka Document, expressing the need for further meetings with the ANC and PAC. These points of view were expanded during the general conference of the SACC, held in Johannes-burg in June/July 1988. The following are some of the resolutions taken:

That it would aggressively oppose any further restrictions.

That it refused to present its monthly publication Ecunews to the Department of the Interior as required under the emergency regulations.

That the State President be re-quested to place a moratorium on the death penalty and that a commission be appointed to investigate the abolition of capital punishment.

That closer cooperation with trade unions be sought, and that church leaders make church buildings avail-able to workers during times of crisis.

That the international community be requested to apply sanctions.

As a result, Tutu, on numerous visits abroad, committed himself and the SACC to calls to further isolate South Africa, apply sanctions and disinvest from the economy. After F W de Klerk's 2 February 1990 speech Tutu made it clear that he was withdrawing from politics, on the grounds that he had involved himself in politics only because the true leaders were not allowed to participate. The unbanning of the ANC, PAC and SACP and the lifting of restrictions on 33 organisations made it possible for the true leaders to participate in the political process.

The SACC, an umbrella organisation with 20 member churches and church groups plus seven Christian institutions, has an estimated membership of 7 million. Some of the most important member churches of the SACC also belong to the World Council of Churches (WCC). The SACC is an affiliated member and has benefited from the WCC's Special Fund for the Combating of Racism. Some of the most prominent churches in the SACC are:

Methodist Church

Anglican Church

Presbyterian Church

Congregational Church

NG Kerk in Afrika

NG Sendingkerk

Reformed Church in Africa.

A number of non-Christian religious bodies are also critical of apartheid. Among them are:

. South African Jewish Board of Deputies many Jews feel that this official representative body of Jews has not come out strongly enough against apartheid. Two Jewish organisations, Jews for Social Justice in Johannesburg and Jews for Justice in Cape Town, were established in 1985 to oppose apartheid vociferously.

Qiblah this organisation was established in 1980 as a mass movement for "super aware" Muslims. The idea of an Islamic revolution a la Iran is an essential part of Qiblah. The organisation also has ties with the PAC and SACP. Imam Achmat Cassim, leader of the organisation, was released during February 1991 after five years on Robben Island.

Call of Islam this is a Muslim organisation dedicated to improving the lot of oppressed coloureds and Indians. Senior office bearers of the Muslim Judicial Council support this group, and accordingly it is the most prominent organisation in the Muslim community. Call of Islam was affiliated to the UDF.

Al-Jihad this is the smallest of the Muslim organisations. Al-Jihad is the only self-acknowledged Shiite organisation in South Africa and is active mainly in the coloured and black areas of the Western Cape. The organisation was affiliated to the UDF.

After the Rustenburg Churches De-liberation there was a marked in-crease in affiliation between the different church groups in South Africa. The National Conference of Churches which is composed of the churches that attended the Rustenburg Churches Deliberation, has a strategy of concerted contact with political organisations. Members of the NCC have had talks with, among others, the State President and the national executive committee of the ANC. This group also held its own peace conference when the government's peace conference in May 1991 was not very successful.


Over the years the Afrikaans sister churches supported racial segregation to a greater or lesser degree. Regarding their support for apartheid, the three sister churches, the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk, the Gereformeerde Kerk and the Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk, differed only in style and detail. Their sup-port for apartheid was such that it was effectively a religious legitimation of the National Party government's racial policy. One of these churches, the NG Kerk, has since 1986, but particularly since the October 1990 Synod and confession of guilt in November 1990, rejected apartheid. Because of its historical ties with apartheid, the NG Kerk falls into the pro-apartheid category. A discussion of the major pro-apartheid churches follows:

Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NG Kerk). Because of its size, the NG Kerk has the most visible relationship of all the church groups with the National Party. In certain circles it has cynically been referred to as the "NP in prayer". It is a fact that the NG Kerk's members and leaders form one of the strongest power bases of the NP government. It has also been said that the NG Kerk is a key institution in the maintenance and development of the Afrikaans language and culture. Nearly 40 per cent of the white population and more than 70 per cent of the Afrikaans-speaking population belong to the NG Kerk. The principles of apartheid were applied in the NG Kerk long before the NP came to power. It became accepted policy in the church to have separate services. Consequently the NG Kerk in Afrika (for blacks), the NG Sendingkerk (for coloureds), and the Reformed Church in Africa (for Indians) were established.

The church asked for a prohibition on marriages between white and non-white long before 1948. It also sup-ported the notion that there was no fundamental tension between Christian principles and apartheid. The latter was, according to the church, merely a consequence of the variety which was determined by God's will. These points of view were continually disputed by a number of prominent church leaders. After Cottesloe in 196o (a conference of Protestant churches) an enlightened interpretation of racial issues was sharply at-tacked by Dr H F Verwoerd. With his rejection of the Cottesloe points of view and the acceptance by the church of the report "Ras, Volk en Nasie" ("Race, People and Nation") in 1974, there remained no doubt that the NG Kerk had supplied a justification based on theological grounds for the principles and premises of apartheid. In certain circles it was labelled a type of apartheid theology. This period was dominated in near autocratic style by Dr Koot Vorster, moderator of the NG Kerk and brother of the then Prime Minister, John Vorster.

During the eighties the close ties between the NG Kerk and the government, as well as the theological justification for apartheid, were increasingly criticized. A number of events can be isolated: in October 1980, eight influential theologians from Stellenbosch and Pretoria queried the racial approach of the church at the so-called Hervormersdag Getuienis (Reformist Day Confession); in 1981 the book Storm-kompas caused a further stir in church circles with its critical questioning of apartheid in the church; the so-called open letter signed by 123 NG Kerk ministers and members stating that apartheid legislation was unchristian caused yet another storm in church circles; and in the same year the NG Kerk's membership of the World Alliance was suspended and apartheid declared heretical.

The Belhar Confession, at which the NG Sendingkerk strongly op-posed the NG Kerk's identification with apartheid, led to further tension within the NG Kerk community. (It was only following the confession of guilt at Rustenburg that the moderator of the NG Sendingkerk, Minister Nick Apollis, announced that the church accepted the NG Kerk's confession about apartheid, a fact that bodes well for improved relations.) In the midst of these disputes it was decided to revise the policy document "Ras, Volk en Nasie". At its 1986 synod, the church adopted the view that there is no biblical justification for apartheid. A document entitled "Kerk en Samelewing" ("Church and Society"), in which racism and apartheid were de-scribed as sins, was accepted as official policy. The church also opened up its membership to all races. This "liberal" attitude caused much dissatisfaction among certain church members. It led to a rift in the church and the establishment of the Afrikaanse Protestantse Kerk (APK) by a number of conservative theologians. In reality the church only rejected a theoretical model of apartheid, creating the opportunity for people with right-wing sentiments to say that the church had rejected unjust apartheid, but that the "positive aspects" of apartheid were still being upheld. This ambivalent attitude towards apartheid prevailed until the 1990 synod.

With the declaration of the state of emergency many NG Kerk leaders voiced their criticism of the government for the first time. Die Kerkbode, the official mouthpiece of the NG Kerk, condemned the state of emergency and under Professor Johan Heyns, the moderator at the time, the leadership corps of the church adopted a more enlightened approach. Heyns went so far as to say that if apartheid was not completely abolished, it could lead to a clash between church and state.

At the October 1990 synod of the NG Kerk, the church rejected apartheid for the first time "in the waythe victims of apartheid demanded it of the church: unconditionally and with a confession of the church's share in the injustice and discrimination committed against coloured South Africans in the name of apartheid". Less than a mgnth later Professor Pieter Potgieter, the new moderator, repeated this confession of his church's guilt at the church conference held at Rustenburg. This followed the stirring confession of guilt about the injustice of apartheid made by Professor Willie Jonker of the Stellenbosch seminary.

These viewpoints of the NG Kerk indicate that the church acknowledges apartheid has failed and that a new start should be made to build a better future. However, the reaction this en-lightened viewpoint elicited from many church congregations indicated that the majority of church leaders were ahead of their flock in their thinking. Conservative NG Kerk members were obviously upset by the church's identification with Professor Willie Jonker's confession of guilt. CP leader Dr Andries Treurnicht, himself a former NG minister, called the decision "foolish", saying that "they would never identify with it". The Afrikaanse Gereformeerde Bond, formed in 1986 under the leadership of Professor Carel Boshoff as mouth-piece for individuals concerned about socio-political issues, gained renewed vigour. It is obvious that the moral judgement which the church pronounced on a failed political policy will have repercussions among its members for quite some time.

Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk (NH Kerk) . The NH Kerk is the second largest of the three sister churches. In terms of its constitution, member-ship is restricted to whites. Church councils, however, have the authority to allow blacks to come to special services such as weddings and funerals. The NH Kerk also has a "daughter" church for blacks, the Hervormde Kerk in Suidelike Afrika. On a socio-political level it is the most conservative of the three sister churches. Despite this, the controversial Article III in the church's constitution, restricting membership to whites, unleashed a heated debate in the church. At a synod meeting in June 1986 this article was, however, retained by a two-thirds majority.

The policies of the church are, generally speaking, sympathetic to far-right political groups. Thus, for example, the NH Kerk investigated the Afrikaner-Weerstandsbeweging in March 1988, but remained uncritical of the organisation's policies. The official mouthpiece of the church, Die Hervormer, also strongly came out against sports administrators, and rugby administrators in particular, who held discussions with the ANC.

Gereformeerde Kerk. Like the NG Kerk and the Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk, the Gereformeerde Kerk, also known as the Dopperkerk, identifies with Afrikaners. It was, however, ahead of the other two churches in its views on racial discrimination. The critical attitudes of a number of Gereformeerde academ-

ics at Potchefstroom University led. to an in-depth scrutiny of the socio-political situation. Many criticisms of the status quo were voiced. Woord en Daad, a publication of the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education, played a major role in publicizing these points of view.

Although the Gereformeerde Kerk is open to all races, it has four different synods based on language differences. The white synod includes the black church in Zimbabwe, while Suidland is the religious home of coloured members, Soutpansberg for Vendas, and Middellande for Tswana-, Sotho- and Zulu-speaking members. At the four-yearly general synod, more than 75 per cent of the delegates are black. Unity within the church structures is increasingly emphasized.

A number of churches associated with ultra right-wing groups have emerged. These have largely been established by NG Kerk members with grievances about what they considered the unbiblical and anti-social nature of racially mixed worship. Although these churches have small memberships and little influence, they are still significant because they give credibility to religious beliefs based on the principles of racism and apartheid.

One of the most important among them is the Afrikaanse Protestantse Kerk. The APK was established in mid-1987 after the secession of right-wing members of the NG Kerk. According to Professor Willie Lubbe, moderator of the APK, the main reason for the establishment of the APK was the fact that the general synod of the NG Kerk introduced politics into the church. This was a reference to the 1986 view adopted by the NG Kerk that apartheid was a sin. Soon after it was established, the church had more than 30 ministers with just over 12 000 members belonging to 115 congregations. In 1988 a start was made with the training of ministers for the APK. A number of Conservative Party Members of Parliament joined the church. By the end of 1990 the APK had 21 000 adult members and 91 ministers. About 15 000 APK members are former members of the NG Kerk (0,9 per cent of NG Kerk membership).

Then there are the Evangeliese Hervormde Kerk, the Afrikaner-Hervormde Kerk, the Kerk van die Skepper and the Gemeente van die Verbondsvolk. According to the Reverend Gert Steenkamp, leader of the Gemeente van die Verbondsvolk, the church believes that only whites will go to heaven and that white South Africans are the last chosen people of God. According to reports, members are planning acts of terror against the government and blacks. The Kerk van die Skepper, a "fanatical and sinister sect", which has on occasion been described as a South African version of Hizbollah, has strong congregations in centres such as Kuruman, Vryburg, Kempton Park, Pretoria, Vereeniging, Phalaborwa and Pietersburg.

The Kerk van die Skepper sees blacks, Jews, Asians and Indians as "mud people" and has worldwide neo-Nazi alliances. It also denies the existence of any god. Members are primarily drawn from professionals in the Pretoria district. The far-right European Cultural Association acts as a front for the KvS. The church disseminates the writings of the American Ku Klux Klan and maintains contact with other international far-right organisations.

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