Religion and Apartheid

South Africa Table of Contents

Dutch Reformed Churches

Christianity became a powerful influence in South Africa, often uniting large numbers of people in a common faith. In the twentieth century, however, several Christian churches actively promoted racial divisions through the political philosophy of apartheid. The largest of these denominations was the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk--NGK), which came to be known as the "official religion" of the National Party during the apartheid era. Its four main branches had more than 3 million members in 1,263 congregations in the 1990s.

The Dutch Reformed Church arrived in South Africa in the seventeenth century, after Calvinist reforms in Europe had entrenched the idea of predestination, and the Synod of Dort in the Netherlands had proclaimed this church as the "community of the elect" in 1619. The church gained recognition as the state religion in 1651, and the Dutch East India Company, as an extension of the state in southern Africa, established the first Dutch Reformed Church at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652.

Church members in South Africa generally resisted liberal trends that arose in Europe in the nineteenth century, but rifts occurred in the church in 1853 with the formation of the Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk (also translated, the Dutch Reformed Church), and in 1859, with the formation of the Gereformeerde Kerk van Suid-Afrika (the Reformed Church of South Africa). The NGK is generally referred to as the Dutch Reformed Church, and these two newer churches are also referred to as Dutch Reformed churches.

All of the Dutch Reformed churches share similar Calvinist beliefs and presbyterial organization. Their doctrines assert that God is eternal, infinite, wise, and just, and the Creator of the universe. He has planned the life and the fate of each individual on earth; the "chosen" are saved, as long as they adhere to the church's teachings. The Bible--both the Old Testament and the New Testament--is the final authority on religious matters.

The presbyterial organization of the Dutch Reformed churches means that the functioning of each congregation is governed, in part, by that community, whereas decisions concerning policy and discipline are generally handled by regional synods. A general synod is responsible for the denomination as a whole. In South Africa, a national synod and nine regional synods oversee the operation of the Dutch Reformed congregations.

As black Africans and people of mixed race converted to the religion, church members debated the question of racial separation. Pressures grew for racially separate congregations, and the issue was complicated by the demands of some black church members for their own churches and congregations. In 1881 the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (Sending Kerk) established a separate coloured church. In 1910, when black South Africans made up about 10 percent of the community, the synods established the NGK in Afrika, as it became known, for black Africans. (An Indian Dutch Reformed Church was formed in 1951.)

Racial separation was only widely accepted in the church in the early twentieth century, as many Afrikaners came to believe that their own survival as a community was threatened, and as the belief in racial separation was gaining acceptance among white South Africans in general. Social and spiritual survival became intertwined in church philosophy, influenced in part by the early twentieth-century persecution of the Afrikaners by the British (see British Imperialism and the Afrikaners, ch. 1). Church leaders refused to condemn Afrikaner rebellions against the British, and their followers gained strength by attributing divine origins to their struggle for survival.

As the system of apartheid was called into question throughout the country in the 1970s and the 1980s, church leaders were, in general, more committed to apartheid than many of their followers, and the church became an impediment to political reform. A few Dutch Reformed clergy opposed apartheid. The best known of these, Reverend Beyers Naude, left his whites-only church in the late 1970s and joined a black parish within the Dutch Reformed church. The efforts of other church leaders who worked to reduce the church's racist image were often constrained by the fact that parish finances were controlled by the church's highest authorities, who supported apartheid.

Other Religious Organizations

In the 1990s, black South Africans form a majority in all large Christian churches in South Africa, except the Dutch Reformed churches, and this was true throughout the apartheid era. In these churches, many people became involved in efforts to reverse or to ameliorate the effects of apartheid policies, but with varying degrees of militancy. Again, there were often significant differences between church leaders and their followers concerning race and politics. For example, senior officials within the Roman Catholic Church in South Africa opposed apartheid, but a group of Catholics formed the South African Catholic Defence League to condemn the church's political involvement and, in particular, to denounce school integration.

Leaders of the Church of the Province of South Africa, the Anglican Church, spoke out in opposition to apartheid, but church members disagreed about tactics for expressing their views. Some white Anglicans vigorously opposed their church's involvement in politics, while many black Anglicans became leaders in the antiapartheid movement. The Methodist Church, which was overwhelmingly black, adopted openly antiapartheid stands on many public issues, but its leaders' activism cost it support among those who feared public scrutiny on this politically sensitive issue.

Religious alliances provided a means of coordinating church opposition to apartheid while minimizing the public exposure of church leaders and parishioners. The South African Council of Churches (SACC) was the most active antiapartheid umbrella organization. The SACC not only opposed apartheid but also offered encouragement to those who contravened race laws. Under the leadership of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the 1980s, the SACC also attempted to withhold cooperation with the state, as much as possible, in protest against apartheid. SACC leaders were outspoken in their political views, lodging frequent complaints with government officials and organizing numerous peaceful protests.

Countering the efforts of the antiapartheid community, the Christian League of Southern Africa rallied in support of the government's apartheid policies. The Christian League consisted of members of Dutch Reformed and other churches who believed apartheid could be justified on religious grounds. The group won little popular support, however, and was criticized both for its principles and for its tactic of bringing religious and political issues together in the same debate.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress