The Rise and Fall? of Apartheid
“A miracle? A negotiated revolution? A ‘refolution’? All of the above can be, and have been, used to describe South Africa’s transition from being the world’s last surviving racial oligarchy to a democratic order. The theme of this book has been that the transition occurred because the principal antagonists, the ANC and the NP, mutually recognized that neither could win the struggle on its own terms: the conflict was deadlocked, and perpetuating it would cause horrifying loss of life and serious damage to a potentially prosperous economy.”
Growing up since the 1950’s my only information about what happened in South Africa as the government passed from the hands of the National Party to the African National Congress came from American newspapers. By the 1960’s – with the efforts of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and many others – people were finally waking up to the injustice and cruelty towards black citizens. We looked with grave concern at what was happening in Africa also.
We got mixed messages about South Africa – injustice from white supremacists, confusion over all of the various tribal distinctions, “necklacing”, and fear that the Soviets were just going to turn South Africa into another satellite.
All of that is past now. In his book on the history of apartheid in South Africa, David Welsh describes in great detail the process of the transition from an essentially minority government to a government of the majority. His narrative is detailed but interesting as he captures the major leaders and events that played a part in the story. Here are a few thoughts:
- “The linchpin of the apartheid system was the Population Registration Act of 1950, which in principle sought to classify every South African according to ‘race’.” This is indeed a problem in more ways that one. Where do we put the ‘Coloureds’ in this scheme? In our chat, Michael Badriaki reminded us that the Colonialists introduced the concept of ‘white’ vs. ‘black’. Still today there are those who believe that dark-skinned people are “less than fully human”. As Michael pointed out – This is an affront to our Creator God Who made us all in His image.
- David Welsh’s characterizations of the major players was very even-handed and honest. A bit more sympathy seemed to be, understandably, with the ANC. I was surprised therefore to see the quote from Winnie Mandela. “We have no guns – we have only stones, boxes of matches and petrol. Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.”
I remember reading about necklacing in the news. It was horrifying. Welsh’s honest account gives all the details – negative and positive of all sides. He portrayed Mandela and De Klerk as men of high standards; each with possible regrets. It is all the more reason to see how peaceful, comparatively speaking, the transition of government was.
Another comparison that Welsh makes is that the ANC had the high moral ground but De Klerk’s decision to unban the ANC and begin the process of democracy was also a moral and religious decision. “So far as is known, De Klerk is the only ex-leader of an authoritarian state to have made a comprehensive apology for the misdeeds of the state whose head he had become.”  It may not make up for all of the injustices done by the NG but repentance is a good beginning.
- My own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, Afrikaners, played a shameful role in South African apartheid. The Dutch Reformed introduced slavery in 1652; instituted separate churches for white and “people of color” in 1857; and legalized apartheid in 1948. Thankfully in 1982 the World Alliance of Reformed Churches declared apartheid heresy and suspended the membership of white congregations until they repented. In 2006, the separate (black and white) churches met to discuss reunification. A new Confession was written and is being adopted by many CRC groups.
Why does this especially affect me? In my dissertation I will be demonstrating how the CRC folks seem to get stuck on ‘tradition’ and only accept change slowly. I think that is part of what was going on in South Africa. Tradition is a wonderful thing. Cultures get some of their identity from their traditions. But what happens when a tradition is harmful?
It is mystifying to me how the CRC can stubbornly hold on to beliefs that are clearly unbiblical. I do not wish to cast aspersions on anybody; but merely ask my brothers and sisters to re-examine Scripture and be willing to listen to the Holy Spirit and make changes.
I know that apartheid has not ended completely. As a Christian, I believe that it won’t end completely in a sinful world. But I am thankful for our studies at Portland Seminary and especially for a chance to go to South Africa and see the world through different lenses. I am thankful that we can make a difference in our world.
 David Welsh. The Rise and Fall of Apartheid (Johannesburg & Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2010. 566.
 Even in my lifetime the term has changed from “Negro” to “dark-skinned” to “colored” to “African-American” to “black”. No one is really purely white or purely black; we’re all just shades in between. I tried to pick the term I see most often, but I am sensitive to people’s feelings and if I offended anyone, please forgive me.
 Ibid. 54.
 Ibid. 288.
 Ibid. 570.
9 responses to “The Rise and Fall? of Apartheid”
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Mary, I’m glad you highlighted the fact that De Klerk make a “comprehensive apology for the misdeeds of the state whose head he had become.” The power of an apology is often overlooked by leaders, probably because they feel it makes them look weak. As exemplified by De Klerk’s example, an apology can be a powerful thing. Enjoyed your post Mary.
“I know that apartheid has not ended completely.” True, in some ways. Apartheid was socially engineered laws of separation, like Jim Crow laws in many ways. Both have been legally removed. In both SA and US, it is illegal to discriminate based on race, or make laws that apply to one race but not others. What hasn’t ended in our sinful world, is our individualized prejudice against others and the institutionalized consequences in our nations.
I appreciate, Mary, how you recognize your church movement’s collusion with the sin of apartheid, and it’s (slow) move towards repentance and confession. I believe this is key for individuals (those of us who benefit from white privilege) as well as churches (those who have perpetuated social sins). I would like to see more denominations do this (my movement, especially).
Thank you, Katy. Yes, we have laws in place that are supposed to protect not only blacks, but women and the poor. And you are right, ‘peoples is peoples’ as the muppet said. I guess that’s one of our goals as Christian leaders – to try and encourage people toward justice. It’ll take much much prayer!!!
Mary, I am praying that you and your work will bring about a peaceful, sustained change to your church body. I hear your passion in this and I look forward to hearing how God is going to use you in a powerful way. And yes, like you, I am also grateful for Portland Seminary, this beautiful oasis where we get to experience, dream and share our hopes and plans to change our world. Thank you for your open and insightful post!
Thank you Mary for your perspective and your denominational perspective.
“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
Thank you for your encouragement, Geoff. I lifted the quote for my paper. Where did it come from and do you have any more?
I’m with Mary,
I’m using that in my dissertation. smiling
I agree with you that the memories of Apartheid is still present thereby leaving the residual of its effect. Many may still live as though hit is still legal. That’s for all who were affected.
Thank you, Mary, for highlighting the power of tradition. Laws change, but traditions live in the hearts of people for many years after laws and even public opinion shift. We see this in the confederate south of the US and right here in Oregon where redlining and other anti-black actions were a part of our heritage. The laws on the books are changed but we need to achieve true repentance and a shift in deeply held attitudes so that new traditions can take hold. I am interested in reading your work about the traditions of the Reformed church.