Theological underpinnings of apartheid
With The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, David Welsh promises a sweeping historical overview of ground-breaking world events in southern Africa of the 20th century. What cultural and sociological realities coalesced with key agents to create and sustain this oppressive system of separateness? What movements and influences dismantled these structures in a relatively short time with a relatively peaceful shift of power?
Welsh offers careful analysis that rightly reviews multiple factors. Among them are:
- Political realities, such as De Klerk and Mandela’s unlikely but timely political partnership, the emergence of the ANC as an unconventional agent of change, and the hardening and then softening, over time, of the National Party;
- Economic forces, such as African migration away from unsustainable Bantustans to the peripheries of urban centres, international pressure through boycotts and trade restrictions, and the growing and empowered African middle class; and
- Sociological reasons, such as cultural struggles between whites – the conservative Afrikaner nation and liberal English-speaking immigrants from Britain, and natural tribal divides between Africans of Zulu or Xhosa origin.
Welsh pays some attention as well to the role of churches and ecclesiastical leaders in both constructing and dismantling the system: from pro-apartheid decisions by synods of the three Afrikaans-speaking Reformed denominations, to Allan Boesak’s surprising elevation as head of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s catalytic role in the Anglican communion.
Lacking in the book, however, is a comprehensive review of the theological underpinnings of the apartheid system. Revealing these helps to explain how the Biblically-informed Boer worldview could embrace a racist ideology most Christians find so repugnant, and indeed, what most Christians believe counters all that Christ stands for.
This confusing consideration propelled me back in time to 1989. I was taking a course on Third World Theologies while studying at seminary in Toronto, and part of the course focused on liberation movements in South Africa. With missionary zeal from newfound knowledge, we decided to become advocates. Our small and young group of seminarians trekked downtown for an appointment with the Consul General of South Africa to push theological buttons and protest a hijacking of our faith for apartheid purposes. We steeled ourselves before entering; we anticipated meeting a monster. Instead, a kindly, older man received us, listened carefully, and offered his reasoned perspective. We left deflated, bruised, and disillusioned – every solid theological argument we presented was met with a counter argument based on a competing Biblical worldview by someone who was clearly well-versed in Scripture. In the mind of the Consul, separation of the races was seen as God’s design, and was rooted in interpretations of the meaning of the curse of Noah’s son, Ham, in Genesis, the elevation and separation of Israel as a chosen race, and a belief in God-ordained hierarchical orders in society (Acts 17:26). His arguments weren’t convincing to us, but we were astonished that sincere people of faith – dare we say, our brother in the faith – had arrived at faulty conclusions we would describe as heretical.
This simple encounter and other examples from South African history raised by Welsh bring to light three reminders for people in ministry today. I believe the Gospel breaks down walls of hostility and fear, reuniting humanity with God and each other. In contrast, where we find division and strife, we find places where the good news has feeble roots.
As people who lead others toward integration, we remember:
- When we disagree with others, it’s an easy tendency to label the other as a monster. Pasting labels on others, stereotyping them with broad brushes, is both unfair and dehumanizing. This oversimplification does all parties a disservice. In doing so, we fail to appreciate the nuances in the human condition, and we neglect to listen to an often-complex story of how individuals arrived at their dearly-held conclusions. Instead, we acknowledge we are all part of the same human family. It was a mark of genius that the Nobel Prize committee selected both Nelson Mandela and Willem de Klerk as the Peace Prize recipients, tacit recognition that both leaders were responsible for the abandonment of an evil system and embrace of a new pathway forward for the country.
- Just as there are few real monsters, there are few real saints. Painting the other in a negative light frequently means airbrushing our own reality, and positioning ourselves as faultless. Welsh highlights both the exceptional skill and leadership of Nelson Mandela in his tireless advocacy against the system, but at the same time, he reveals the petty grievances and inconsiderate put-downs of his counterpart that occasionally surfaced. Mandela, like all of us, had flaws. It’s good to acknowledge this, and remind ourselves of this fact frequently.
- It is easy to justify separateness and division to reduce friction and establish order in our world. We tend to not address difference and therefore avoid conflict, rather than work out issues and pursue peace while celebrating diversity. Within our comfortable bubbles of sameness, we can convince one another of anything just as pro-apartheid theologians did. Instead, truth can bear the weight of being critiqued. We need and must pursue outside, contrasting perspectives to mold, refine and shape a more robust theology and humanity. As we embark on our African experience and our research projects, we look forward to discovering other viewpoints to sharpen our own faith, and to soften its sometimes-brittle edges. It is a challenging and uncomfortable journey, but let this be one way we carry the cross forward.
The experience of South Africa, informed fundamentally by theological and biblical convictions, reveals this humbling truth: we who are so certain about matters of faith, can soften our grip and surrender. It takes more faith to let go than it does to grasp tightly.
 Welsh, David. The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. Johannesburg: Jonathan Hall, 2009. Kindle Loc. 4422.
 Ibid., Kindle Loc. 4512.
 Ibid., Kindle Loc. 6010.
 Ibid., Kindle Loc. 13147.
6 responses to “Theological underpinnings of apartheid”
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Hi Mark- Wow, this is a very insightful reflection. I’m amazed that you went to South Africa to advocate for justice. Given the complicity of the church in the system, I’m not totally surprised there was a theological justification for Apartheid, just as there seemed to be at least a biblical case for slavery (obviously heretical), but I am surprised at the level of depth to which the individual with whom you conversed, met your challenges. It would have been helpful for Welsh to have spent some time on that for sure, since the gospel so clearly had a central influence on its being dismantled. You are probably already familiar with the Confession of Belhar, but just in case, it’s a great document that the (colored) Dutch Reformed Mission Church drafted and adopted. http://www.reformiert.de/tl_files/reformiert.de/oekomene/Dokumente/belhar%20confession.pdf
Thanks again for your thoughtful post! Looking forward to meeting you, Mark.
A small correction: I didn’t go to South Africa but merely to downtown Toronto. 😉
I loved the text of the confession you attached. Beautiful.
I too have been struck by the evident faith of the South African people in the midst of theological and Biblical ‘support’ for a system that was blatantly unChristlike. It would be easy for me to exacerbate their weak theology while minimizing my own blind spots. It seems that none of us is free from this tendency. Your experience with the consul only serves to highlight this. The white South Africans I have known have been people of deep faith and conviction that belied the belief system they consistently supported. Fortunately, this was not universal and as Chris points out there were strong movements within the Church working against the injustices. The Confession of Belhar is one example. Your post is both insightful and helpful to those of us trying to remove the ‘spec’ while blinded by our own ‘plank’.
Thank you Mark for your thoughts on the spiritual issues related to the way we have justified or reacted to those that justified difficult choices or stances that we perceived to contrary to Christ. It is easy to create both “monsters” or “saints” to help us prove or rationalize our own way of thinking.
I was reminding of the straw man mentality of setting up an easy to knock down enemies to allow our own view to appear correct and justified. I am asking in my own life, what are the areas that I am justifying? Also what areas am I too proud to take a stand against rather than finding solutions out of love.
Your statement… “When we disagree with others, it’s an easy tendency to label the other as a monster. Pasting labels on others, stereotyping them with broad brushes, is both unfair and dehumanizing. This oversimplification does all parties a disservice. In doing so, we fail to appreciate the nuances in the human condition, and we neglect to listen to an often-complex story of how individuals arrived at their dearly-held conclusions. Instead, we acknowledge we are all part of the same human family.”, hit the nail on the head. I do think we can’t begin to understand the context that the people of South Africa were living in at the time of the apartheid. I pray I can be a person of change and understanding when/if I am in a similar position someday. Excellent post, and see you shortly!
Mark, great post. I appreciated the comments you made concerning the way the churches helped to try and bring Apartheid to an end. I guess I am always looking at the church view of things, and from my perspective, I think my heart struggled with seeing a truly Godly direction to what was being done. Often I felt that the church, God, or even just the concept of Christianity was used more often as a tool than as a sincere evangelism method. Perhaps though, it was the struggle I had within myself to see the sincerity of others after all that had transpired. Because of this hesitation within myself, I could not help but wonder if that same hesitation dwelt in the hearts of South Africans. After all, if I, as an American tourists found it difficult after only a week, how could someone else who had lost loved ones, property, and even years of their lives in prison allow themselves to really identify to a “christian message” from their offenders?
Your final comment was so dead on that I think we all need to take that to heart as we embrace those who have offended us in the past. That desire to hold a grudge is so powerful, or at least it seems so at the time; but the power to let go is so much greater!