Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Too close to home

Written by: on September 14, 2017

In reading David Welsh’s “The Rise and Fall of Apartheid”, PW Botha’s own rise and fall of power captured my attention.  Although an unlikely character to focus on (Mandela and De Klerk are certainly more notorious), Botha’s intersection between his Christian faith and leadership within the Nationalist Party (NP) prompted me to want to dig deeper into his background and ideology.

Botha led the Nationalist Party as prime minister from 1978-1989, although his involvement in the party began as early as the 1930’s when he became a youth organizer.  During World War II, Botha worked for the Ox Wagon Fire Guard (who had Nazi allegiances), but later disengaged from the guard because the group “lacked Christian ideology”.[1]

During his 1979 ‘adapt or die’ speech, Botha declared “Do not ask me to say that I stand for a Christian nationalism and then come and tell me that I must neglect the interests of the black man and the brown man, because then I shall not be a Christian and I shall not be a Nationalist”.[2]  Botha’s intent as the leader of the NP was to “reform” apartheid policy into “separate development” (even though he wanted to keep reform in accordance with “NP principles”).[3]  Botha earnestly believed that his Christian faith was the motivation for this reform.

I’m always curious about professing Christians who overtly engage in racism, violence, and oppression.  More than judgement, I want to understand how a person who reads the same Bible I do can justify their actions.  I researched Botha’s early life to find a glimpse into the development of his Christian faith.  He was born in 1916, and grew up on a farm “among a provincial community of Afrikaners”.[4]   Botha studied law at the University of the Orange Free State, although he never graduated with his degree.  Botha’s childhood appears non-eventful and there’s little to no mention of a family of faith or a transformative faith experience.  It’s interesting then, that Botha routinely talked about his faith and relied on his faith for decision-making, his moral compass and for justifying policy.

Botha was so bold about his faith that in 1988, he “publicly warned Archbishop Desmond M Tutu, the Anglican Primate of Southern Africa (and 1984 Nobel Peace Prize recipient), against distorting “the true message of Christ” by bringing the church’s spiritual power in the “secular” struggle against apartheid”.[5]  Tutu quickly retorted with a 3200 word letter.  One of his most powerful statements to Botha was this – ”The church does not recognize the dichotomies which are much loved by the privileged and the powerful.” ‘Lord of All Life’.  He continued on with ”The God whom we worship is Lord of all life, and if you are to say his writ does not run in the political realm, you have to tell us whose writ does?”[6]

Politically, Botha justified perpetuating his NP fundamental belief system by his belief that his newly developed constitution was premised on the “fundamental difference between ‘discrimination and differentiation’: discrimination occurred when injustice was done by one group to another; differentiation was merely the drawing of distinctions.  ‘Hurtful, unnecessary’ discrimination had to go, but differentiation as provided for in the ‘healthy power-sharing’ contained in the constitution, was fundamental for white survival and self-determination.”[7]  I had to read this sentence multiple times to digest the meaning and distortions of Botha’s thinking.  From afar, it’s easy and comfortable to pass judgment on South Africa’s era of apartheid.  In a speech in 1986, President Reagan stated “The United States cannot maintain cordial relations with a government whose power rests upon the denial of rights to a majority of its people, based on race”.[8]  I’m glad the United States government and leaders took a stand against apartheid.  I’m glad the people of the United States saw apartheid as an atrocity.  But I’m sad that in my own country, then and now, we still have covert modes of oppression.  The constitution of the United States was created by white, Christian men – and make no mistake – was designed to benefit the white man.  Have we created amendments?  Yes.  Do people of color and women now have rights that we did not originally?  Yes.  But, are we truly aware and willing to accept that covert forms of oppression (which may be secret, hidden, not openly practiced, or so subtle that they are not readily obvious, even to the intended target) do exist?   As Christians, we have a responsibility to seek truth in recognizing that we may have our own role in supporting oppression.  We at least need to be open to researching, learning, and supporting our brothers and sisters in Christ that feel they are at the hands and feet of oppressors – not overseas, but here in our own country. Can you…will you…relinquish comfort and control in your own world just enough to allow someone else to be elevated to a place where they feel they have equal power?

Clearly, Botha felt justified – even in his Christian faith – to perpetuate racism and oppression.   I do not believe most Christians set out to intentionally hurt others.  Most people believe that professing “love for others” is enough.  I challenge you to move a step further – begin by acknowledging that a problem exists, by desiring change and by working together to achieve resolution.  “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” James 5:16 NIV

[1] https://www.biography.com/people/pw-botha-9220773

[2] Welsh209

[3] Welsh

[4] https://www.biography.com/people/pw-botha-9220773

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/1988/05/03/world/tutu-and-botha-joust-over-theology.html

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/1988/05/03/world/tutu-and-botha-joust-over-theology.html

[7] Welsh218-219

[8] http://www.nytimes.com/1986/07/23/world/transcript-of-talk-by-reagan-on-south-africa-and-apartheid.html?pagewanted=all

About the Author

Jean Ollis

9 responses to “Too close to home”

  1. Jennifer Williamson says:

    Great post, Jean. Botha was an interesting person, and (like most of us) a mix of darkness and light. How often have humans used scripture to justify ungodly behaviour? Sadly, too often! So I take personally your challenge. I do admit the problem exists, and I admit that I am part of that problem. I have benefitted from systems of oppression. I have also been confronted with my own prejudice here in Europe. I had a freightful encounter with some Romanian gypsies years ago, and I find myself struggling with racism against this people group because of that one encounter. I KNOW this is wrong thinking, but it’s amazing how strong the fear is and how hard it is to be free from it. I confess this prejudice as sin, and long for healing in my heart. Before this experience with the gypsies, I would have said that I was not a racist. Now I see how easy it is to let fear take root and produce prejudice. It seemed to me like fear was an ongoing theme in the story of apartheid. Which is why we are told, “perfect love casts out fear.” Thanks again for your thoughtful words.

  2. Jason Turbeville says:

    Your post resonates with me, I find it hard to understand Christians who say it is ok for one group to be elevated over another and then try to back it up with scripture. Botha’s attempt to walk the line of being true to Christ, but also to keep the separation based upon color of skin, may seem valiant to some, and ugly to others is probably no worse than our attempts after slavery in this country. Our inability to see others as anything but human, to me, is a mark of our sin. Paul fought against the same issues in his letters that we fight now.
    Thanks for your post.

  3. M Webb says:


    You ask the right question, “why?”

    Why do well meaning, Bible focused Christians allow, support, and condone such evil in the world. Answer: Satan! He is the master deceiver whose tactic is to take a lie, and make it nearly match the truth. The lie becomes so close to the truth, that the undiscerning Christian may fall prey to the Devil’s schemes. Look at the effects on Eve. After Satan said, “Did God say” in just the right questioning tone of voice, created just enough doubt, confusion, and distraction from God that she voluntarily chose to believe the lie and act on it by eating the forbidden fruit.(1) Unfortunately, the Christians who helped draft the Apartheid also chose to believe Satan’s lie, that whites are superior to other races.

    I like your closing comments and challenge to acknowledge that there is a problem and to work together to find solutions. My hope is that you and our class will prayerfully ask for the wisdom and discernment to identify and defeat Satan’s lies by putting on the whole armor of God. (2)

    Stand firm,
    M Webb

    1 Gen. 3:1
    2 Eph. 6:11

  4. Greg says:


    I appreciate your desire to learn more about the life and motivations of someone that on this side of the story of apartheid is easy to vilify and possibly easily dismiss. I think in our own walk it is important to study the reasons and perceived justifications to also help us recognize some of those in our own lives.
    You wrote, “are we truly aware and willing to accept that covert forms of oppression” …great and challenging question for us to not hide our thoughts, our past, our understandings and misunderstandings, rather realizing what they are and allowing Christ to have an ongoing transformation and in going renewal. These are easy words but an incredibly humbly reality. Thank you for your reflections.

  5. Dan Kreiss says:

    Excellent post! I love that you went deep into understanding Botha to begin to comprehend the theological convulsions necessary to maintain a system like apartheid. As I currently reside in the South (a geographic location rather than a direction) I have come to understand similar thinking here, sadly even now at times. Jim Crow laws were established and maintained by people regularly sitting in the pews on Sunday; people who read their Bible consistently and saw themselves as civic leaders. Much of the support for the laws here and there was motivated by fear and self-preservation; that if we don’t do this they will rise up against us and we will lose our way of life. Those sentiments are incredibly strong motivations for interpreting scripture in a way that supports ones ideologies.

  6. Jay Forseth says:

    Wow, what a powerful post. Thank you for helping me focus outside the most famous folks like Mandella and De DeKlerk.

    Thank you for your quote, “I challenge you to move a step further – begin by acknowledging that a problem exists, by desiring change and by working together to achieve resolution.”

    That is my heart. I simply hope I am able to be that honest with myself. You have been!

  7. Your extensive research and insights into Botha were fascinating. I was also drawn to the various leaders who emerged from the book and how they impacted the story. The line that most resonated with me from your post was… “I’m always curious about professing Christians who overtly engage in racism, violence, and oppression. More than judgment, I want to understand how a person who reads the same Bible I do can justify their actions.” I couldn’t agree more and it is hard not to pass judgment, but the best you and I can do is treat those around us as equals. Beautiful post with wise insights, see you next week.

  8. david says:

    Hey Jean,
    Thanks for this post and focusing on Botha, someone that I had kind of skipped by in the story. In the end, I think his philosophical approach (the adaptive one, leading toward parallel tracks between the races) lost out and was surpassed. And yet, you do a good job of humanizing him and bringing out his background and seeing the parts of the man that were trying to do right in the midst of unjust circumstances. He certainly was “a man of his times” and it causes me to think about the times we are in and the difficulties we can have in perceiving the future.

  9. Chris Pritchett says:

    Thank you so much, Jean, this was really helpful for me to get a concise summary of Botha’s leadership and twisted theology. I wasn’t able to read every page of the book, so posts like this really help. I wonder, was Botha Dutch Reformed? I know that the Dutch Reformed Church in S.A. theologically sponsored Apartheid until a group of black Dutch Reformed seminarians drafted the Behlar Confession in 1978, which was not adopted by the whole Dutch Reformed Church until 1986, when the negotiations were already underway (I believe). I was a bit dumbfounded by Botha’s statement to Bishop Tutu about this effort of mixing faith and politics, when Apartheid itself was itself built on a theological (not secular) foundation…just like slavery and such here in the States. I appreciated the connections you made to our nation’s history and present. I think that the Constitution was also written by Deists who somehow thought they were Christian. This is all just such a glaring proof that theology really matters!

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