Living in New Zealand during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s allowed me a closer perspective of the ultimate demise of apartheid in South Africa and the ascendency of the ANC and Nelson Mandela in the new Republic of South Africa. I well remember the white South African immigrants fleeing what they anticipated would be a complete collapse of order and a retaliatory discrimination much like that which was taking place in Zimbabwe at about the same time. What transpired, however, was a far different scenario as depicted in the film Invictus which highlights Mandela’s recognition that a united South Africa required the unification of people who once saw themselves as mortal enemies.
The initial rise and solidification of Apartheid went against the universal flow of anti-colonialism and a heightened awareness of racism following World War II and Hitler’s attempted extermination of the Jews. Amazingly, this system of racial oppression was carried out by a small group of people who had for years themselves been victims of discrimination and marginalization. In an effort to protect themselves the National Party, largely made up of settlers of Dutch extraction called Afrikaan, developed a system of oppression that served not only to subjugate both African nationals and other people of color but, ultimately isolated the white minority it was meant to serve, through political, economic and sporting sanctions from a condemning world.
The belief in white supremacy and the attempt at development of ‘separate but equal’ social systems was certainly not confined to South Africa but was evident in pockets all over the world including the US, Australia and India. The systematized subjugation of a people based on the color of their skin was a phenomena exacerbated by the ‘scientific racism’ that began during the Enlightenment and was not fully discredited until the mid 20th century. It has been used to justify racial based slavery as in the United States and even the slaughter of people based on their ‘animalistic’ features as in Australia. In South Africa it was purportedly a means of defending against communism, maintaining a purity of races and allegedly providing for the ‘needs’ of various races in segregated locations. The mental convulsions necessary to maintain this system eventually became unsustainable as South Africa drifted farther into isolationism and came under political and economic duress. However, it became evident that the National Party, under the leadership of FW deKlerk, and the ANC with Nelson Mandela as leader, would need to work together to transition from Apartheid to restore South Africa to a functional system of majority rule and thereby reconnect with the rest of the world.
It was interesting to read about the forces that coalesced to become Apartheid that even included some complicity amongst African National leadership of the time. There were those who seemed to gain some benefit in supporting the white minority at the expense of their own people. Further, it is evident that there were significant members of the white minority that were working against Apartheid from the inside at great personal risk. It is easy to both denigrate the African Nationals who tacitly supported Apartheid while at the same time assume that all Whites in South Africa were bigots. Welsh reminds readers that simplistic answers to tough questions fail to absorb the nuance of the period and the people who lived through it.
Those who know much about South Africa may wonder how a people who have retained a relatively strong Christian faith heritage could possibly maintain such a racist system for so long. One would do well to read and recall the sermons being preached in the US South in support of slavery and Jim Crow laws or reflect on the Catholic church’s long complicity with the elite in Central and South America against the poor and indigenous people of that region. Relinquishing power has always been a struggle, even for those who claim to be disciples of Jesus. Theological justifications and supportive Biblical interpretations that make the way easy for the group in power and difficult for those who are not have always existed; just ask the apostle Paul. His battle was Jew verses Gentile but the motivation was similar; an unwillingness to cede authority to those deemed inferior. Paul reminds readers in a multitude of his church plants that such distinctions are unnecessary and unGodly. (“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”) (Gal 5:6 NRSV) This in no way justifies the actions that have occurred in South Africa, the US, Australia or any other place, but serves to recognize the prejudicial bias evident in all of us.
In the midst of the racial tension that remains in the US, as evidenced by the Black Lives Matter movement among others, it is beneficial to reflect on the racial divide that exists in another society such as South Africa. Understanding the beliefs and events that supported their systematized racism may provide insight into the struggles that are our own and help us find a way forward that restores justice and recognizes the full humanity that is God ordained in all people. A willingness to be introspective may result from the opportunity to cast a critical eye on the weaknesses of another belief system such as Apartheid. I for one am trying to be more aware of my own biases and recognize the privileged upbringing I have had as a result of my being born into the ‘right’ race and gender.