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”.
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”. 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”). 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”. 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”. 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?”
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.” 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”. 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