racism in the Afrikaans churches

May 9, 2008

The South African reformed church scene is quite a complex one, I can’t think how to explain it to outsiders. But then again, I guess you find the reformed church scene around where you live complex too?

I’m in the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa. Studying with me is a number of students from the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa. Basically the same church, but they split up about 150 years ago, and ever since been apart. Then there is a Reformed Churches of South Africa, again supposed to be basically the same church, split up because of some theological debates in the Netherlands just under 150 years ago which was brought over here by the ministers studying there. Then the “Afrikaanse Protestantse Kerk”, I’ll do them the honour of not writing there name in English. They split up from us in 1986 because the Dutch Reformed Church said Apartheid was wrong, and a number of other things. Then you’ll find three other churches within the Dutch Reformed (our Dutch Reformed) family. The Uniting Reformed Church (the old coloured church and a part of the next church which would be mentioned), another Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (traditionally the black church), and then another one whose name I can’t remember, but this was always the Indian church. And this is just the beginning.

This is the legacy of Apartheid, and the legacy of Afrikaners. My flatmate was working with a laywer for a few months who does settling between companies and employers or something like that. They said that you can find settlement between anyone, except between an Afrikaner and a Zulu, because these two groups are so hard-headed.

So the long intro to a few thoughts after yesterday’s debate about whether the Afrikaans churches do enough to combat racism within themselves, hosted by the center for Public Theology at TUKS. We had Mr Neels Jackson, a brilliant journalist from Beeld who does the religious journalism. Must be one of the best journalists on religious matter I’ve ever read. Then Prof Piet Meiring, formerly from the department of Missiology at TUKS, and part of the Truth and Reconciliation committee. Prof Theuns Dreyer from the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (Nederduits Hervormde Kerk), and Dr Johan Pienaar, moderator of the Northern synod of our church.

At first I thought about giving a summary of the whole debate, but that won’t be possible. So, some high and low points.

A definite low point for me was Prof Dreyer’s speech. Although I don’t disagree with what he said, I got the idea that he was using very beautiful language to defend the fact that you won’t find a lot of black people in the church he is from, and that there is no chance that a large part of there church will ever be non-white. He talked about racism being part of a bigger problem of stereotyping, and how we should actually battle things like forced integration and affirmative action, since this is making Afrikaners negative and thus more racist.

A definite high point was Prof Meiring suggesting that we need to take the problem of racism much more seriously, and that we should consider putting an interdisciplinary course together on the subject which is compulsory for all theological students. This I think must have been the best and most concrete suggestion of the whole morning. Another interesting thing he mentioned was a study on radio sermons a number of years ago, and the finding that almost all radio sermons was about our relationship with God, and almost nothing was said about the ethical dimension of faith, about our public role as Christians.

Neels Jackson made some very good remarks from the observations that he made after attending a number of synod meetings last year. His answer is that we are not yet doing enough about racism. I wholeheartedly agree with him.

Meiring told the story of Nelson Mandela visiting the General Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1994, and telling them that the telling sign of whether they could put Apartheid behind them would be whether they can unite with the other churches within the family. If Madiba was right, then we have failed miserably. My question to the panel was this: Do you think Nelson Mandela was right when he said that this would be the telling sign of whether we could put Apartheid behind us, whether we have put racism behind us, and if not, what would be?

Meiring obviously agreed with Madiba. So did Jackson, saying that we need to end racism to unify the churches, but the churches would need to be unified in order to end racism. Dreyer differed from him. Saying something in the line that forcing unification would not ensure the end of racism (which I’m sure no one in that room said), and then saying something which boiled down to the fact that different people should have different churches, not only because of race, he basically also said that it can’t be helped that the Afrikaans churches cannot unite into one. Although Pienaar didn’t respond to the question, by gutt feel is that he would also say that we don’t need to unite to show that we have put Apartheid and racism to and end.

My thoughts? Well, it seems like 9:00 AM on a Sunday morning is the most segregated time in South Africa. That can’t be right, can it? We can say nice things as much as we like, and talk about “spiritual unity” and other beautiful words, but before I’m not standing next to my black brother on a Sunday morning, I can’t say that I’ve overcome Apartheid. Would we ever do that? I think so yes, but sadly, I think it will take other factors to really put pressure on the existence of the churches in South Africa to bring us together on a large scale. In the meantime, our congregation will be joining the local Uniting Reformed Church in a course on parenting over the next few weeks…

You might wanna look at this post (Multi-Cultural Church), and this blog (Sorry for Apartheid). South Africans touching on similar topics.

3 Responses to “racism in the Afrikaans churches”

  1. Mary Says:

    For me reconciliation is primarily about relationships- the building and restoring of them between humanity and God and humanity with each other. From an outsiders perspective and personal experience true reconciliation at its most simple but perhaps also most profound level occurs when an encounter with ‘the other’ becomes an encounter with a friend. So small scale ways in which individuals can get to know each other and support one another as the siblings in Christ that they already are, like small groups, Bible Study groups, issues based groups, social groups, and things like the parenting course you mentionned are the start and not just the end goal. Until, on a grassroots level, people get involved with loving each other and sharing in each other lives; spiritual and otherwise, reconciliation isn’t going to happen. And when that starts to happen it will have a gradual knock on effect higher up the institutional chain making changes at the ‘higher’ levels of the Church much more natural and less complex.

  2. cobus Says:

    The ideal picture that people should start by getting to know each other on gound level, and in this way make a unification process “natural” is very popular. Problem is that we are 14 years into the process, and still little has happened (in spite of the nice stories you’ll hear in South Africa). Maybe this is where Jackson’s comment about racism and unifying should come in. The one side need the other.

  3. Lukas vd Merwe. Says:

    Wat is julle so gepla met apartheid. Ek praat van die klomp verkramtes in die linksekant. Dit lyk my die ding sal met julle bly tot in die jaar 3000. Jammer om van julle en die fattcats se moeilikheid te hoor. Ons boerevolk het in elk geval niks met apartheid te doen gehad nie. Ons het nie vir die nationale party gestem nie. Nee, ons was nie deel van julle gemors nie. Laat ek julle nou mooi laat verstaan. Die nationale party het die pad byster garaak en die groot aanhang vir die nationale party was, die groter deel van die Afrikaner, ek praat van die mense met wit velle, het so ‘n groot vrees gehad dat hulle nie weer onder ‘n engelse owerheid wil wees nie. Kyk, die mense het he’ll gehad onder die engelse. Die afrikaner was bang vir dit. En die nationale party leiers her dit uitgebuit. Ons het die probleme, wat ons nou mee sit, al destyds gesien aankom, maar die mense wat toe vir die nationale party gestem het is met blindheid geslaan. Die was die dryfveer van die nationale party. Daarmee het die nationale party floreer en dit reggekry om So lank die regerende party in SA te wees. Ons boerevolk het ons gedistansieer van die valsheid vanaf Verwoerd se tyd tot hede toe. So. Ons was nog nooit deel van julle gemors gewees nie. Nou kla julle steen en been. Kry vir julle!! Dis nou ons beurt om ‘n blinde oog te draai. Al ooit gewonder waarom daar so baie gepraat van dat die wittes nie bymekaar kan staan nie. Jammer, julle het erns verlore en die pad byster geraak. Ons is al lankal gereed. Ons wat bymekaar hoord is reeds in die laer saamgetrek. Ons het alles wat nodig is om te oorleef vir so lank soos om selfversorgend te wees vir nog 350 jaar. Ons het alles man, alles. Tot krag, brandstof word daagliks vervaardig, ons vlieg, ons ry gratis, plant ons eie kos, kweek saad, ag noem dit, dit is hier en oral. Maar ons sal jou nie meer pla om jou stem vir die boerevolk te gee nie. Ons het jou nog nooit nodig gehad nie, en sal julle nie in toe toekoms nodig he nie. Die stories wat rondle kom uit julle bekommerdes se geledere. Jammer, ons lek jou nie meer nie. Ons wil niks met julle linkse verkramptes te doen he nie. Dit gaan finansieel baie goed met ons. Ons voer uit en in soos ons wil. Ons internationale sake lyk gesond. Danksy ons buitelanse sake vriende. Ons regeer ons eie. Ons verwag nie van hierdie kommunistiese regering van julle, wat julle gehelp het om aan bewind te kom, deur vir die nationale party te stem in SA, om ons met. enige iets by te staan nie. Julle weet wie julle makmoere is wat nationaal gestem het. Julle het net verdwyn. Ons weet wie is julle. Ons luister net wie is die wat die meeste kla, Julle. Ons is selfversorgend. Die wat nie saam met ons is nie, is teen ons. Nou weet ons waar ons staan met julle. Daar is dalkies so hier en daar boerevolk wat nog nie ingeskakel is nie, maar die wat nog nooit hulle gesigte gewys het by geloftefeeste nie, gaan weg, ons ken julle nie. Moet ons asb nie pla nie. GAAN WEG. Ek dink dis duidelik genoeg in afrikaans gestel. Mooi daggie vir julle almal. Ons groet. Liefde groete. Vrees net God alleen.

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