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Perspectives on International and Multicultural Affairs Volume 1, Issue 1

The Role of the Church in South Africa’s Negotiated Revolution

By Paul Ebner

"The prohibition of the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), the South African Communist Party (SACP), and a number of subsidiary organizations is being rescinded… the Government has taken a firm decision to release Mr. Nelson Mandela unconditionally."

-F.W. de Klerk; President of the Republic of South Africa, February 2, 1990

To say that the contents of South African President de Klerk’s February 2nd, 1990 speech to Parliament caught the world off guard would be a gross understatement. In 45 minutes, de Klerk reversed nearly 40 years of National Party (NP) policy, releasing Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners who until then had been demonized by the NP as murderers for their support of using violence to achieve black equality in South Africa. Catching not only political scientists and journalists off guard, but also majority of his own party members as well as the rest of the world, de Klerk’s February 2nd speech set into motion events that within four years would peacefully transfer power in South Africa from a white racial oligarchy to majority rule. The consequences of de Klerk’s bold shift in policy would lead to a chain of events that eventually would rival the fall of communism in Eastern Europe as the definitive event of the 1990s.

With an event of such magnitude and importance, it is remarkable that almost no one amongst the legion of journalists and political analysts covering South Africa came close to predicting how quickly or peacefully reforms leading to the end of apartheid would occur. Amidst numerous predictions of doom and gloom by journalists and political scientists, Jeffrey Herbst cautioned that "…racial reconciliation will be far more difficult in South Africa than most writers and policy makers believe."1 Even after de Klerk’s February 2nd much-applauded freeing of Mandela and legitimization of the ANC, Kenneth Grundy still predicted that "…the transition, whether [to] power sharing or majority rule, [will] not be peaceful."2 Yet less than four years after de Klerk, a strong defender of apartheid, was elected to the presidency, universal elections were held and power was peacefully handed over to the ANC. Although there was some political violence and unrest, the protracted Lebanon-style guerrilla insurgency that so many had predicted never occurred.

Answering how and why the transfer of power from apartheid to majority rule happened so smoothly requires a close examination of the motivations and incentives for both sides to negotiate before being forced to compromise. By the end of the 1980s, white South Africa was feeling international and domestic pressure to end its apartheid policy yet the state was hardly on the brink of collapse.3 The government had recently restored order to the country after a two year civil uprising ending in1986 and the South African Defense Forces (SADF), although not able to destroy the black nationalist forces, were able to force a stalemate. Upon coming to office, the conservative de Klerk was expected to, in the words of his elder brother Willem: "hold the middle ground by means of clever footwork, small compromises, drawn-out studies and planned processes…".4 So why then, only one year after coming to power during a period of relative security, did de Klerk reverse his party’s policy and begin negotiating with ANC? What motivated the ANC to negotiate with the oppressive white regime which for years had promised reforms without any intention to follow through? Most importantly, how could so many South Africa watchers have misread the situation and failed to foresee the future transfer of power?

This paper will analyze the events surrounding and leading up to the birth of post-apartheid South Africa. It will examine which actors driving South African politics during the end of the 1980s and early 1990s influenced the ANC and NP, two diametrically opposed political parties, to compromise and negotiate universal elections rather than reverting to armed conflict in pursuit of their own agendas. Specifically, it concludes that the ideological shift of the Dutch Reformed Church, which had supported apartheid policies using Biblical justification until 1986, helped ease the transfer of power. Also, the non-Afrikaner churches involved in this process were generally a moderating influence with peace as their sole purpose; to this end, they had supported the apartheid government over a violent takeover and later helped the government to appreciate the perspective of the non-Afrikaner people. Understanding which influence contributed to the new South Africa’s immaculate conception could assist the international community in conflict management, helping to prevent bloodshed in other conflict zones.

The Christian Church

"Most scholars continue to pay insufficient attention to the impact of religion on political development. In the South African context, this oversight is especially unfortunate since the South African is above all else a ‘religious animal.’"5

The fact that three-quarters of all South Africans and 90% of the Afrikaner population belong to a Christian Church only hints at the influence that the Church has had on South African culture and politics. With its roots in Calvinism, Afrikaner Nationalism has always required a theological underpinning to support its politics, forging a strong union between the National Party and the three Dutch Reformed Churches (DRC), to the extent that the Nederuitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK) has been dubbed the "National Party at Prayer." As a result, South African government documents have been littered with references to God, and the DRC traditionally exercised a great deal of influence over NP.6

The Christian Church also played an active role in the liberation movement, with several members of the clergy, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Rev. Beyers Naudé, taking the lead in calling for government reforms and international pressure against the ruling regime. Many Churches took part in the United Democratic Front (UDF) during the 1980s. There is a consensus that one of the ANC’s influences over that span of its existence has been the Christian Church. Additionally, in the months leading up to the first multi-national elections, both the government and opposition went to great lengths o court the backing of South Africa’s various churches, realizing how valuable their congregation’s support would be at the polls.7 Given its prominent role in South African society, it is important to explore how the Church influenced the negotiated revolution and how it empowered the moderate-reformer coalition or the rejectionist standpatters and radicals.

The Dutch Reformed Church (DRC)

The DRC was "one of the most powerful instruments in…the political oppression of the black people," providing not only apartheid’s moral legitimization but taking a lead role in creating the policy itself.8 Between 1932 and 19947, the DRC sent several delegations to the National Party with proposals for racial legislation that had a great impact upon the NP’s apartheid policy. Throughout the system’s implementation, the DRC created an apartheid theology designed to provide a moral justification for the segregationist policy based upon biblical stories of the Tower of Babel, the Canaanite race, and of Noah’s son Ham and his descendants. By juxtaposing the Boer Great Trek from British imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century to the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt, the DRC maintained that the Afrikaner people were God’s chosen tenants of the South African promised land who had been entrusted with the black population over which to rule.9 The notion of being God’s chosen people even made its way into the preamble of the South African constitution, reading: "in humble submission to Almighty God, who controls the destinies of nations and the history of peoples; who gathered our forebears together from many lands and gave them their own."10

In conjunction with the Broederbond, the three churches making up the DRC provided the ideological and moral orientation for the Afrikaner people, helping to ensure a homogeneous people with little tolerance for dissenters. As a member of God’s chosen nation and following a biblically sanctioned policy of separate development, the Afrikaner had little reason to question apartheid as an unjust policy. In addition, the DRC found grounds for suppressing black resistance in Romans 13: 1-7, a passage stating that "every person must submit to the authorities in power, for all authority comes from God" and that "it follows that anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution, and those who resist have themselves to thank for the punishment they will receive."11 This moral defense provided the highly religious Afrikaner people ample theological support for their form of government. When put in such a light, it would appear that anyone questioning apartheid would in fact be questioning God himself, thus leaving little room for reformers within the party.

In addition to empowering the standpatters in the government, the DRC did much to empower radicals in the opposition. With its homogenizing effects upon the Afrikaner people and its support for the National Party, the DRC was an integral buttress of apartheid, providing a moral justification for the system while deterring reformers from voicing their dissent. Despite increased pressure and isolation by the international church community, the DRC only slowly and grudgingly began to re-examine its stance on apartheid. It was not until 1986 that the NGK broke ranks with the other two DRC churches, admitting that apartheid had no biblical justification but nevertheless maintaining that segregation was still an acceptable policy to follow. At that point, the other two DRC churches had not yet considered even re-examining their unequivocal support for apartheid.12

This steadfast church support for the NP and its policy of apartheid fueled black disillusionment leading many of them to lend their support to the radical factions of the opposition. When a group of English-speaking church members bound together in 1985 to put their support for the liberation movement on paper in what came to be known as the Kairos Document, they cited the fact that the government will never "experience a change of heart and totally abandon its policy of apartheid" as a key reason for actively supporting the liberation movement.13

As pressure mounted, however, even the Dutch Reformed Church began to acknowledge that the apartheid system could not be maintained and therefore reduced its empowerment of the rejectionist factions. When elements of the National Party broke rank to form the Conservative Party in 1982, the DRC was divided roughly in half between the two parties. This split weakened the once monolithic church and led to the 1987 split that formed the anti-apartheid Afrikaner Protestant Church.14 These schisms reduced the DRC’s ability to dictate to their congregations which policy to support. As a result, the Afrikaner society lost one of its main unifying factors, a phenomenon which loosened the restraints on reformers within the arty and undermining standpatters within the government.

SACC Churches

Throughout the liberation movement, the non-Afrikaner churches represented in the South African Council of Churches (SACC) held a prominent and influential role that helped to define the movement as a whole. These anti-apartheid churches served the non-Afrikaner white community of mainly English origin as well as black, colored, and Indian Christians. In the words of George Schultz, the Church represented "voices of conciliation, decency, dialogue, and community service in the interest of the common humanity of South Africans."15 Since the founding of the ANC in 1912, the non-Afrikaner churches were a critique and moral guide in favor of multi-racialism, non-violence, and representative government. Empowering moderates in the opposition, the Church encouraged blacks to petition their white, Christian brothers to reform the system on the grounds of Christian morality, while strongly denouncing the use of violence or other illegal methods of resistance to government authority.16

Taking its origins from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Roman Catholic liberation theology of Latin America, and black theologians in the U.S., the South African Church actively supported the moderate-reformer coalition with the policy "that the church must not hide in a closet of ritual and piety but must involve itself in the realities of life of the poor and the oppressed."17 In is push to become involved with the liberation movement, SACC churches played a key role as the mouthpiece for South African resistance, drawing international attention to the plight of black South Africans. During the 1960s government crackdown on black political parties and other organizations of protest, the Christian Church stepped in to become a front line of defense in the fight for civil rights, preventing the government from dismissing the movement as radical and communist. Although the NP did try to restrict the church, as it did other political organizations, the South African churches managed to preserve their autonomy by banding together against government pressure. Even the pro-government DRC joined the coalition to prevent what it saw as state intervention in religious affairs. As a result, churches became the liberation movement’s last safe haven to hold meetings and political discussions, transforming them into an international mouthpiece for anti-apartheid criticism.18 Outspoken members of the clergy, such as the soon-to-be Archbishop Desmond Tutu, seized the opportunity to use the Church as a means for bringing international attention to the plight of black South Africans. Tutu was in fact awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his decade-long promotion of non-violent resistance against the oppressive white government

However, this is not to say that the SACC churches did nothing to empower the government standpatters and the radicals within the opposition. Especially with the increased violence of the 1980s, the church found its support for the liberation movement increasingly difficult to justify given its long-time criticism of political violence. The church gradually reversed its position from criticizing the use of violence against the white government, to recognizing it as a necessary evil, and finally, to accepting violence as a legitimate means to ending apartheid.

A new theological movement in conjunction with the Black Consciousness Movement of the middle 1970s also empowered radicals by claiming God’s authority as the source of revolutionary struggle. According to Black Theology, as the movement came to be known, Jesus was a radical set to the task of eradicating oppression and exploitation. Black Theology taught that God supported a revolutionary approach to ending black oppression in South Africa. In addition, since the current system was created by whites expressly for the oppression of non-white South Africans, there could be no reconciliation of the system and therefore "the victims of oppression had only two options: either suffer the institutionalized violence of white supremacy, or resist with minimal but effective violence."19 Under such an ideology, negotiated reforms would be impossible. Although the movement did not receive mass support, it nonetheless marked a significant break from the passive resistance supported by the majority of South African churches and would influence the later movements of the church as a whole. Black Theology mainly succeeded in raising the potential for revolution among the black population, empowering the radicals in the opposition and feeding standpatter fears within the government.

Shortly after Botha’s declaration of national emergency in 1985 at the height of the Township Uprisings, 150 church leaders from all denominations and races met together in an effort to redefine the church’s role in the liberation movement through the Kairos Document. As never before, the Kairos Document directly challenged not only the government’s use of Romans 13: 1-7 as justification for oppression, but reversed several decades worth of church policy to challenge the moderate-reformer position as well. In the document, church leaders argued that nowhere in the scripture does God require of his people obedience to an oppressive regime. Just as God freed the Israelites from the Egyptians and Babylonians instead of forcing them to submit to their slavery, so were black South Africans justified in not submitting to the white government’s authority. Equally important, however, the Kairos document questioned the traditional definition of violence stating that, biblically, the term ‘violence’ is only used in conjunction with a wicked oppressor. Going beyond merely questioning if it would "be legitimate to describe both the physical force used by a rapist and the physical force used by a woman trying to resist the rapist as violence?," the Kairos authors go so far as to state that "there are circumstances when physical force may be used."20

In a seemingly significant setback to the moderate-reformer coalition, the Kairos document contains questions posed by church leaders concerning the merits of attempting negotiations with the ruling party. Like Black theologians, the Kairo authors claimed that the apartheid system could not be reformed but instead had to be overthrown completely. Using biblical support, the Kairos authors declared that "God does not bring his justice through reforms introduced by the Pharaoh’s of this world," alluding back to Israelite slavery in Egypt.21 In 1987, the South African Council of Churches echoed the Kairos Document with its Lusaka Document which restated the church’s commitment to a peaceful transfer of power but accepted that "the nature of the South African regime which wages war against its own inhabitants and neighbors compels the liberation movements to the use of force along with other means to end oppression."22

Importantly, the Church remained a strong advocate for negotiations as well as an overall moderating force during the liberation movement, continuing to support non-violent methods of resistance even after the Kairos and Lusaka documents. Although the church’s acceptance of violence as a necessary evil may appear to have encouraged standpatters in the government, in reality it probably accomplished the opposite. A case could be made arguing that the Christian Church’s acceptance of violence against the ruling regime helped to confirm, in the minds of standpatters, that the liberation struggle would continue to intensify until it eventually escalated into a Lebanon-style civil war.

In stark contrast to the other non-Afrikaner churches, the conservative black churches surprisingly offered the white government a stabilizing base of support, further hindering the moderate-reformer coalition. These churches, specifically the Zionist denominations, encouraged their congregations of poor working blacks to silently suffer under apartheid because, in these churches "there [was] no room for people who undermine[d] national security and [broke] the law."23 Concerned primarily with the immediate well-being of its constituency, Zionist churches advised their congregation, which included nearly one-third of all black Christians, to completely avoid politics in order to prevent confrontation with the government. The churches themselves went to great lengths to remain apolitical, viewing politics as beyond the role of the church. The largest South African church, the Zionist Christian Church (ZCC),even went so far as to align itself with the Botha administration in the middle 1980s instead of backing the other churches that supported and called for international sanctions.24 Because of their sheer size, these conservative churches had an influential impact upon the process of transferring power, and many of them used their leverage to maintain the status quo rather than move forward with change.


The different South African churches, despite their sharing of the Christian faith and moral tenets laid down in the same Bible, impacted the transfer of power process in two entirely dichotomous manners. Interestingly enough, both the apartheid supporting Dutch Reformed Churches and the anti-violence liberation Churches of the South African Council of Churches were steadfast in their commitments, until roughly the same time during the middle 1980s when the two groups reversed their positions. The DRC, a long-time pillar of the National Party and apartheid system, began to re-examine and question its biblical justification of the apartheid system in 1986. Similarly, the non-Afrikaner churches who had vehemently opposed the liberation’s use of violence, accepted the use of violence in resisting government oppression first in 1985 with the Kairos Document and then gain in the 1987 Lusaka document. This suggests that by the middle of the 1980s, the situation in South Africa had reached a critical stage, with both blacks and Afrikaners recognizing the growing necessity of repealing apartheid.

Although both groups altered their positions, the church’s greatest impact upon South African society and politics came from the DRC’s long-term moral justification of apartheid and the SACC churches’ non-violent approach to the liberation. For over half a century, the DRC supported standpatters in the government while preventing reformists from voicing dissent. The DRC’s monolithic stance in favor of apartheid fed black radical anger while convincing reformers in the liberation movement that the government was unlikely to ever allow significant change. In contrast, the liberation churches promoted the moderate position in the opposition by supporting non-violence and encouraging blacks to appeal to their Christian Afrikaner brothers to enact much needed reforms. This passivist stance helped the reformers by convincing members of the government that those opposing apartheid were not murdering heathens but an oppressed people seeking retribution for years spent under white domination.

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End Notes

1 Herbst, Jeffrey. "Radical Reconciliation in Southern Africa." International Affairs. Winter 1988-1989:43-54.

2 Grundy, Kenneth. South Africa: domestic crisis and global challenge. Boulder: Westview, 1991, 123.

3 Ibid.

4 Sparks, Allister. Tomorrow is Another Country: The Inside Story of South Africa’s Road to Change. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995, 94-95.

5 Graybill, Lyn S. Religion and Resistance Politics in South Africa. Westport & London: Praeger, 1995, 1.

6 Ibid.

7 Sparks, Allister. The Mind of South Africa. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

8 Fatton, Robert Jr. Black Consciousness in South Africa. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986, 108.

9 Johnston, Douglas & Sampson, Cynthia. edit. Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

10 The Kairos Theologians. The Kairos Document. Springs, South Africa: Spring Advertiser, Nov. 1985 3rd impression, 6-7.

11 The Revised English Bible with the Apocryphia. Camphill, P.A.: Oxford University Press & Cambridge University Press, 1994.

12 Ottaway, Marina. South Africa: The Struggle for a New Order. Washington DC: The Brookings Institute, 1993.

13 Kairos, 19.

14 Ottaway.

15 Johnson & Sampson.

16 Graybill.

17 Sparks, 1990, 282.

18 Johnston & Sampson.

19 Fatton, 117.

20 Kairos, 12.

21 Kairos, 11.

22 Ottaway, 59.

23 Sparks, 1990, 296.

24 Johnston & Sampson.

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