Time of Transition

The Church and the struggle for freedom in South Africa

Theologian John de Gruchy recalls attending debates in apartheid South Africa’s Parliament in the late 1960s. On the floor, fielding questions from the opposition, was Prime Minister B. J. Vorster. Looking down from the gallery above was Vorster’s brother, Koot, then moderator of the Cape Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church. From time to time the prime minister would look for an approving or disapproving glance from the moderator. 

This was one picture of church and state relations in the “Old South Africa.” The characteristic response of the state to the criticism of other churches was quite different. “They should keep to the preaching of the gospel and leave politics to us.” If Paul recognized divine sanction for authority among the pagan Romans (Rom 13:1-7), how much more ought Christians acknowledge a government constitutionally mandated “in humble submission to Almighty God”?

The space outside parliament was virtually empty in those days. Members of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) brought petitions before government and made impassioned public statements opposing its segregationist policies and their effects. They appealed to the conscience of the white electorate and placed hope in the liberal opposition. But all this proved ineffectual.

The Church in Opposition
Yet the leadership of churches at a denominational and ecumenical level grew increasingly black over the next two decades. This meant that they had a profound experience of apartheid from the other side. By 1985 it was becoming apparent to many in the churches that preaching the gospel mandated a complete rejection not only of apartheid but of the parliament that normalized it. The true leadership and people of South Africa was outside. Even some members of the opposition left their seats. They joined pastors and ministers, priests and bishops arguing that the church must stand opposed to the state – and to the churches that gave sanction (even in their silence) to its policies. The church was also present through lay participation in trade unions, civic organizations, and other advocacy groups. Outside South Africa’s borders a global movement of churches urged their governments to isolate the regime economically, culturally and spiritually. 

The Rainbow Nation
It is often assumed that the New South Africa was born with the first democratic elections of 1994. But it was really in these gatherings in the 1980s that the new nation was manifested. Unjust laws were simply not recognized. A newly baptized “Rainbow Nation” was formed – a people of different races, colours and languages. It looked a lot like the Kingdom of God.

What followed was an optimistic (and yet strangely uncertain) time for the churches. South Africa was “flavour of the month” globally. The extra-parliamentary opposition moved into parliament (and business and education and industry). The SACC declared itself in “critical solidarity” with the new government. The church was now “in Parliament,” though the movement of clerics into government posts sparked denominational debate. Some members of parliament (including the African National Congress, or ANC) called for a new “liberationist” Christian hegemony. A more conservative (though black-led) Christian Democratic Party formed, though few Christians actually voted for it. Theologians pondered the nature of a “secular state” in an overwhelmingly Christian society. 

‘The More Things Change . . .’
The ANC continued to woo churches for endorsement, especially as it began to lose legitimacy amidst growing public scandal, moral compromise and fiscal failure. There were galvanizing moments. When the HIV/Aids crisis reached a point where it threatened to undo South Africa’s transformation, churches joined civil society in pressing the president and health minister to extend antiretrovirals to sufferers. The church grew uneasy. Was this truly what South Africans had struggled for?

With the arrival of South Africa’s third democratically elected president, Jacob Zuma, the church regained its unity of conscience and action. The populist Zuma gathered a group of conservative churches around himself – a group strangely silent about his moral indiscretions. He claimed that “the ANC will rule South Africa till Jesus comes back.” His followers claimed Zuma was like Jesus in suffering abuse from media and opposition groups. Churches that did weigh in on political matters were warned to keep their place. Plus ça change.

Underneath the rhetoric was the selling-off of the future of South Africa to foreign interests (the so-called “state capture”), and the enriching of a new elite. Billions of dollars flowed out of the country. Shady arms deals and escalating crime challenged South Africa’s identity as a beacon of non-violent transformation. Parliamentarians zoomed around the country in luxury SUVs in “Blue Light” convoys, while the post-1994 infrastructure (and optimism) crumbled. The SACC spoke no longer of “critical solidarity” but of “critical engagement.” 

Where to Now?
By Easter of 2015 the country had had enough. So had the church. While new social movements had protested for several years, two voices rallied the opposition: one a church leader, Rev. Thabo Makgoba, and the other a lay Christian, Thuli Madonsela. Both were activists who cut their teeth in the anti-apartheid movement, but who now occupied significant public roles. Makgoba was Anglican archbishop of Cape Town (from 2008). Madonsela was South Africa’s public protector (2009-2016). 

Makgoba rebuffed an initiative from Zuma to befriend faith communities shortly after the Madonsela’s election. He steadily escalated confrontations over poor delivery of services to the most vulnerable. Madonsela attacked government corruption and mismanagement to the point where Zuma’s partisans began a campaign to have her replaced. A vigil in support of Madonsela on the steps of St. George’s Cathedral (not far from parliament) grew into a massive procession. More demonstrations followed. Observers were reminded of the 1980s, though now protests worked in concert with legitimate voices inside Parliament. Eventually Zuma resigned. In his place is Cyril Ramaphosa, a trade unionist turned businessman, and one of the architects of South Africa’s transition. There is now cautious optimism.

Is this a case of “what goes around comes around?” Not quite. For one thing, democratic institutions put in place by the 1996 constitution have held. And things are better for the majority, relative at least to the brutality of the apartheid state. But they could and should be much better. The Kingdom of God is a yardstick for justice. From time-to-time it can be glimpsed in gatherings and celebrations. But no society, not even one headed by that consummate statesman Nelson Mandela, can be the kingdom of God. Like all regimes, the “New South Africa” exists only under the longsuffering of God and within the timespan between the ascension and return of Christ. Ultimately, it too will run out of time. 

But it does not mean that the church should “just preach the gospel,” as if the gospel had nothing to do with the Kingdom. Indeed, an engaged church can and does create signs, parables of that Kingdom that will never end. At the same time the position of the church amidst the politics of the world can never be finally located on a map or reduced to a single agenda. Whether “against” or “with” or “within” the politics of the day, the key term is always “witness” to the Kingdom which is to come. 


  • Stephen Martin

    Stephen Martin is Associate Professor of Theology at The King’s University in Edmonton. He did his Doctorate under John de Gruchy at the University of Cape Town during South Africa’s transition in the 1990s.

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