The day an apartheid ‘Christian government’ turned on an ecumenical organization

October 19, 1977 or Black Wednesday, marks one of the lowest days under apartheid when 18 Black Consciousness organizations and the ecumenical Christian Institute were banned and no longer allowed to operate. Many Black Consciousness officials were detained on that day and with the death of its leader Steve Biko in detention a month earlier, on September 12, 1977, the Black Consciousness movement never really recovered from this mortal blow.

Press Freedom curtailed

In raids that started early in the morning, two black newspapers were closed and The World and Weekend World editor Percy Quboza was detained along with scores of other black journalists without charges.

The white editor of the Daily Dispatch, Donald Woods was banned, meaning he could no longer work as a journalist. His interviews with Steve Biko has raised an awareness of the aims of the Black Consciousness Movement among his white readership. A few months later he fled the country.

Beyers Naudé

The one organization that did not seem to quite fit the bill was the multi-racial Christian Institute, an ecumenical organization founded by the Reformed Afrikaans theologian Rev. Beyers Naudé in 1963 when he broke with the apartheid regime on the question of the justification for apartheid based on the Bible. The Christian Institute was vocal in its anti-apartheid theological stance and helped secure bursaries and aid for families of detained political prisoners.

On Ocirober 19, 1977 as the organisation was banned — the only religious organization to be included — its founder Naudé had a five-year banning order slapped on him. This was a type of house arrest effectively prohibiting him from leaving the municipality of Johannesburg or attending any gathering where more than one person was present. Even in his own house only one person was permitted to be in a room with him at the same time. Under the strict regulations he had to report to a designated police station once a week. He was only allowed to attend church services.

Blow for Black Consciousness movement

The bannings came 16 months after black youths had risen in the townships against the apartheid government on June 16, 1976.

Black Wednesday became a setback from which the Black Consciousness movement never recovered.

In the sixties many anti-apartheid groups among them the African National Congress (ANC) had been banned and were forced into exile, from where they conducted the struggle against apartheid.

Christian National government

South Africa’s apartheid government constantly proclaimed its ideology as “Christian-National” and in 1977 it for the first time acted against a Christian organization — it had acted against anti-apartheid clergy who were not South Africans in earlier years.

Naudé a former moderator of the white Southern Transvaal white Dutch Reformed Church left the church in 1963. He came from Afrikaans aristrocracy — his father was one of the founders of the top secret organization the Broederbond. He left the Dutch Reformed Church and resigned from the Broederbond and became a pariah in the Afrikaans community.

“In two memorable services… he announced his decision and delivered his farewell sermon on the theme ‘We must show greater loyalty to God than to man,’” a member of the congregation and close friend Hennie Serfontein remembered.

He also put documents related to the top-secret power behind the throne, the Broederbond, into the hands of journalists Charles Bloomberg and Serfontein, leading to exposé after exposé.

Until 1977 the Christian Institute funded by churches in The Netherlands, Scandinavia, Germany and Switzerland played an important role in bundling the ecumenical power of the churches in South Africa.

In this role it was ahead of Europe at the time. In the seventies it started to pave the way for interfaith cooperation against apartheid in South Africa.

Shortly after setting up the Christian Institute, Naudé in 1965 in its monthly newsletter Pro Veritate started to make the case that the time for a confessing church had arrived in South Africa, based on a German model under Nazi Germany.

Although the banning also meant that Naudé was not allowed to give interviews or be quoted, he continued to do so for foreign journalists. He also set up a network to help support families of black detainees using his extensive international contacts.

WARC declares apartheid a heresy

In 1982 while still banned he played a key role behind the scenes in getting the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) declare apartheid a heresy.

In a letter address to the WARC President James McCord and smuggled out of South Africa and read to the assembly, Naudé accused the WARC of being too reticent in dealing with the whites-only Afrikaans churches.

He argued for a “status confessionis,” which was overwhelmingly accepted and the white churches were suspended from WARC.

Naudé was a brilliant strategist and as someone once belonging to the inner-circles of the ruling group he knew what would hurt them most.

In 1982 Naudé’s banning order was renewed for another five years and then surprisingly lifted in late 1984.

Successor to Desmond Tutu

The following year in 1985 he took over as the SACC general-secretary from Archbishop Desmond Tutu just as the first State of Emergency of the 1980’s was declared.

Under Tutu’s tenure as the first black general secretary from 1978 onwards, the SACC had 20 member churches, representing about half of the South African population.

Under Naudé’s leadership from 1985–1988, the SACC became the voice of the opposition and South Africa had a full-on Church-State conflict as anti-apartheid meetings were held in churches.

It was also a time that two States of Emergency were declared first in 1985 and then again in 1986 that banned virtually all opposition to apartheid.

People hiding from the government were given shelter by parish priests and when all opposition fell away, the churches remained steadfast in their opposition.

Churches after 1994

After 1994 when Nelson Mandela became president the churches were co-opted into governmental support and fell silent for nearly two decades. It only awoke when corruption became rife under president Zuma.

Naudé funeral

In 2004 Beyers Naudé was given a State funeral. There are street named after him in South Africa.

This is a reworked version of a story that was published in 2017

South African journalist, author & filmmaker in Berlin. Writing on southern Africa, Germany, politics, culture, films, books, interfaith.

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