The Genesis of Apartheid

Continuing the pattern that each day is dramatically different from the others, today was a long day of meetings with Anglicans and academics around the table. We started the day visiting the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, who oversees the churches in a huge geographic area––essentially all of southern Africa. This is the position held by Desmond Tutu from 1986-1996, and we met in the estate that is both the home and office of the Archbishop.

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba was an incredibly gently, warm, peaceful man who grew up in Alexander township outside of Johannesburg; when I asked him what brings him hope, he said, “Thabo from Alexander in the Bishop’s Court! God is not finished with us yet.” It was a powerful experience being with a deeply grounded, rooted leader. There’s something distinct and peaceful about the presence of leaders like Archbishop Makgoba; he was at home in his skin in a way that meant he had a certain magnetism and authority that had nothing to do with his office or what we usually think of as charisma. It was in his spirit. It’s very difficult to describe, but being in his presence this morning was a gift to me, a reminder from God that the part of being a leader that really matters is not a technique or a skill. It’s spiritual depth, which starts with having the courage to be exactly who you are.

Over lunch, we met two Anglican women priests who run the area’s HIV and women’s ministries. It was fascinating to hear about their work and to meet them––two women very different from each other, each appreciative of the other’s gifts and work.

The other key impactful moment for me today came around dinner time. This afternoon we drove out of the city to the wine-making region of Stellenbosch to visit the University of Stellenbosch, the school where the Dutch Reformed Church’s clergy are trained. I had a chance to chat one-on-one with Professor Ian Nell, who teaches theology, and finally got to ask about the subject that’s been burning in my mind: it was the Dutch Reformed Church that supported and inspired the architects of the Apartheid state. What happened?

I’m grateful to Prof. Nell for his graciousness in addressing what I’m sure is an unpleasant subject (though I’m certain that he’s addressed it with folks like me hundreds of times over the years). He taught me that the concept of apartheid was a theological concept before it was a political one, developed over 200 years as three streams of European theology came together:

  1. The perspective articulated by the Dutch theologian Kuyper (which I don’t know a thing about, so I’m parroting what I understood Prof. Nell saying): in creation, God made humans in a variety of obviously distinct groups (‘which is obvious just by looking,’ a Kuyperian might say). The groups are distinct and thus intended to be separate. This is the core rationale for a racial separatism lens through which everything is filtered.
  2. German missionary theology, which tended to understand mission through the lens of ‘they’re heathens, and our job is to save them.’
  3. Scottish pietism, which focused discipleship on individual piety, a ‘me-and-God’ perspective that downplays or ignores the gospel call to care for the Other and work for social justice.

Combine those three streams, and the river of Dutch Reformed Theology was teaching future political leaders that apartheid (apart-ness), rooted in racial differences, was God’s plan for humanity. Prof. Nell went on to explain that, because there was no concept of the separation of church and state in South Africa, it was like there was a ‘red phone’ line between the University and Parliament. The theologians were friends and co-church members with the majority of the country’s political leaders (and teaching their pastors and Sunday School classes).

Can you see how, for generations of white South Africans (especially Dutch Reformed Church members), Apartheid could make perfect––even divine––sense?

Chilling. Especially when we ask how this sort of thinking might be playing out in our own country.

It’s worth noting that, at least from the theology professor’s point of view, it was a transformation in theological perspective that made the switch away from Apartheid ideology happen as quickly as it did among the power elite in the early 1990s. As Nell told it, a fellow Reformed tradition in southern Africa (I missed which one) was telling the Dutch Reformed theologians that they had it wrong, and it finally sank in. The theologians join in the pressure on the legislators (alongside the legislators’ awareness that their rule was about to fall apart in armed rebellion/civil war), and the legislators changed their tune.

I’m certain that there are a variety of perspectives about how that transformation occurred, but I also buy that there’s a lot to the professor’s point: theological perspective makes a real difference in the life of a community and even an entire society. Listening to a wide variety of perspectives is a healthy thing. It helps us avoid following destructive cult leaders (at least on a large scale), and it assures a healthy tension that keeps us all thinking and looking for God’s face through a range of lenses. Adolf Hansen, a United Methodist bible scholar and mentor of mine, always reminds folks: every theology is a mixture of truth and error. Having a variety of perspectives keeps us on the pilgrimage.



One thought on “The Genesis of Apartheid

  1. The quote that I found most interesting in today’s post is “Chilling. Especially when we ask how this sort of thinking might be playing out in our own country.”. Sometime I would enjoy hearing more about your thoughts on this one. Sounds like this has been an amazing trip. Praying for you. The pictures yesterday stopped me in my tracks.

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