The ‘Sin’ of Apartheid

The white branch of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa has found apartheid a “sin” four years after officially rejecting the concept of racial segregation, a finding that will at least postpone a formal break with the larger black and mixed-race branches of the church. But the white branch has once again shied away from agreement on tactics, such as civil disobedience, that have been proposed to accelerate the glacial progress away from apartheid.

“We confess with humility and sorrow the participation of our church in the introduction and legitimation of the ideology of apartheid and the subsequent suffering of people,” the new church statement declares, helpful words at a time of deep soul searching in the nation. And the leaders of the black and mixed-race divisions of the Dutch Reformed Church were quick to appreciate the reconciliation inherent in the agreed words. They were also frank, however, in pointing out the problems that remain to reunite the church.

“Those belonging to the world of the oppressor could not hear or understand the cries and anger of those living in the world of the oppressed,” the Rev. Nico Smith, writing in the Sunday Times of South Africa, commented after the meeting. He is a prominent Afrikaner minister in the Reformed Church who left the white branch to lead a parish in a black township near Pretoria.

His disappointment reflected the disillusionment that has followed so many official rejections of apartheid. The rejections have not been matched by substantial progress toward reform. Apartheid is officially opposed by the government of South Africa and by most political forces. Only the far-right Conservative Party, which advocates firm restoration of racial segregation, remains actively committed to apartheid.

The statement of the separate divisions of the Dutch Reformed Church coincided with two other events of potential importance:


--The South African Law Commission called for an end to the laws that still enforce apartheid, and also urged that the black majority be given full voting rights in national elections, the first such recommendations from an official government organ, and

--The governing National Party pressed its efforts to replace the ailing Pieter W. Botha as president of South Africa with the new party leader, Frederik W. de Klerk, who might speed the slow pace of reform initiated by Botha.

A critical test of government intentions will come in the days ahead, when there will be pressure to respond to the call of the Reformed Church to end the state of emergency and to free the hundreds, including children, being held without charges. The black and mixed-race majority within the Reformed Church will judge the real meaning of the new statement by the willingness of their white fellow church members to support the real ending of apartheid.