Afrikaner Church Rejects Apartheid, Confesses Role in Segregation – historical article

TOM COHEN , Associated Press, Nov. 9, 1990

RUSTENBURG, South Africa (AP) – The white Dutch Reformed Church joined other Christian denominations Friday in rejecting apartheid as a sin and confessed the church’s role in implementing it.

The main church of the Dutch-descended Afrikaners who dominate the government had argued for decades that the Bible supported the system of legalized segregation. The position isolated it from other denominations.

But at the end of a weeklong conference of 90 Christian churches, leaders of the white Dutch Reformed Church joined in supporting a statement – the Rustenberg Declaration – condemning church participation in apartheid.

”We confess our own sin and acknowledge our heretical part in the policy of apartheid which has led to such extreme suffering,” the joint statement said.

”We denounce apartheid in its intention, its implementation, and its consequences as an evil policy,” the statement added.

The conference in Rustenburg, 60 miles northwest of Johannesburg, was the largest ever gathering of Christian churches in South Africa.

The declaration also recommended the government remove all apartheid laws, set up a one-person, one-vote democracy, seek equitable wealth distribution, restore land to blacks and arrange an affirmative action program to advance blacks.

The Rev. Peter Potgieter, head of the Dutch Reformed Church, told an impromptu news conference during final debate on the document that his church disagreed with some elements. He said it objected specifically to the call for a one-person, one-vote electoral system and other political recommendations, but agreed with the condemnation and confession of apartheid.

Potgieter also said the document was not official church policy, which must be decided by the church’s synod.

For years, the white Dutch Reformed Church has been isolated from most other Christian churches because of its refusal to reject the apartheid system of racial segregation and white dominance.

It argued for decades that the Bible supported apartheid, citing biblical passages that referred to different people in different nations. The church also considered whites, and Afrikaners in particular, a ”chosen people” destined to rule South Africa as part of ”God’s will.”

In a major policy statement in 1960, the church said segregation could be justified. Twenty-six years later, it declared racial discrimination a sin, but withheld comment on apartheid.

The mere presence of white Dutch Reformed Church leaders at the conference marked a breakthrough in interchurch relations, organizers said.

The Rev. Frank Chikane, leader of the South African Council of Churches, praised the document but said he understood the Dutch Reformed Church’s hesitation to give it full support.

”I feel that we have started a process, and I’m just hoping the Dutch Reformed Church will be able to move ahead with us,” he said. ”I understand they’re constrained, they have to answer back to their own membership,” Chikane added.

Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu said he hoped the white church’s objections avoided critical sections of the declaration.

”Obviously, what we hear is political,” Tutu said. ”It is going to be up to them to demonstrate through action what they have said in words.”

The Rustenburg Declaration said all South African churches should have done more to resist apartheid.

”Some of us actively misused the Bible to justify apartheid, leading many to believe that it had the sanction of God,” it said.

Other churches, the document said, ignored apartheid by preaching the ”sufficiency of individual salvation without social transformation.”

”We adopted an allegedly neutral stance which in fact resulted in complicity with apartheid,” it said.

Some churches condemned apartheid but did little to resist, the statement added.

”Those of us who were the victims of apartheid acknowledge our own contribution to the failure of the church,” it said.

The white branch of the Dutch Reformed Church has about 1 million members, including President F.W. de Klerk and most of his Cabinet. There are separate branches for blacks and people of mixed-race, which have staunchly opposed apartheid.

The white branch of the Dutch Reformed Church said last month it wants to merge with its sister churches, but no action has been taken.