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Cover story

Apartheid horror stories point up churches’ failings

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Durban, South Africa

Amid the horror stories about human rights abuses during South Africa’s apartheid years, one starkly illustrates the divisions within that country’s faith community at the time: Frank Chikane, respected general secretary of the South African Council of Churches and a leading cleric in the black wing of the Apostolic Faith Mission, was in security police detention and being brutally tortured. Overseeing this torture was an elder in the white wing of the same church who, after his day’s “work” on Chikane, left police headquarters and went off to worship.

This story, of a Christian minister and his “brother torturer,” is recalled in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the body set up under the chairmanship of Archbishop Desmond Tutu to investigate human rights abuses over the last few decades. Released on Oct. 29, the report contains a list of well over 20,000 victims of such abuses, as well as an indictment of the perpetrators of these crimes.

The report was intended to mark the end of a three-year process during which human rights abuses have been investigated and uncovered, but it has sparked a serious dilemma for the ruling African National Congress over whether to prosecute certain named perpetrators, a dilemma that could take some time to resolve.

In its long report, the commission chronicles the period and the violence of the apartheid state as well as responses to oppression by antiapartheid activists within the country and those who waged a guerrilla war from outside. But it also tries to understand how apartheid could have been implemented in the first place and what prevented civil society from taking a united stand against it. Trying to answer this question, the commission looks at the contribution of sectors of society to fighting apartheid or supporting it.

Like the legal and medical professions, the churches and other faiths come in for severe criticism of their roles.

At the heart of the problem, says the report, is the fact that apartheid was conceived, justified and ultimately defended by reference to Christianity. Some churches believed it was a logical extension of Christian mission; others supported apartheid on the grounds that it helped guarantee “Christian civilization.”

But this often collusive response was complicated by the fact that some Christians and members of other religions became apartheid’s strongest foes, motivated by the values of their particular tradition.

“They were driven by what has been called the ‘dangerous memory’ of resistance and the quest for freedom, often suppressed but never obliterated from their respective faiths,” the report says.

Among those named for their courageous stand against apartheid are several Catholics including: Archbishop Denis Hurley; Cosmas Desmond, a former Catholic priest who exposed the horrors of black forced relocation camps; Fr. Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, former general secretary of the South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference and now deputy minister of education; Sr. Bernard Ncube, who has worked extensively with women’s groups; and Dominican theologian Albert Nolan, whose writings helped shape a coherent response to apartheid by the churches.

Others listed include Anglican bishops Trevor Huddleston, Desmond Tutu and David Russell, as well as leaders of other Christian denominations and of the Jewish, Hindu and Muslim faiths.

Accepting responsibility

The report says that despite the contribution of these individuals, however, the churches have to accept moral responsibility for providing religious and theological legitimacy for many actions of the armed forces in their role of maintaining apartheid and crushing dissent. In addition, the churches failed to give proper expression to their ethical teachings that directly contradict apartheid and thus helped create a climate in which the system could flourish.

“The failure of the churches in this regard,” says the report, “contributed not only to the survival of apartheid but also to the perpetuation of the myth that apartheid was both a moral and Christian initiative in a hostile and ungodly world.”

But the commission suggests a way forward: Since the faith communities include victims, beneficiaries and perpetrators of apartheid, reconciliation within these communities could have a leavening effect on the rest of society and provide a source of national renewal.

The story about Chikane and his “brother torturer” was told in the context of the report’s comments that some faiths had suppressed, censured and condemned apartheid dissidents and even branded them as heretics. In addition, Chikane’s church, like others, mirrored apartheid by having separate churches for each race group.

But even within churches such as the Catholic church, which officially opposed apartheid, there were effectively two churches -- one black and one white -- and the report notes that for church congregations the hours of Sunday worship were the most segregated of the week.

The commission received written and oral submissions from more than 40 churches or other religions. In their presentations these members of different faiths tried to account for their lack of serious effort at ending apartheid.

Representatives of the Jewish community, for example, said that in the years that apartheid began to take hold, the memory of Nazi atrocities was still fresh, and South African Jews feared to speak out strongly against the state.

Catholic leaders told the commission that they, too, were affected by their church’s history in South Africa: In the early years of apartheid the position of the church in South African society had been tenuous, and it was widely regarded in a derogatory way as the Roomse gevaar (“Roman peril”).

The report was also concerned about the role of the right-wing churches, which acted as arms of the state, “infiltrating” evangelical denominations and neutralizing dissent. One church leader recalled a young man telling him that he used to be involved in the struggle against apartheid. “Now I’ve received Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior,” the young man declared, “and so I’m no longer involved.” As part of this campaign, Assemblies of God leaders, claiming to speak for South Africa’s “11 million evangelical Pentecostals,” often traveled around the world denouncing the activities of antiapartheid Christians.

But it was the role of military chaplains that drew the most fire in the report. These clergy gave “moral legitimacy” to a culture whose hallmark was the perpetration of gross human rights abuses. Their participation “served to filter out dissenting voices, to strengthen the resolve to kill and to reassure the doubting soldier that he or she was serving the purposes of God.” Within this climate, top politicians and officers in the security forces authorized or participated in the bombing of buildings housing the South African Council of Churches and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and other groups.

But while some of the churches had been targeted for state oppression, the report accuses the churches, in turn, of oppressing others, in particular other religious faiths (although the report does criticize those who made submissions for not seeing the link between racial, class and gender oppression). The Dutch Reformed church, for many years regarded as virtually the state religion or as the ruling National Party “at prayer,” declared Islam a “false religion” in 1986. As one Muslim leader told the commission, the past was only partly about apartheid and security laws. “It was also about Christian triumphalism.”

The report concludes that Christianity, as the dominant religion in South Africa, promoted the ideology of apartheid in many ways, including the overt promotion of biblical and theological teaching in support of apartheid, paying salaries to clergy who discriminated on the grounds of race and providing chaplains to the security forces.

Religious-based nationalism

It also finds that during the apartheid years, the faith community was guilty of “religious proselytizing and religious-based nationalism,” which sowed the seed for interreligious distrust and strife as well as religiously inspired conflict. “This has occurred as a result of some forms of missiological teaching and manifestations of Christian imperialism and because of anti-Semitic as well as anti-Islamic theologically-based propaganda.”

As for the future, the commission says the country has a right to expect the faith community to be committed to mutuality among religious groups and to efforts to build up a nation that includes people of different religious, racial and ideological persuasions and the promotion of peace and justice.

Finally, it regrets that the missionary and colonial attitudes that undermined African culture and traditional religions continue today and recommends that this practice should be carefully reconsidered -- a task in which Christianity has a particular role.

A number of church leaders have welcomed the publication of the report, although they have so far made no direct comment on the section dealing with the faith communities.

Their focus has been on the general impression created by the report, which the Catholic Bishops’ Conference describes as a “beacon of hope.” The report includes, the conference said, an “indisputable record of the atrocities committed during the apartheid era.”

The bishops have also criticized two leading members of the former government for their efforts to hamper the work of the commission: former presidents P.W. Botha and F.W. de Klerk.

The latter has won a temporary injunction preventing the commission from publishing in its report its finding that he was responsible for helping create a culture of impunity, because he knew about top-level instructions and approval for the bombing of the South African Council of Churches’ building and yet did nothing about it. The High Court case in which de Klerk will attempt to make the injunction permanent will resume early next year.

But while de Klerk’s strategy might have been anticipated, the bishops’ conference and its Anglican counterpart have been astonished and dismayed that one section of the African National Congress -- whose government was instrumental in setting up the commission in the first place -- also resorted to court action to prevent the publication of the report.

ANC officials behind the abortive attempt complained that the report was too critical of their party and did not sufficiently distinguish between actions committed to end apartheid and the actions of the former government in implementing the system. Other members of the ANC, however, including President Nelson Mandela, do not support the legal action and have given their strong support to Tutu and the report.

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission winds up its work, many problems remain.

Problems for the future

Tutu says the commission won “some truth and some reconciliation,” but who is to take this work forward? A number of churches have begun to do so, preparing their members to oversee and join in further reconciliation efforts and opportunities for individuals to tell their stories, at parish and neighborhood levels.

Then there is the political problem posed by the report. The commission recommends that those it has “named” should be prosecuted for human rights abuses: Like every other South African, they had the opportunity to apply for amnesty from prosecution and from civil action, but they chose not to apply. Perpetrators who opted for an amnesty application had to face a humiliating process of public confession, during which they were cross-examined about their actions, often by legal representatives of those they had wronged. They chose this route because they knew that without a formal grant of amnesty, they could be charged if their actions should come to light.

In keeping with the logic of the legislation under which the commission was set up, those “named” should therefore be charged, Tutu argues.

The list, however, includes political figures across the spectrum, such as Mandela’s former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party and national minister of home affairs, Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

Charging Madikizela-Mandela could have serious ramifications for the ANC because she has strong support within the party. ANC officials are fearful that she could leave the party, taking her followers with her, or that she could stage a coup within the party.

More intractable is the problem of Buthelezi, whose Inkatha Freedom Party supporters fought a 15-year undeclared war against ANC sympathizers in the province of KwaZulu Natal, leaving many scores of thousands dead. His position on the national cabinet has helped reduce those tensions. The nation has seen an increase in violence between supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC as campaigns for next year’s general election get underway. Prosecution of Buthelezi could lead to another major outbreak of hostilities, something the ANC wants to avoid.

Such considerations are behind some of the calls for a general amnesty to be extended to those “named” in the report, a call strongly opposed by Tutu and the other commissioners.

But there are other reasons that a general amnesty is finding support, despite the argument that it is unfair and undercuts the premise on which the commission was originally based. After three years, many South Africans have had enough of the skeletons of the past. They have looked back across the abyss and seen the hell from which they have escaped. Now they want to focus on the future and deal with its problems, rather than continuing to keep the past alive through long drawn-out trials that would be the inevitable result of any decision to prosecute.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission Web site. http://www.truth.org.za/

National Catholic Reporter, November 20, 1998