Bernard Spong: My narrative on nostalgia

My narrative is about the role of the
Churches, with special mention of the South African Council of Churches, in the
struggle against racist apartheid. My nostalgia is for a return by those
same Churches, together with other religious bodies, to being as vehement in
voice and as active in service as during those days. My nationhood is South
African by my own choosing.

I came to South Africa as a missionary in 1963. I came with
my commitment toward helping others know the benefits of not only being
Christian but of being British style Christian, the cream of the crop. I was
soon swept up in the incredible acceptance of me by those I came to teach and
in that experience I became the learner. Part of that experience was alongside
and eventually within the South African Council of Churches.

The institution

The Council (SACC) was born in 1968. The Nationalist Government was already twenty
years old. Legalised segregation was the order of the day and brute force the
manner of its operation. The dreadful killings at Sharpeville had taken place
and the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan African Congress (PAC) had
both been banned. It was against this background that a group of mild mannered
Church leaders changed the nature of former inter-church relationships (which
were inter-missionary society relationships in the main) to establish a
debating chamber and programme centred organisation. It would be accountable to
its member Churches and not to the boards of the various mission agencies with
their headquarters in other parts of the world.

In later years the Council was an acknowledged conduit of
black Christian expression. This initial gathering, however, was
a typical Church leader meeting of its time. 46 people attended. 38 of these were white male. There was
one white woman and seven black male clerics. As many as half the white
representatives were expatriates.

Within four years the Council
had a black majority Executive Committee and was well set on the journey
towards becoming a South African rooted council that could speak out of its own
experience of racism to the issues of the day. In 1972 the government declared
the SACC to be a black organisation.


The motive

Its first words were heard
through a Message to the People of South
. It was a simple, though rather long and repetitive, pronouncement.
It said that in South Africa “everyone is
expected to believe that a man’s racial identity is the most important thing
about him”
and that such a basis for society is contrary to the Christian
Gospel which “declares that God is love;
separation is the opposite.”
It was a confession of a biblical
understanding that was not new but that had developed a new dimension and
urgency when put into the context of the effects of apartheid.

It was aimed at the white
members of the Christian Church. However, it received more interest from the
press than from the Churches and it received much criticism from the
government. Prime Minister, John Vorster, called the authors “liberals and leftists” and told them to
“cut it out immediately for the cloak you
carry will not protect you.”
He responded to a letter from some Church
leaders to express “the utmost despisal”
for the “insolence you display in
attacking my Church as you do.”

His mention of “my Church” points to a major reason for the importance of the Council
in the struggle against apartheid. The Council challenged that government theologically.
The Christian National Government called on God as their guide. So did the
Council. The vast majority of South Africans belonged to and attended Churches.
An important site of struggle was, therefore, within and between those

One unequivocal perspective on the theological position of the SACC was made in
1982 by the then General Secretary, Bishop (later Archbishop) Desmond Tutu. It
was made before the Eloff Commission which had been appointed by the government
in an attempt, unsuccessful as it turned out, to close down the SACC.

I quote a small sample of his presentation: “We owe ultimate loyalty not to any human
authority however prestigious or powerful, but to God … Everything we do or
say and everything we are must be tested by whether it is consistent with the
Gospel …  and not by whether it is
merely expedient or even acceptable to the Government of the day … the
central work of Jesus was to effect reconciliation between God and us and also
between man and man. Consequently, from a theological and scriptural base,
apartheid, separate development or whatever it is called is evil, totally and
without remainder.”
As usual the Bishop made his position, our position, very

Bishop Tutu and all its General Secretaries in turn, showed the motive for the Councils existence
and actions was a theological rationale rather than a political ideology. Two
simple symbols in Khotso House, the House of Peace that housed the Council and
other religious and civic organisations:

Morning prayers began each and every day and formed an important basic
strengthening of the community. Often, too often, there was sad news to share
and be concerned about, as well as being practical in working out how to offer
the kind of assistance that may be required, most of the time it was pulsating,
exciting and enriching. The other symbol was the simple fact that Khotso House was
a non-racial site where lifts, toilets, eating places and all amenities did not
suffer the indignities of separation as was the usual custom in office blocks
of that time.


In 1982, and again in 1989, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches declared theological
support for apartheid to be “status confessionis” – a heresy. The blow this
caused the then government was confirmed for me in an interview with the then Minister
of Law and Order, Mr Adriaan Vlok.


Throughout the years there were
many statements on specific issues or following specific events. They would
mainly be directed toward the member Churches of the Council. They would
constantly refer to our common humanity before God and the sinfulness, therefore,
of anything that set us in separated camps. Out of the many I choose the 1985 ‘Kairos

The Kairos (The present time and its demands upon us) Document,
with the main title of “Challenge to the
, was the product of a group called “The Kairos Theologians.” It
challenged the Churches to make up their minds on the theological stance they
would take in the struggle for a new South Africa. It spoke of a State
that justified the status quo of separation and a Church
that wanted reconciliation between all South Africans without necessarily
changing societal structures. It called on the Churches to move toward a Prophetic
which demands a
clear analysis, in the light of gospel demands, of the social crisis within the
country, leading to an active faithful response which, in turn, may lead to
civil disobedience and actions that assist in the removal of the present

The varied responses to this
document and other statements point to the tension between the Council and its
member churches. The higher courts of the Churches would usually endorse the
statements, but some local priests, ministers and congregations would not. As
the Rev Peter Storey, one time President of the Council, said, “Every
church had its prophets, every church had its reactionaries, and every church
had its majority who were neither one nor the other.”
The SACC encouraged the prophets, angered the
reactionaries and was ignored by the majority.


The activities

The Council provided words, many
words. It also put those words into action through an abundance of activities
to help fight the legalised tyranny of apartheid racism. The statements and
resolutions were aimed at those in positions of power. The programmes were
aimed at the victims of oppression.

The Council was best known for being
a conduit of financial assistance from international partner churches and
governments. This provided bursaries for the education of many thousands of
people, some while in detention or imprisonment; it assisted the families of
such prisoners and detainees; it provided for funeral expenses, medical care,
trauma counselling and other expenses needed by the victims of the continuing
oppression; . Mr Mandela made mention of this on many an occasion in his
meetings with Church representatives during the years of transition.

What was not as well known,
except to those who received it, was the human touch of the Council and the
Churches. Field workers provided personal contact, counselling, guidance and
care. The regional and central offices, along with a considerable number of
Churches, became centres of refuge and assistance to many. As the regime became
more oppressive, so the numbers of people seeking help increased. The face of
the active Churches was the face of common humanity.

When I think of the Council and
its member Churches I think of people. The prayerful sincerity of Desmond Tutu;
the avuncular wisdom of Beyers Naude; the motherly concern of Brigalia Bam; the
analytical wizardry of Frank Chikane; the specialist document wording of Joe
Wing; the astute care of Sheena Duncan; and the dedication of so many of all
ages and all racial groups – groupings forgotten and ignored in the mixture
that made up that community of faith.

There were many other
programmes. I feel it incumbent on me to mention only the communications
activities because of my own participation in this work. Through an established
and somewhat fluid news service we attempted to tell the true story of what was
happening in the country in contrast to that given by government agencies. International
news agencies would often use this service and obtain supportive photographs
when necessary from a Khotso House photographic group, Afrapix. The Churches
provided a network of information second to none. If anything happened in any
part of the country, be it city suburb or rural village, we would know very
quickly and be able to disseminate the news on the one hand and call on
required helpers to assist in emergencies on the other.

International recognition of the
SACC and its member Churches was expressed in 1984 with the award of the Nobel
Peace Prize to its then General Secretary, Desmond Tutu. It was a time of
rejoicing for all staff and supporters with the clear recognition of the prize
as a sign that the struggle against apartheid would triumph.

And triumph, of course, it did. But
not before the government made clear its response to the Council’s words and


Government response

The Council did not escape the frenzy of security police activities as raids and
searches were carried out on the premises. Khotso House had so many raids that
the reception desk was fitted with a button that sounded a siren throughout the
building to say “here they are again!” There were continuing calls in
parliament and the Government controlled media, for action to be taken against
the Council of Churches for its “furtherance
of the aims of communism.”

Many individuals suffered for their work for the SACC, some paying the ultimate
price. Diliza Matshoba, a SACC Field Worker who often met with groups of young
people in Soweto, was one such. He shared his understanding of the South
African situation together with his hopes for the future with the SACC
Executive in 1986. Ten days after his inspiring words he was found dead in his
burnt car, the circumstances surrounding which remains a mystery to this time.

In the early hours of the
morning of August 31st 1988 an explosion rocked Khotso House. Planted
in the basement car parking area and using the lift shafts as conduits of
destruction it ripped throughout the whole building causing enough damage for
the building to eventually be condemned and pulled down. It was a dreadful
moment in the Khotso House story but, although breaking the structure of the
building, it served to strengthen the resolve to continue with even greater determination
the struggle against apartheid. State sponsored media was used to infer that
the bomb was one of a number stored in the building. We suspected then and know
now that it was planted and detonated on the order of the then President, P W

The final attack upon the Council,
and more particularly its General Secretary the Rev Frank Chikane, was a
desperately sinister attempt during 1989 to kill him through poisoning. The
source of a recurring sickness was only discovered when it was realised he
became sick after putting on clothes from his suitcase when travelling. Frank eventually
spoke of the experience and said that it illustrated the “magnitude of the evil we are dealing with.”

The beginning of the end of that
particular evil started on February 2nd 1990 when State President F
W de Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC and other freedom movements along
with the immediate release of Mr Nelson Mandela.

Mr Mandela spent his first night
of freedom at the home of Archbishop Tutu who had also introduced him to the
crowds earlier that day for his first public speech in what we were already
calling the New South Africa. This was a natural recognition of the part played
by the Churches in the struggle against the racist regime. It was natural also
for the Archbishop to voice the feeling of most Church leaders that the role of
leading South Africa into a new dispensation belonged to the politicians while they
would return to the task of ministry within the Church.

We rejoiced and spoke of entering the Promised
Land. We entered instead an unexpected wilderness of violence and bloodshed
that shook the country and impacted on the negotiations for a new political
order.  We remembered then that the Rev
Frank Chikane had warned us in 1989 that “Totalitarian
states do not spontaneously self-destruct.”
It was impossible to leave it
to the politicians. The violence that wracked the land, more especially Kwa
Zulu Natal and the Eastern Reef hostels and townships, took away the glow of
new found freedom and created a climate in which the Churches needed to
re-enter the fray. As the talks about the political future progressed and
regressed the Churches were involved in the reintegration programme for those
who had been in exile; supporting those who were the victims of the strife and
bloodshed that beset us; continuing to speak out about and against the
brutalities; and keeping the local and international community abreast of the
true situation.

In July 1992 the political talks
came to a shuddering halt with government, business, labour and the Freedom
movements at odds with one another. Following the initiative of Frank Chikane
and led by Catholic Archbishop Wilfred Napier, Church leaders made an intervention
during which they spoke with all parties and devised means of creating the
atmosphere to put the talks on track once again. It was a Kairos word at the
right moment to help the country on the path toward democracy.

The birth of democracy

 Who will ever forget the long
queues to vote, the jubilation as a new flag fluttered in the winds of change and
the first democratically elected parliament began the task to destroy the old
legislation and create a new non-racial and non-sexist society? The New South
Africa was born.


The in-word was reconciliation.
In March 1993 Church leaders had said, “The
politicians may establish a negotiated settlement and erect a new system of
electing Government, even a new system of accountability. Without a change of
heart throughout the land, however, this may provide a skeleton upon which
there is no flesh.”
In 1995 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was
established by the political body with much Church participation. How much
flesh it put onto the skeleton of our society is still debated. The Commission
certainly tried to bring out the truth and to assist the process of forgiveness
and reconciliation. It is a sad reality, however, that racism and non
reconciliation continue to blight our hard won freedom and deny the vision of a
non racial and non sexist society.

In 2004 there was an inter-Church
initiative called “Transcending Racism in Church and Community.” It was a
widespread survey dealing with racism within the Churches and Church
structures. It showed that little had been accomplished of any significance.
Clergy stipends remained a thorny issue. There are equity policies but, as usual, whites
benefit more,”
said one clergy participant. Church organisations
were considered by the majority to be inclusive. But separated areas,
language problems and cultural needs were reasons for the continuing practice
of uni-racial groups. There was considerable criticism of Whites as being
unwilling to participate in multi-racial groups especially when they were not
in leadership positions.


The final analysis began with the words: “The
church reflects society. There are no surprises in the responses of the people.
These are the words we hear every day through serious comment, in work
situations, [and] round dinner tables. The Church can lay no claim to being an
alternate society. Indeed because of demographics Sunday remains the greatest
day of separation. Two of the quotes express the extremes. A White woman wrote:
‘If I had Black friends I would welcome them to my Church.’ A sad reflection on
what separation through the years has done to make that separation accepted and
acceptable. The other is the last quote of a Black person, ‘no further steps
can be taken and even if they were no one cares.’ That is frightening, that we
can reach a stage where nobody cares”.


And now? When the new South
Africa was born the Council coined the phrase “Critical Solidarity” to speak of
its new relationship with government. These were our friends and our critical
words would be for friends in friendly fashion. It was a clumsy name given to
signify a new relationship between Church and Government. It is a relationship
that has waxed and waned through the years where it seems the Church can claim
little success through its gentle interventions.

It seems that the issue of
survival has become a major Church activity. There has been a drop in
attendances at the main line churches with people moving to the more independent
churches where the message is often in tone with the style of the times to say
that faith is a reward seeking exercise that can bring wealth, health and
happiness.  I find that a difficult
theology. It did not happen for Jesus, why should it for us?

My hope that the religious
community will be more forthright in its challenge and service to government
and country was rekindled recently with the formation of a group calling itself
Kairos SA. This group started as a theological forum and was challenged by Palestinian
Christians probing for support in their struggle for freedom on the basis that
much had been accomplished here by Church intervention and participation. This
has led a considerable number of clergy to recognise the present need for a
prophetic, rather than apologetic, ministry to face the issues of our time. I
believe the movement is in a “watch this space” position at this time. This,
along with a new General Secretary, Rev Mautji Pataki, for the Council of
Churches, brings a new breath of life to the ecumenical scene.

I am retired for more than a
decade. I flaunt my hard won South African citizenship, and maintain my huge
desire for the hopes we held and were committed to for the new South Africa. I
remain, as I was in the days we fought racism in apartheid, a Prisoner of Hope.







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