The failure to denounce, resist and incite to resist apartheid and its resulting violations of human rights, constitutes the failure of the church to live up to its faith convictions. Rather the church often got caught up in its debates on the legitimacy and right of resistance against the authorities. These debates were dominated by the question of the violence and the armed struggle. This furthermore happened under circumstances in which our members were part of the armed wings of the liberation movements. Prozesky, Martin, Christianity in South Africa p 132

The Churches struggle against apartheid and a comment on the effectiveness of this Challenge.


When the National party was officially elected to parliament in 1948 they implemented a policy of Apartheid. Apartheid literally means apart, and was the separation of blacks and whites painstakingly and permanently1.

But we must also remember that the oppression of coloured persons living in South Africa did not start with the National party but with the white colonizers. When South Africa was colonized, the black natives had there lands seized they were deprived of there political identity and the cultural and religious identities were suppressed.2 “It was the beginning of a form of oppression which characterizes the social structure of South Africa today.”3

Some of the most extreme Afrikaners looked up to Hitler, The path of racial segregation for South Africa was not a Master plan leading to the final solution, it was a general policy for the country that was adapted over time to meet the circumstances of the country at that time. Although when it was first implemented the ideology of apartheid became clear which was an idea of white supremacy4.

The Apartheid System was based upon the earlier system of segregation. Segregation was the system imposed on the British colonies in the rest of Africa; this system was in no way linked to any religious ideology. This differs to apartheid, which later on in the development of this system, was justified, although through a narrow minded, and some would even say twisted interpretation of the gospels, the system of apartheid and racial segregation.5

Of significance was the way the policies were enforced. The Native affairs department of the earlier segregationist period was more passive than its successor, The Bantu Affairs Department. The Bantu Affairs Department played a far more direct role and was remembered for its authoritarian control over the daily lives of the African people6.

Now that the differences between Apartheid and the segregation of Africa have been shown, we must not forget the similarities between the two. The laws gave the white South Africans privileges were not knew to the country, laws passed in the early twentieth century also allowed colour discrimination, and the Land Act of 1913 denied Africans the right to choose where they wanted to live. This marked the permanent segregation of South Africa into areas designated for white or black ownership. Martin Prozesky comments:

‘The unmentioned purpose of the 1913 Land Act is to confine the Black man within such circumscribed limits that he should never be territorially independent ‘ 7

Many apartheid laws were passed under the slogan “separate but equal”, but in reality, the facilities and provisions for whites were far superior to those of other racial groups. In 1937, the Native Laws Amendment Act prohibited Africans from buying land in urban areas as these were considered “white areas”, and yet the 1946 population census showed a majority of native Africans living in urban areas.8

As each new law was passed, the Churches in South Africa and the churches in the rest of the world reacted; some groups supported the apartheid legislation, while others rejected this apartheid legislation.

Next we shall now outline each of the Churches views and comment on their struggle against the apartheid regime. The first churches are what were known as the Afrikaner reformed churches these churches are best remembered around the world for the support given to apartheid by their church leaders. Also the charge of heresy later placed upon them, to many these churches are seen as the ideological source of apartheid although there is some truth to this there is also a lot of nonsense, the main church to fall under this umbrella was the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC).

The DRC was first set up in South Africa in the seventeenth century. The DRC was officially recognized by the state in 1651, this was just before the Dutch East India Company established the first Dutch Reformed Church at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. As black Africans and people of mixed race converted to the religion, the DRC debated the question of racial separation. The pressure to have racially segregated congregations grew rapidly especially in respect of the Eucharist, but this issue was complicated further by the demands of some black church members for churches and congregations of their own.9

In 1881this led to the formation of the segregated Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC). During this period, segregation of congregations was understood to be nothing more than a pragmatic solution to troublesome cultural, language and behavioural differences. But in the 1930’s this changed, as prominent DRC theologians began to justify segregation both within the church and without on a theological basis.10 Ministers of the DRC stated that segregation was ” Providence not weakness, in the form of the prophetic will of God in favour of the restoration of the order of creation.”11 An example of this is when Reverend P.J.S. de Klerk said in 1939, ‘Mixed marriages between the higher civilised Christian Nations and lower nations militate against the word of God’12.

The DRC put its ethic on segregation forward to the public and the Prime Minister Jan Christian Smuts, they asked for legislation to be put in place about mixed marriages, separate suburbs, separate education and separate industry. These requests were rejected because Smuts decided that it would be the wrong way to go about enforcing segregation.13

In 1948 at the Transvaal synod of the DRC, an official scriptural argued deed of god called “racial and national apartheid in the bible” was written; this document would later become the foundation for the theological justification and defence of the apartheid regime. 14

Now we will look at the DRC’s struggle against apartheid. The DRCM was the first of all the Dutch churches to denounce apartheid. The DRMC made an official confession, which was accepted in 1986. This confession clearly stated that the teaching of apartheid threatened the reconciliation in Christ and his churches; the confession caused a time of great tension between the DRC and the DRMC15. This confession was the only real effort by any of the Dutch churches to end apartheid; in fact their chief ministers actively worked to find ways to use the bible to justify the apartheid regime. This continued right up until 1985, when, the DRC finally began to commit to anti-apartheid ideals. The DRC were the last of the Dutch churches to denounce apartheid as a sin and a heresy.

The Dutch Reformed Church never really played any real part in the struggle against apartheid, mainly because they were funded by a pro apartheid government, and most of the churches members and ministers were members of or supported the National Party, this forced the church to justify the apartheid legislation and making it even harder for the DRC to reject the government policy.

The next set of churches that we shall concentrate on is the English speaking churches, these were generally those churches that had originated in Great Britain and moved to South Africa with the British Colonies.

The first English speaking church on which I will concentrate is the Methodist church, the Methodist church was first established in England during the 18th century, splitting from the Church of England and creating its own church. By 1784, the Methodist Church had formed an annual conference, which included many congregations, each of which fell under the control of a Lay preacher.16

The flexible attitude of the church made it particularly popular at the time, and its policies were also suitable for many South Africans during the apartheid. Membership of the Methodist church was seen to many as a way to make a stand against apartheid laws, because of the Methodist churches firm stance of racial equality that was adopted. As a result, the Methodist Church gained a large membership during the apartheid era in South Africa.

The Methodist church was one of the first churches to actively speak out against apartheid in a time where most of the English speaking churches although seemed to disagree with the government tried to keep politics and religion separate.17 The first example of this can be seen in 1948 when the newly elected National party proposed a law that would take the native Africans already limited political representation away, all of the English speaking churches reacted differently but only the Methodist church spoke out directly to stop this legislation becoming law, the Methodist church stated “No person of any race should be deprived of their constitutional rights… merely on the grounds of there race.”18

In 1957, there was the first real united opposition by the English speaking churches, when The National Party proposed a law which made it almost impossible for any native African to worship in any white area which at that time meant any of the urban areas, this united opposition led to a modified bill being passed, which allowed ministers to bar black Christians from worshipping, should anyone make a complaint19.

In response to this law, the Methodist Church publicly stated at their 1958 conference that all of the Methodist church ministers should ignore this bill and let the natives continue to worship regardless of complaint from white worshipers. The possibility of splitting the church into four separate churches – white, black, coloured and Indian – was also suggested but very quickly rejected, with the Methodist church deciding to continue with its stand of public unity. The conference also publicly denounced the ideals of apartheid.20

One of the most famous black African campaigners against apartheid was Chief Albert Luthuli, who later became president of the African National Congress (ANC). Luthuli was the son of a Christian missionary and was himself a devout Methodist. The non-violent opposition to apartheid led by Luthuli earned the respect of many Whites as well as blacks. He was imprisoned several times for this opposition to the government policies of apartheid, including a five-year sentence for publicly burning his passbook.21

In 1952 Luthuli led the ANC in a mass protest against apartheid, it was called the Defiance Campaign. The campaign called for a rejection of the apartheid segregation and the passbook laws, it also called on the government to stop its use of force in the preservation of the apartheid regime. The aim was to have so many people arrested that the prisons would not be able to cope; during the campaign over eight thousand people were imprisoned.22 In November 1952 the government dismissed Luthuli as the chief of his tribe for his part in organising the defiance campaign, after his dismissal Luthuli made a speech and his faith in the church during the time of apartheid can be seen in these closing words:

” I try… in a spirit of trust and surrender to God’s will as I see it, to say “God will provide”. It is inevitable that in working for freedom some individuals and some families must take lead and suffer. The road to freedom is via the cross.”23

In 1955, a Congress of churches, which included the Methodist Church, met in Johannesburg. At this meeting they council drew up the Freedom Charter. The Freedom Charter outlined the basic civil rights that every non-white person should be entitled to. It consisted of four main principles, which were:

1) Every man and woman should have the right to vote

2) No one shall be imprisoned, deported or restricted without a fair trial.

3) The law shall guarantee to all, the right to speak, to organise, to meet together, to publish, to preach, to worship and to educate their children.

4) Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children.24

The government tried to ban this charter but it had soon been distributed throughout South Africa. At around this time 156 members of the ANC were arrested for treason including Luthuli. These trials were became known as the Treason Trials. Many churches donated money to a fund set up a Christian church group called the Treason Trial Defence Fund; the Anglican archbishop Geoffrey Clayton spearheaded this fund.25

The Defiance Campaign and Freedom Charter had shown how important the ANC was, and how determined the government was to crush its leadership. Albert Luthuli’s efforts won him the Nobel peace prize in 1961, but he was still arrested and exiled to an isolated farm in Natal, where he died in 1967.

Another of the English speaking churches, which I shall now outline, was the Anglican Church, The Anglican Church often declared a similar view to Methodist teaching on apartheid, although they usually let the Methodist Church put their views forward first then backed them up. In 1957, Geoffrey Clayton, Archbishop of the Anglican Church of the province of South Africa, made the bravest stand against apartheid legislation by any Non Methodist church leader.26 After clause 29c of the Native Laws Amendment Act was passed, which made it nearly impossible for any black person to worship in any of the white areas, Clayton summoned the Bishops of Grahamstown, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Natal to a committee meeting. At this meeting a letter was collectively written to the Prime Minister publicly rejecting the clause, on the grounds that the new law denied blacks their upon religious freedom to worship where they wished. Copies of this letter were sent to all Anglican churches calling on all parishes to ignore the law.27

English speaking churches in particular were proud of their multi-racial character, and subsequently rejected the unacceptable laws imposed by the National Party; and for the first time there was a united opposition to apartheid legislation from the English speaking churches. They added their support to Clayton’s protest, but only achieved a moderate change to Clause 29c.

The English speaking churches collectively did struggle against apartheid but this struggle was not always successful. All of the churches repeatedly condemned apartheid but unfortunately little changed due to this criticism. Charles Villa-Vincencio states:

” … The tragedy is that the English speaking churches have failed to be the kind of institution within which the possibility of moving society from polarised conflict to a higher level of community is possible.” 28

This shows that all though the English churches did reject apartheid and showed some effort to struggle against the unjust system, no real change came about from this. One of the main reasons for this was that the English speaking churches were not working in unity with one another. To use an example the Methodist church, which was very public about it’s anti apartheid stance and publicly resisted the apartheid laws, and then the Anglican church which although stated that apartheid was wrong never really took any part in the resistance against apartheid for a long time, so both these groups had the capability to struggle against apartheid but they did not unite under one banner and fight the common evil of apartheid, this was the main weakness in the English speaking churches struggle against apartheid.29

To conclude, Virtually all of the Christian Churches housed members of their congregations who were in favour of apartheid, as well as those who were deeply opposed to every thing that the apartheid regime stood for. This was one of the main problems for churches when it came to opposing apartheid, because in a church that was divided on the subject it was hard to commit to one side. Also the churches where although all spoke out against apartheid, many were afraid to face the wrath of the national party by directly opposing the laws. Many followed the opinion that politics should be kept separate from religion, so while they were preaching that all Christians should love their neighbour, just outside there were separate benches, drinking fountains etc, with many thousands of people being denied there basic human rights. Another problem was that the National Party was extremely well financed by the economic boom that occurred in South Africa. This meant that they could afford to enforce the apartheid laws and keep the majority of the population under the control of the wealthy minority.

Most of the churches that were ready to face the rage of the National Party and make a public stand against apartheid were easily stopped by the police, which were under the National Party’s control. Christian churches at the time were simply not strong enough to oppose the National Party because they did not have the same resources ready to use as the National Party. The most that could be collectively achieved was minor changes to racist legislation. Unfortunately, it took events such as Sharpeville and Soweto to outrage the churches so much that they felt they could not stand by and let this happen. Coupled with this it also took events such as the Soweto riots, to increase global awareness of the situation. So finally although all the churches spoke out against apartheid they did not achieve great results mainly due to a lack of unity and funding. But the amount of time that it took to overthrow the racist regime can not be placed purely on the shoulders of the churches, it is possible to say that if other countries and foreign groups had acted sooner then the situation in South Africa would not have remained static for so long.