South Africa’s Religious Dilemma
By Awake! correspondent in South Africa
SOUTH AFRICA is an eminently religious country. Church attendances are high. The Bible is available in all of South Africa’s major languages and is read in many homes. Yet, the land has become the scene of racial conflict and violence. You may wonder: ‘Why have the churches been unable to foster Christian love and unity?’
The dilemma grows if you examine recent history. This is because it becomes distressingly clear that religion actually shares a great responsibility for this country’s conflicts. In order to understand why, consider how South Africa’s religious situation developed.
In 1652 Dutch Protestants first established a permanent settlement on the southern tip of Africa. Their descendants today speak Afrikaans, a language developed from Dutch. In time, the Dutch churches split into a number of reformed churches, the largest of which is the Dutch Reformed, or DR, Church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk). Over a third of the nation’s white population are members of the DR Church.
English settlers also streamed to South Africa. Many were Anglicans, who later split into the so-called High Church and Low Church. Others were Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. Similarly, German settlers introduced the Lutheran Church. South Africa thus became a Protestant stronghold, resulting in the conversion of millions of blacks. Today, 77 percent of South Africans claim to be Christian—less than 10 percent of whom are Catholics.
South African Protestantism, though, continues to splinter. Many whites have left mainstream churches and have joined born-again movements. Likewise, many blacks have established an African brand of professed Christianity. “There may be as many as 4000 such independent churches in South Africa alone,” reports the magazine Leadership.
The traditional Protestant churches face another dilemma. As their flocks dwindle, so does financial support. To make matters worse, those who remain are deeply divided over their church’s preoccupation with racial issues. While some members demand that their church support radical measures to end apartheid, others demand that their church sanction apartheid. Between these extremes, members are divided as to the extent to which their church should go in promoting integration and racial equality.
“I resent being told that I must go and hold hands with people I don’t know and pretend to feel brotherly love for people who are not my kind,” said one Anglican regarding arrangements for an interracial service. Many white Anglicans also resent the political meddling of their black archbishop, Desmond Tutu.
A report by South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council thus warned that religion “often plays a divisive and destructive role” with “the unthinkable prospect of followers of the same religious tradition facing one another from opposing camps.” Indeed, as we will see, South African Protestantism has played a strong role in igniting racial animosities.