Downfall of the preacher who took Paul Simon's conscience for a ride

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The Independent Online
THEY WERE two distinct voices against apartheid - Allan Boesak, the high-pitched, high-living priest, and Paul Simon, the pop star with a conscience and velvet vocal chords. Both of them might say they were misunderstood.

Yesterday in Cape Town, Boesak was found guilty of willingly and unlawfully stealing more than pounds 100,000 from a charity that he set up with Mr Simon's help. The money had been allocated to help child victims of apartheid in the 1980s, the darkest days of the struggle.

In a 108-page judgment,Judge John Foxcroft found the former Calvinist minister, 53, guilty on four counts of fraud or theft totalling 1.3 million rand, worth pounds 275,000 at the time and pounds 130,000 today, owing to the rand's fall in value. He acquitted him on 23 other charges.

Judge Foxcroft said Boesak, who received R682,000 from Mr Simon after the singer's 1987 Graceland tour, had "treated the money as his own". He said that Boesak's Foundation for Peace and Justice (FPJ) had passed on only R423,000 to the Children's Trust, of which the charismatic former cleric was a trustee, along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Just as Mr Simon, the one-time musical collaborator of Art Garfunkel, felt misunderstood when he was accused of breaching United Nations sanctions against South Africa with his Graceland project in 1986, Boesak failed to bridge his own troubled waters.

Boesak's oratorical skills were unrivalled in the 1980s, when the apartheid struggle badly needed a leader of his charisma. Those were the days of "struggle accounting", when foreign funding of anti-apartheid groups was banned by the South African government and a culture of secrecy replaced formal book-keeping.

Mr Simon's 1986 Graceland album tried to introduce the world to "township jive". But it was criticised in South Africa and abroad as anti-apartheid activists accused the singer of breaching UN cultural sanctions against the white regime.

Mr Simon argued that in making the album with black musicians in South Africa (including the now internationally famous group Ladysmith Black Mambazo) and by following it up with a world tour, he had helped break their isolation. But radicals in the music world disagreed and Mr Simon came up against protests for several years afterwards.

As former president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Boesak learnt to lead a double life. Alongside his public work with the FPJ, he also began to indulge a most un-priestly taste for the good life. Only his powerful friends saved him from disgrace earlier on.

While still a clergyman in the 1970s, he was found in breach of the apartheid- era Immorality Act for conducting a love affair outside his marriage, with a youth official of the South African Council of Churches. On that occasion he managed to retain his church post. A second affair, with his present wife, Elna Botha, led to his losing his ministry in the Church.

Judge Foxcroft said that Boesak had taken some of the money from the foundation to pay off Ms Botha's debts. Other money went on buying houses in smart white areas of the Cape and on taking his family to Disneyland. The judge said that donors and trustees had been fooled by Boesak's "larger- than-life personality" and by his international reputation.

But his were the proverbial feet of clay. After the years of struggle, Boesak was appointed leader of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) in the Western Cape. But he proved an unsuccessful politician.

The Western Cape was the one area in South Africa where the ANC failed to win a majority in the country's first all-race elections in 1994. Instead, the region remained under the control of the former ruling National Party. Disappointed, President Nelson Mandela, a personal friend, offered Boesak the post of ambassador to the United Nations the following year.

By then the trustees of the FPJ had reported him to the police and he declined to accept the post. Still, Archbishop Tutu and many prominent human rights activists spoke up for Boesak, refusing to believe the charges levelled against him. The ANC organised its own inquiry, which cleared him. The foundation's foreign donors insisted on taking him to court.

In 1997, his bookkeeper, Freddie Steenkamp, 41, pleaded guilty to stealing R900,000 from the FPJ and was jailed for six years. Boesak, who will be sentenced next week, had pleaded not guilty to 20 counts of theft and 12 counts of fraud. He faces an unspecified fine or prison sentence.

The story of Boesak's rise to prominence in the anti-apartheid movement had an almost Biblical quality. Born in 1945 in the Northern Cape to a mixed-race family, his hatred of racism was stirred when his family was forced to move from their home by the notorious Group Areas Act, which banned blacks and mixed-race "coloureds" from living in areas designated for whites.

In the early 1980s he gained fame by sponsoring a resolution declaring apartheid a religious heresy at an assembly of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in Ottawa in Canada. The move was a great success and after the motion was passed he was elected president of the organisation.

Soon, Boesak was at the forefront of the formation of the United Democratic Front - the grouping of civil society organisations which fought the white state until the ANC was legalised in 1990. Many veterans of the struggle are convinced that their one-time hero only wavered from the straight and narrow after his fateful encounter with Elna.

At the court, Freddie Steenkamp said that he had helped Boesak deceive the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) into parting with funds for voter education videos. Steenkamp said the money was used to set up a recording studio for Elna, who once worked as a television announcer.

Yesterday, Judge Foxcroft found Boesak guilty of the theft of R746,000 from Sida. He was also found guilty of taking a total of R308,000 from Danish and Norwegian donors to help buy houses in the up-market Cape Town suburbs of Vredehoek and Constantia and giving R14,000 to Elna.

In court yesterday, accompanied by his wife and his daughter Elna, Boesak stared straight ahead as Judge Foxcroft took almost three hours to read through the 27 charges one by one. Afterwards, Boesak did not comment to reporters. apparently he had been hoping to return to the United States if he was acquitted, with plans to teach and preach.

In Stockholm yesterday, Sida said it was distressed by the misuse of funds "intended for poor communities". There was no comment from Mr Simon. The singer did not testify at Boesak's court case.

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