Beyers Naudé

Church minister who turned very publicly against apartheid
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The Independent Online

By tribe and upbringing, Beyers Naudé should have been the high priest of apartheid, but he became the chief priest at its funeral. "Oom Bey" - Uncle Bey, as he became known - died a hero of South Africa's freedom, a man who liberated himself from his roots, became a prophet of freedom and democracy and won the trust of leaders of all races.

Christiaan Frederick Beyers Naudé, minister of the church and anti-apartheid campaigner: born Roodepoort, South Africa 10 May 1915; minister of the Dutch Reformed Church 1940-63; Secretary-General, South African Council of Churches 1984-87; married 1940 Ilse Weder (three sons, one daughter); died Johannesburg 7 September 2004.

By tribe and upbringing, Beyers Naudé should have been the high priest of apartheid, but he became the chief priest at its funeral. "Oom Bey" - Uncle Bey, as he became known - died a hero of South Africa's freedom, a man who liberated himself from his roots, became a prophet of freedom and democracy and won the trust of leaders of all races.

Born in Transvaal into Afrikaner aristocracy, he was named after C.F. Beyers, one of the fiercest of the Boer generals, who was drowned in the Vaal River trying to escape from the British at the end of the Boer War. He attended Stellenbosch University, the think-tank of apartheid, and then became a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), the Afrikaner Calvinist Christian sect which preached the separation of races. As Moderator of the Church in Transvaal, the most conservative area, he preached in a church in central Pretoria, the capital, that was attended by several cabinet ministers. Needless to say he was a member of the Broederbond, the Afrikaners' secret freemason-style organisation. His father had been a founder member.

In 1960, the massacre of 69 African demonstrators at Sharpeville changed all that. The Dutch Reformed Church seemed at first to be moving to condemn the killings and criticise apartheid but it was quickly whipped into line by the government. Not Naudé. "I had to decide," he said. "Would I submit to the political pressures or would I stand by my convictions?"

He began to attack apartheid head on. Driven by the Calvinist sense of having been personally chosen by God for his mission, Naudé now sought to find a theological basis for uniting all races just as previously his church had scoured scripture for the basis of racial separation. He did not, as many whites did, adopt a comfortable liberal position, opposing apartheid while enjoying its benefits. A man of absolute convictions and commitment, in the great tradition of Afrikaners who took the Damascus Road, when he changed, he changed completely.

In 1963 he became Director of the Christian Institute, an ecumenical organisation he had helped found that opposed apartheid and went out of its way to bring together Christians of all races and languages. He resigned as Moderator and also from the Broederbond. When the DRC declared the institute a heretical organisation and defrocked him, Naudé chose open confrontation. He attacked his church's teaching on apartheid and defied apartheid directly.

The rulers of the apartheid state hated traitors in their midst and Naudé's persecution soon began. His former colleagues shunned him but, whatever they might have thought of his views, his enemies could not doubt his integrity. "Duped by the Communists" was the commonest criticism but, when a university professor accused him of being a Communist, he sued and won.

He frequently defied apartheid laws in a calculated, symbolic way - quoting a banned person or refusing to pay a small fine for breaking a law he regarded as unjust. After a period of police raids and legal skirmishes - one of which ended with his imprisonment - the Christian Institute was banned and its assets seized and in 1977 Naudé himself was banned. That meant he was only allowed to meet one person at a time, he could not be quoted and could not leave his house without permission.

When I visited him in his small house in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg in October 1979, his wife Ilse brought me to his room and then had to wait in the garden while I spoke to him. He still looked more like a bank manager than a revolutionary, grey-suited with hard iron-grey hair sleeked back and clear rimmed glasses. But his blue eyes lit up with energy and warmth and he talked fast and urgently. His frustrating isolation made him hungry for news and views and above all for engagement.

He said that he had not believed what was going on in places like Soweto to start with, but, when young white ministers described it, he went to look for himself. "I could see what effect the new government policies were having but it still took me a long time to make the break." We talked for an hour - the prescribed time.

He didn't preach, he didn't boast, he didn't complain. He carried the burden of banning lightly, a mere inconvenience compared to what others suffered. "My church is selling out on everything that it stood for," he said. "The Afrikaners are selling out to capitalism." It was as if he knew that his people had taken a disastrous turn and would sooner or later be forced to return to the true path. His mission was to find that path as fast as possible. What happened to him on the way was an irrelevance.

When I met him again nine years later, he was part of a group of Afrikaners who trekked north to Europe to meet the African National Congress in exile. They did so with the tacit blessing of the government. Not only was Naudé unbanned - he had been posted to the very front of the trek that was to lead to South Africa's liberation.

After his banning order was lifted in 1984 he became Secretary-General of the South African Council of Churches in succession to Bishop Desmond Tutu. It is hard for outsiders to understand how important that organisation was in a state where every other effective institution that opposed apartheid had been suppressed. With no free press and a legislature and judiciary that simply served the apartheid state, the SACC was a lone voice.

Naudé opposed violence and criticised the brutality connected to black uprisings against apartheid but he said, "If blood runs in the streets of South Africa, it will not be because the World Council of Churches has done something, but because the churches of South Africa have done nothing."

When the constitutional conference was set up in 1992 Naudé was named as one of the negotiators, although he had played no direct role in politics. It was a tribute to the esteem in which he was held by South Africa's leaders from all sides.

Naudé urged people to be patient with the new government. It would take 15 to 20 years to overcome the record of apartheid, he said, but he felt encouraged by the number of whites who stayed on and got involved in the new South Africa.

At Naudé's 80th birthday party, Nelson Mandela described him as a hero and a prophet:

He became an outcast amongst the Afrikaners, amongst many whites and amongst the church that he loved. Such is the price that prophets are required to pay. Standing in the tradition of great Afrikaners and patriots like Braam Fischer, Betty Du Toit and others, Naudé's life is a shining beacon to all South Africans - both black

and white. It demonstrates what it means to rise above race, to be a true South African. If someone asks me what kind of a person a new South African should be, I will say: "Take a look at Beyers and his wife Ilse."

Richard Dowden