South Africa: Apartheid's priests don sackcloth and seek forgiveness three decks

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The Independent Online
The Dutch Reformed Church, once a pillar of apartheid, executed a remarkable about-turn yesterday when it appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But its confessions about a shameful past may not have gone far enough.

For months it wriggled and twisted, but yesterday the Dutch Reformed Church, which provided a theological basis for apartheid, stood before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and confessed its sins.

Afrikanerdom's largest church said the still lily-white denomination felt guilty for "spiritual and structural injustices". Offering an apology to "the people", the Rev Freek Swanepoel, the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church) leader, said: "We confess that great wrongs have been done." Despite the hugs for Mr Swanepoel from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, TRC chairman, the apology was grudgingly made, and, with schism threatening the NGK, carefully worded. Three weeks ago the church, which with 1.3 million members represents 60 per cent of the Afrikaner population, was sticking by a pledge not to testify. The decision was reversed at an emotional gathering in Pretoria.

The "baas's church" and the Broederbond (a secretive, secular association) were the two pillars of Afrikaner supremacy; the church said it had previously confessed its guilt over apartheid and had no reason to appear before the commission, because the it had never been an "accomplice" to serious rights violations.

To its critics, that proved the NGK had missed the point. Without its biblical support for apartheid and its lobbying for racist legislation, the system the UN declared a crime against humanity might have crumbled sooner. Instead, the local NGK clergyman was always on hand to reassure the conscious-stricken army conscript or the uneasy congregation that apartheid had been authorised by God.

Mr Swanepoel was walking a tightrope yesterday, struggling to keep the church's hardliners and liberals on board.

Last year these internal divisions became apparent when the church's Stellenbosch presbytery defied the leadership and offered its own apology to the TRC, the body charged with exposing the truth about South Africa's brutal past.

The Stellenbosch group acknowledged they had turned a blind eye to the plight of millions of South Africans by failing to speak out against apartheid sooner.

It was only in the the 1980s that the NGK began to distance itself from the racist system, but its abandonment of the old ideology has been far from clear.

A few months after the Stellenbosch confession, the NGK published a document in which it admitted it "had not always heard the word of God correctly" and had been so concerned with Afrikaner survival that it ignored the miserable existence of the masses.

That did not calm internal disputes. In a church once described the National Party at prayer, some of the most respected theologians still insist there is nothing in the Bible that renders apartheid a sin.

Mr Swanepoel probably disappointed the hardliners yesterday. His submission, which focused on reconciliation rather than how church teaching underpinned apartheid, also failed to please NGK reformers.

"We think the church has missed a glorious opportunity," said Afrikaner lecturer Bernie van der Walt. "Our church caused suffering through the discriminatory system and would like to make every possible move to repair the damage." The NGK remains racially divided. The Afrikaner core has yet to unite with the separate chapters into which it once herded black and Coloured members. On Tuesday a group within the NGK family urged the TRC to investigate links between the Broederbond and NGK.

The NGK contribution to reconciliation came at the end of three days of "faith" hearings. All week clergy from the other denominations lined up to confess and expose.

Faried Esack, a Muslim theologian, attacked Muslim leaders for betraying and marginalising the anti-apartheid struggle and South Africa's Chief Rabbi, Cyril Harris, said: "The Jewish community benefited from apartheid and an apology must be given ... We ask for forgiveness."