A peek at the private life of Beyers Naude

Published Sep 12, 2004


Some might say that this was a defining moment in the history of the Afrikaner. In one of their darkest hours, the prescribed rationale of racial division had been challenged, not only by one of their own, but by a man of God, a righteous man, a son of the Broederbond, a forceful apostle of white-dominated politics.

On that day, November 3, 1963, the Naude family sat somewhere near the back of the church. Staunch, but sad.

"I was only 12 years old at the time," recalls his daughter and youngest child, Liesel. I didn't really know the whole story. But I cried. Even then I knew, like all of us, that things would never be the same again. I looked at my mother, so upright and proud, and at my three brothers. I suppose, if there was ever a moment of complete togetherness, this was it."

In front, between the heads of the congregation, delivering his final sermon was the greying, bespectacled Beyers Naude, the quintessential confidante and comforter, the admired cleric whose Christian ideals and scholarly views once made the apartheid ideology seem so right and fair. But no more.

For the family, for the fallen churchman, whose belief in a non-racial society had incurred the wrath of the apartheid leaders and most Afrikaners, this was a Rubicon moment.

Defrocked, ousted as an enemy of the state, he spoke "quietly, deliberately, but with huge emotion written on his face of allegiances and choices that had to be made between God and man.

His wife, Ilse, three sons and a daughter knew only too well the anguish of that "choice". So, too, did the strongly devout Afrikaner members of the congregation at the Aasvoëlkop NGK church in Northcliff, Johannesburg. For the last time they were listening to this ghost of their past, now, for them, a "treacherous and feared" reality.

In many ways, though, it was the whispers of a new beginning in religious tolerance. Within weeks of leaving his old spiritual home, Naude had put his energies into the formation of the Christian Institute, bringing together different denominations and cultures.

This week, following the death of Beyers Naude at the age of 89, Liesel Naude spoke of her father "who right up to the end prayed that his belief in truth, justice and equality would help to unite the people of this country".

However, she also believes that one mustn't overlook the loneliness and soul-searching that had to be done by those like her father, whose "betrayal" meant walking away from all that was familiar.

"As children, as a family, of course we felt it too. But perhaps we were better prepared than other children to take on these challenges and whatever went with it."

It has, she says, something to do with being different.

"At school when they asked you what your father did and you said he was a minister, you were immediately thought of as odd," Liesel recalled. "So that helped a bit. But certainly when my father made his then very radical views public, the changes came very quickly. Before we were regarded as a respectable, upright family. Now we were outcasts. It was a shock.

"We did not all agree with my father's sentiments at the time. But that really wasn't the point. We respected him enormously. If this was his choice, we would all support him. There was never any question about that."

As in all families, there are things they did regret.

"We are sorry that, at the time, we did not know of the selfless things he was doing to help those involved in the struggle for freedom, even small things like money for ANC exiles, helping find safe houses."

Liesel, like her brothers, remembers her father speaking of the terrible hardships in the mines and the poverty that existed in the townships. Most of all, it was the events of Sharpeville, the killing of 69 school children involved in a peaceful protest, that finally turned the tide.

"He could not come to terms with that. Not then. Not ever. I think it haunted him more than we will ever know. He loved the Bible and believed in its truth. He would say, there is nothing in there that gives us the right to do these things. If we don't change, there will be a bloodbath. He said that many times."

By then Beyers Naude's determination to unite the churches as a non-racial movement was well known. So, too, was his increasingly critical stance against apartheid in the aftermath of the Cottesloe Conference of 1960 organised by the World Council of Churches and the Cape and Transvaal Synods of the DR Church.

"In his later years he did regret not confiding in his family about some of the real issues he was tackling. If he had, I think we would have realised the conflict of mind and soul that was going on within him. But then, in retrospect, I think he also knew the dangers of people, especially his family, knowing too much at that difficult time when people like my father were branded communists and enemies of the state."

There is no doubting the feeling of isolation during the years of her father's seven-year banning, which started in 1977 and ended in 1984. There were, however compensations.

"Slowly, a whole new world opened up for my father and this, in many ways, was his salvation. There was incredible support from countries like Holland and Germany, many other countries in Europe and the United States.

"Somebody once said to my father, 'did you know you are 10 years ahead of your time'. My father replied, 'you are wrong. They are 10 years behind'."

In the high-profile momentum of his going, the upcoming state official funeral, and the official lowering of flag for a period of national mourning, Beyers Naude, the father and "down to earth" family man are part of that treasure trove of memories.

"Sunday lunches we were like a big Italian family talking loudly, noisy arguments about everything from politics to religion. He loved it when people had differing opinions."

"In the days when he was mobile (Beyers Naude was confined to a wheelchair for the last few years of his life), he loved the outdoors, hiking and walking with his family, and was mad about fixing cars... Those are precious memories."

While shadows passed to and fro during his life, there were triumphant moments.

"I think, for him, being a prominent negotiating force in the lead up to the birth of the democratic dispensation was a very special time."

Nelson Mandela, a close friend, described Naude as a true humanitarian, saying: "His life shows what it means to rise above race and to be a true South African." Words, says Liesel, that made up for all the years of isolation.

Peace came at the end for the veteran cleric.

"As he was going, my mother and I sang his favourite psalms about God being our shepherd. We know he would have liked that. He said that when he is gone, he didn't want people to cry - but to be hopeful."

Naude's ashes will be scattered in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra after a private family service.

The family has asked that no flowers be sent and that, instead, donations should be made to the Beyers Naude Fund, which supports an initiative to develop the skills of day mothers.

- Donations can be forwarded to Nedbank, Booysens branch 198/005, account numbers 1284053393 or 1284053105.

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