Johan Heyns, who led the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) to denounce apartheid in the 1980s, would have been 90 years old this year. He was assassinated in 1995 at his home in Pretoria, by all accounts as an act of right-wing revenge for his role in the political transition of our country.
More than 20 years later, my son Johan Adam starts asking me questions about the grandfather whose name he carries, but whom he hardly knew.
I also realise that while I knew him as a father, I do not have a full understanding of the role that he played, often behind the scenes, in the country.
Over the next couple of years Adam and I will criss-cross the country and talk to his contemporaries. We will visit the farm Bloemkraal in the Eastern Free State where he was born in 1928. We will go through the church archives in Stellenbosch and the newspapers of the time.
My mother, Rene, gave us a box of old videos. A clearer picture has started emerging.
My father’s colleagues in the church - now mostly in retirement homes - gave us their accounts. The theology “Class of ’51” at the University of Pretoria included people like Nico Smit, later a prominent critic of apartheid, as well as Carl Boshoff, equally prominent on the right. They recounted how his first love was teaching, and how he, with a combination of intellect, sincerity of conviction and charm, influenced generations of young dominees to engage in what he had called “critical solidarity”.
The DRC was often called the National Party at prayer. For many years Heyns worked in the heart of the church establishment, pushing for openness to new ideas, while not challenging the support of the church for apartheid, which was central to his upbringing. That would only come with time.
Hendrik Verwoerd was a member of the congregation in Cape Town where we lived when my father was the pastor.
John Vorster called on him for games of chess. He had an uneasy relationship with PW Botha, although the latter’s son lived in our house in Rondebosch while he was at school.
He would later tell us how as a doctoral student in the Netherlands he had participated in holy communion where there was a black man present. This first - and unplanned - act of solidarity across racial lines made a lasting impression on him.
While the “critical” part of his philosophy of “critical solidarity” eventually put him on a collision course with the older establishment in his church, he was also adamant that the “solidarity” element meant that your fate and task remained tied with the group that you come from. He urged others who were dissatisfied with the direction of the government and the church: “Do not jump off the train, work on it from the inside and reverse its course”.
The image of the train returns time and again as we trace my father’s footsteps. We are keen to use it in the film. At Bloemkraal in Tweeling we get beautiful shots of where the train track runs past the house where he was born.
Heyns was viewed as “too liberal” by the church establishment, and during the synod of 1982 he was voted out of all leadership positions in the church.
His mantra was that South Africa needed “a change of heart” about race.
Looking back, it becomes clear to me that he was above everything else talking to himself, as he was making his own internal transition.
His former students and colleagues, then in increasingly powerful positions, rallied around him, and he became more confident. In 1986, at the high point of the state of emergency, Heyns was, to the surprise of many, brought back into the fold and elected as the “moderator” or leader of the DRC.
The same synod formally denounced apartheid. Heyns called apartheid a sin. The apartheid state had lost its strongest legitimising pillar.
We met FW de Klerk, now long retired, in Cape Town.
Adam asked De Klerk about Heyns’s approach to stay on the train, as opposed to others like Smit (a family friend till his death) who jumped off on the left.
De Klerk says it was valuable that some did it, but reminded us that people like Andries Treurnicht jumped off on the right. Someone had to stay onboard and assume responsibility. He said he sometimes wished they had listened to Heyns earlier.
Allan Boesak, who was a student of my father at the University of the Western Cape, sat down in our home in Pretoria for one of the most fascinating discussions I had ever had.
He recounted how he came to our house in Stellenbosch to greet my father before he went to the Netherlands to study for his doctorate. “Jy was nog ’* tjokkertjie”, Boesak told me.
I asked him about my father saying he wanted to stay on the train and change things from the inside.
Boesak said he never bought that idea.
“He should have stopped apartheid much earlier.”
The whole image of him having been constrained by a track is all wrong - Johan was so strong, Boesak said, he could have made his own way and taken everyone with him.
We have to think carefully about our metaphor of the train.
In the box of videos we got from my mother, we found one showing my father as the main speaker at the day of the vow ceremony of 1988 at the Voortrekker monument, commemorating the Afrikaner victory at the battle of Blood River against the Zulus.
Heyns, with cabinet ministers in the audience, gave a rousing speech, saying the Afrikaans people were not God’s only chosen people.
In that time much of what he did was behind the scenes. British ambassador to South Africa during the transition (now Lord) Robin Renwick, now based in London, recounted how he met Botha in an attempt to persuade him not to go ahead with the execution of the “Sharpeviille Six”, who had been sentenced to death in the context of the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s. The executions were scheduled for the next day.
He then learnt that Heyns had been there earlier on the same day. According to Renwick, these interventions made Botha change his mind, and they were not executed.
One of the earliest decisions that then incoming president, FW de Klerk, had to take in September 1989, was whether to allow a march organised by Bishop (Desmond) Tutu, Boesak and others that was going to bring Cape Town to a standstill.
We drove to a retirement home in Wellington where DRC dominee Dirk Hatting told us how Heyns shuttled between the organisers and De Klerk.
The march was allowed, with not a single incident of violence. Similar marches followed countrywide. It was clear the government had started to share power. Transition was under way.
The direction taken by the DRC to break with apartheid was deeply resented by many in the church, and thousands broke away to form an alternative church. That was accompanied by a relentless barrage of death threats. My mother told me they had received threatening letters and anonymous calls deep in the night. My father never spoke about it.
Where she lives in a retirement home my mother - now 87 - told Adam and I how a group of Afrikaans women, the Kappiekommando, made an appointment to see my father at his home in Waterkloof. They wore traditional clothes and kappies (bonnets). They declined to shake hands or have tea, and inside his study they refused to sit down. Instead they stood in a circle around him and proceeded to express a solemn curse on him and his house. They then left wordlessly, in single file.
On the evening of November 5, 1994, my mother and father were playing games with my brother’s sons in their living room. My mother had wanted to put up curtains to make it more secure. The house did not have a fence. My father’s approach was that if someone wanted to get him, they would. It was Guy Fawkes night. My mother recounted how she heard a loud bang and saw a flash. When she looked at my father she realised there was “absolutely nothing” she could do for him.
A single gunshot from a heavy calibre rifle, fired through a closed window, had penetrated the back of his head. She recounted how it all felt strangely familiar.
She told herself: “So it has happened.”
The news reverberated around the world. Adam and I were with the rest of our family in Europe when we heard the news in German on the car radio. We took the next plane home.
Nelson Mandela called Heyns “a soldier for peace” and came to see us as a family the morning of the funeral. A special session was held in Parliament to commemorate his legacy.
Speaking to us in his home in London last month, British author John Carlin, the author of the book on which the Clint Eastwood movie about the 1995 Rugby World Cup Invictus was based, and who spent many hours of interviews with Mandela, recounted Mandela’s words. “Mandela called Heyns a soldier of peace. Mandela would also have described himself as a soldier for peace. I think to some extent Mandela would have seen in Johan Heyns an Afrikaner mirror image of himself, in terms of integrity, honesty and clarity of vision. Johan Heyns took some time to get there, but when he did, he applied himself with the courage of a soldier.”
According to Carlin, one of the reasons why Mandela decided to retain the Springbok emblem, which would play such a strong role in the World Cup of 1995, was that he was concerned that after the assassination of Heyns, the pot of Afrikaner anger would boil over if the Springbok was removed.
Lord Renwick was visibly moved when he said: “He was my friend, a great South African, who was brutally murdered when he was helping to turn his country away from bloodshed. I think of Professor Heyns from time to time to this day. I cannot think of anyone I admired more in South Africa at the time.”
HF Verwoerd Street in Pretoria was renamed Johan Heyns Street some years ago. It crosses what is now called Nico Smit Street. Adam and I went there to take pictures. As the light was fading, we tried to capture a train bridge that spanned the street.
The annual memorial lecture for Johan Heyns, focusing this year on his role as a public intellectual, will be held at the University of Pretoria on August 23. Dr Allan Boesak will be the guest speaker.