30 years of church history in one book

By Don Makatile Time of article published Aug 20, 2021

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The role of the church in the Struggle for liberation has, perhaps, never been told in as comprehensive and glowing detail as contained throughout the pages of Sowing In Tears, A Documentary History of the Church Struggle against Apartheid 1960 – 1990.

For ease of reference, the author made his yoke lighter and assisted the reader by confining his works to the three decades in the subhead of the title. Many studies fail because the writers give in to the temptation of sponging every bit of information falling even remotely within the ambit of their literary projects.

M. John Lamola resisted the temptation to begin his critique of the role of the church in 1948 when Apartheid officially entered the statute books.

The Sharpeville shootings of March 1960 that left 69 people and earned South Africa the pariah status among nations of the world was the catalyst that jolted the body of Christ, the church, out of its reverie.

When the story then unravels page after page of how the church threw herself into the fight against the heresy of Apartheid, one cannot help but stay with Lamola throughout the discourse.

You will hear how “the National Party at prayer”, as the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK) deservedly came to be known, wrote itself out of history with its vain attempts to advance a theological argument for the untenable and immoral logic of ‘separate development’.

Lamola does not devote acres of copy to this ecumenical hoax of trying to defend the indefensible using the word of God. It is well documented elsewhere.

Instead, his focus, which is really what brings the book alive, is on the rise of the Black and Coloured daughter churches of the NGK against the blasphemy of their mother church in trying to prop up apartheid, a crime against humanity, as declared by the United Nations (UN).

At the helm of the daughter churches were the likes of Dr Allan Boesak, a fiery orator at the time, travelling the world to preach the gospel of mankind’s oneness before God, and the late Rev Sam Buti in the black wing of the NGK.

The book then brings back memories of the halcyon days of Black Theology – a brand of churching inspired by the philosophy of Black Consciousness, as espoused by Steve Bantu Biko.

The black clergy were saying enough about us, without us. The black man was more than capable of articulating his own struggle – political, economic, social, religious and otherwise.

They were tired of the paternalism of the white leadership of the church, whom they accused of having been on the side of the oppressor from the colonial era. They insisted on drastic change in the pigmentation of the leadership of the church. This stance shocked the white conservative Methodist, Anglican and Catholic religious top brass out of their skins.

All authority was put on earth by God, the whites said; every government that was not constituted based on the will of the people was immoral and had no right to be respected, the blacks countered. Each side was Scriptural in its argument.

Black Theology had a stellar cast with the likes of Dr Manas Buthelezi, Rev Dr Khoza Mgojo, Father Lebamang Sebidi, Reverend Frank Chikane, Father Buti Tlhagale, and the biggest thorn in the side of the apartheid bigots, Bishop Desmond Tutu.

They travelled the world denouncing apartheid South Africa. They had their passports withdrawn. They were banned. They were harassed by the Security Police. They had their offices bombed. But they were indefatigable.

Black Theology had its biggest champion in Oom Bey, Dr Beyers Naude, an Afrikaner maverick who eschewed the chance to be a member of the Broederbond and part of the white conservative elite, to fight on the side of the downtrodden majority.

The white English church, of course, had visionaries too, like the enlightened Archbishop Denis Hurley, among the first members of the clergy to meet with the then exiled ANC in Lusaka, Zambia.

If you’d ever thought that the church was meek in the face of apartheid bullets, read this book. Desmond Tutu, both in speech and letters to John Vorster and his successor, PW Botha, was insolent, unkind and frank.

FW de Klerk’s parliamentary speech on February 2, 1990, came on the back of a stinging letter of rejection of his invitation to meet with church leaders. They had no idea that what they listed as their prerequisites to meet with him were exactly what he’d do when he delivered his speech unbanning political parties and releasing all the political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela.

It was a bitter struggle, peppered with verses from the Scriptures. But it was worth it. It is all in the book.

- The book is published by African Perspectives Publishing and is available at all Exclusive Books stores

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