John W. de Gruchy with Steve de Gruchy. The Church Struggle in South Africa. 25th Anniversary Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005. xxx + 286 pp. $16.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8006-3755-2.
Reviewed by Dawid Venter (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-SAfrica (May, 2007)
Aluta Continua for South African Churches
John de Gruchy's The Church Struggle in South Africa first appeared in 1979--a year after P. W. Botha's ascension to power, two years after Steve Biko's death, and three years after the Soweto uprising. Still to come were Botha's two states of emergency (1985, 1986-1990), arrests of thousands, death squads, and assassinations of activists (such as Matthew Goniwe, died 1985), torture of clergy (like Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, 1986), destabilization of frontline states, surveillance through the multilevel Joint Management Centres, detentions without trial, and endless rounds of forced removals.
Throughout the Botha era (1978-1989) The Church Struggle was widely read in South Africa and abroad. The University of Stellenbosch has prescribed it since 1987, for example (http://tinyurl.com/38etzw). The first edition dealt with events up to 1977. True to John de Gruchy's provenance as the Robert Selby Taylor Professor of Christian Studies (1973-2003), the book served to challenge white readers with theological reflection on the social history of denominational and ecumenical pronouncements and organization against apartheid (p. xxiii). The publication of the second edition (1986) coincided with the second state of emergency. The only change was an addendum discussing major criticisms (p. xi). The 25th anniversary edition with its handsome cover updates Church Struggle to 2004 (p. 243). De Gruchy's description of the ecumenical struggle for justice--ironically--highlights the degree to which denominations, local congregations, and individual affiliates failed to do so.
The title inevitably raises questions about what "the church" and "struggle" may mean. For John de Gruchy "the church" is a theological term encompassing all Christian denominations (see p. 3). Not all denominations were involved in "struggle," nor does De Gruchy deal with all who were (p. 86). Instead, he concentrates on "English-speaking churches" of British origin (p. 18) that opposed apartheid policies and participated in the South African Council of Churches (p. 84). The resultant list comprises Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists (in which John de Gruchy is ordained). The four denominations are conflated with major ecumenical organizations to connote the "ecumenical church" (p. 201), which by implication also incorporates "the mission church" and "the black church."
The object of "church struggle" varies with particular periods for De Gruchy. During the colonial era the "struggle" was "to make the churches of British origin relevant to South Africa" (p. 18). Black Christians during the Union period struggled for "justice, rights, and land," and related racism to "educational, economic, and political issues" (pp. 13, 48). Relevance during the apartheid era meant opposing "racism and injustice" (pp. 13,63). The book traces the attempts by the "ecumenical church" to eliminate racial injustice by confronting the apartheid state through public statements. Less attention falls to public disobedience, organizing opposition, and supporting detainees and their families. The "struggle" included but extends beyond "the black political struggle" (p. 32) to the present.
Chapter 1 offers a broad account of relations between South African Christians and colonized indigenes between 1652 and about 1946. The discussion is organized around distinctions between mission and settler churches, Afrikaner and English churches, and white and black churches. Meticulous footnotes provide a treasure of earlier sources (some from the Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, founded by De Gruchy in 1972). While De Gruchy duly attends to the role of the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (p. 32), he also points to the breakaway Gereformeerde Kerk as the theological vanguard for Afrikaner nationalism (pp. 6, 31). Chapter 2 applies the dichotomies to the different formal responses between 1942 and 1977 of denominations to racial discrimination. The Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK) delegation's recantation of the 1960 Cottesloe resolutions, under pressure from Prime Minister H. F. Verwoerd, marked the final crossroad (pp. 60-67).
The subsequent emergence of united ecumenical opposition to the state from 1962 to 1977 is sketched in chapter 3. The Christian Institute of Southern Africa (1963-1977) unsuccessfully attempted to establish a Confessing movement based on the German war-time model (pp. 104-105,110). The Institute was radicalized through its work among black Christians such as Steve Biko, and provided institutional support for African independent churches. The state countered the political work of the Institute by cutting off overseas funding and banning its leaders, including C. F. Beyers Naude, Brian Brown, Cedric Mayson, and Peter Randall (p. 109).
The South African Council of Churches (SACC) followed a similar trajectory to the Christian Institute according to De Gruchy. Under Archbishop Bill Burnett the SACC incurred the state's wrath by publishing the Message to the People of South Africa in 1968. Burnett in the 1970s became a figurehead for the charismatic renewal. The World Council of Churches' decision to support liberation organizations through the Program to Combat Racism (1970) prompted the ecumenical movement to debate violence. Critics argued that the Program justified guerilla warfare, ignoring the institutional violence of the apartheid regime (pp. 126, 137). The SACC called for a complete rejection of all forms of violence (p. 127). In 1974 the SACC's annual conference produced a Statement on Conscientious Objection, which asked churches to consider whether this option was not demanded by Christian discipleship in South Africa. Paradoxically, member churches were simultaneously urged to supply chaplains to the liberation movements, as they were already doing for the South African Defence Force (pp. 137, 142). Conscientious objection was not then legally an option within the system of compulsory military conscription--unlike non-combatant status, which incurred extensive penalties. The state made calling for conscientious objection a crime punishable by fine and imprisonment (pp. 134-142). The election of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1978 to its leadership helped the SACC to become even more involved with the black struggle (p. 188). In response, the state engaged in financial harassment and legal repression, as it had done with the Christian Institute.
While overt black resistance was dampened between the Sharpeville and Soweto uprisings, black consciousness and black theology emerged during this time from within the churches. Blackness was defined as including black Africans, coloureds, and Indians (p. 152), while black theology also addressed whites (p. 180). De Gruchy highlights the distinctiveness of black theology in South Africa compared to other varieties, particularly that espoused by James Cone (pp. 150, 162). Black theology arose from a broad theological spectrum, including the University Christian Movement, Lutherans (Manas Buthelezi), Reformeds (Allan Boesak), Congregationalists (Bonganjalo Goba), Methodists (Khosa Mgojo), and Anglicans (Desmond Tutu) (pp. 147-154, 187. Ironically, black consciousness and black theology fueled renewed protests against white rule just as some black youth were abandoning churches for being irrelevant (p. 175).
Chapter 5 replaces the theological conclusions of the first two editions, and adds descriptions of Christian initiatives from 1976 to 2002. Examples include the National Initiative for Reconciliation (1985), The Belhar Confession (1982), The Kairos Document (1985), The Harare Declaration (1986), and the SACC's Standing for the Truth Campaign (1988). Prior to the 1994 election, ecumenical leaders helped to establish nationwide peace monitoring structures, both local and international (pp. 217, 222). Brigalia Bam, former general secretary of the SACC, joined the leadership of the Independent Electoral Commission.
In chapter 6 John de Gruchy's son, Steve, concludes that the ecumenical movement faces multiple issues today without the unified focus forged during the apartheid era (p. 223). The collapse of foreign funding and the diversity of difficulties were contributing factors (p. 255). Confronted by a newly secular state (p. 244), denominations turned their collective attention inward while Christian public theology adjusted to a plurality of belief systems. Chapter 6 urges churches to grapple instead with poverty (including land redistribution, HIV-Aids, pp. 231, 233), gender injustice (p. 236), pluralism (p. 241), and globalization (p. 246), just as they had vicariously engaged with national reconciliation through clergy representatives on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 1996 (p. 224ff.).
John de Gruchy is particularly adept at presenting the positions of various denominations from within their theological and sociological perspectives. He shows, for example, how the theological convictions of Lutherans prevented that denomination from meaningfully confronting state policies (p. 10), and why the Roman Catholic Church did not join in until the 1970s (p. 95). De Gruchy's insights about the theological justification for apartheid remains the book's strongest points. He points out divisions within denominations which outside observers may have viewed as monolithic. NGK theologians B. B. Keet (pp. 9, 56) and Ben Marais (1909-1999, p. 57), for instance, are remembered for their opposition to apartheid alongside C. F. Beyers Naude. I have few quibbles with the book. There is the usual disregard by foreign publishers for spelling conventions of Afrikaans surnames ("de Klerk" where it should be De Klerk). Other minor errors include "Heraldtown" for Healdtown (p. 49), and "Wilgespruit Ecumenical Centre" for Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre (p. 107). The racially mixed congregation of Saint Anthony's was located in Johannesburg's Pageview suburb, not "downtown" (p. 186). An index reference to Tutu should point to p. 235, not p. 236. A footnote incorrectly dates The Message in Perspective to "1969" instead of 1968. In a postscript to the second edition John de Gruchy responded to major critiques, such as his a priori acceptance of "race" over material considerations (pp. xxi-xxvi). He did not incorporate his replies into the revised edition, arguing that this would have required a substantially different book.
John de Gruchy's dichotomies underplay the contrasting views held within and between denominations of British origin. He acknowledges that denomination leaders who opposed apartheid often differed from rank-and-file affiliates who did not (compare p. 97). But he fails to mention Anglican affiliates who deserted their denomination for others when Desmond Tutu became archbishop in 1984, or who criticized Tutu in 1978 when he became SACC general secretary. The dichotomies actually imply several struggles within denominations (about power, race, and culture) across different historical periods. For these reasons, Steve de Gruchy's thesis of a unified struggle against apartheid in chapter 6 is overstated. Apartheid state officials routinely challenged the churches to first put their own racially divided house in order. In addition, the term "English-speaking" is problematic, given that the majority of affiliates neither use English as first language nor as language of ritual.
The focus on "English-speaking" churches and the South African Council of Churches may create the impression that these entities were the only Christian agents for progressive change. Yet they were as little inclined as other European-derived denominations to appoint "natives" to leadership positions. While De Gruchy acknowledges some pioneers of racially mixed congregations (pp. 185-186), he fails to mention how very reluctant denominations of British origin were to encourage such congregations. The Methodists admitted as much to the TRC. The contributions of smaller ecumenical organizations are omitted, apart from the Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre (pp. 107-108). Shirley Turner's Church Women Concerned (ca. 1973, Cape Town) and Nico Smith's nationwide Koinonia movement (ca. 1979) are absent.
The Church Struggle can be recast as a contest for supremacy between proponents of different social constructions of Christianity. The denominational theology of white Reformed Christians, for instance, had woven apartheid into their perception of God in such a way that to reject the one was to forsake the Other (see p. 103 for a similar argument). The political effect was that (white) Christians exploited, oppressed, imprisoned, tortured, and killed (black) Christians (see volume 4, chapter 3 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Final Report). Not surprisingly, Reformed clergy like Manas Buthelezi and Allan Boesak played a central role in declaring apartheid a heresy (also the title of a book co-authored by John de Gruchy in 1983).
The author/s' concentration on major institutions and figures renders some of the book's conclusions vulnerable. Steve De Gruchy dismisses post-apartheid pentecostal and independent churches as undermining the witness of anti-apartheid denominations (p. 229). John de Gruchy characterizes them as "conservative," without supplying the insightful theological explanations that he applied to other denominations (p. 208). Of course the statement is true of right-wing groupings such as the Gospel Defence League (p. 188) or white members of the Assemblies of God. But such a generalized conclusion downplays the contributions of those few progressive evangelical, pentecostal, and charismatic leaders who participated in regional bodies during the apartheid era. Concerned Evangelicals in Johannesburg (1980s) was one example. In the post-apartheid period, pentecostal leader Ray McAuley of Rhema Bible Church (which I suspect p. 208 refers to) participated in the Rustenburg Conference in 1990. Rhema made its Randburg plant available for recruitment of faith-based election-night monitors by the Independent Electoral Commission in 1994. Its Educational Centre in Klerksdorp was used by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for amnesty hearings in 1999 (http://www.doj.gov.za/trc/media/1999/9905/p990506a.htm).
Those who re-read Church Struggle may discover that the impact of the first two editions depended largely on the historical period during which they were published. The events described are better known now than when the book first appeared. The significance of the text's dry focus on ecumenical declarations pales next to submissions to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission--particularly as relayed by Max du Preez in the "Truth Commission Special Report" on SABC-TV. By comparison, the book conveys a sense of struggle without detailing how ecumenical leaders were affected. Mkhatswha's torture is not mentioned, for instance. Nor are the everyday realities of apartheid sufficiently conveyed by the general descriptions provided (see pp. 170, 196). Consequently, the struggle is largely an internal affair between local agents about a racism abstracted from its human costs. The text mentions one death, that of Biko, as well as the detentions of Mkhatshwa, Father Clement Mokoto, and the arrests of Bishop David Russell and Dean Gonville ffrench-Beytagh. But neither the detention of SACC fieldworker Tom Manthata (1977) nor the poisoning of general secretary Frank Chikane (1989) are revealed.
Given Steve De Gruchy's challenge for churches to address globalization, I would have liked the author/s to clarify linkages between organizations and individuals. Transnational bodies are mentioned peripherally in the text to demonstrate how individual South Africans persuaded global actors to influence local denominations. The global ecumenical movement's subsequent inversion of apartheid's theological base allowed their local counterparts to join others in declaring that the apartheid state was illegitimate (pp. 187, 201-202). The book anticipates the local-global interdependent interaction so characteristic of the world system while revealing its rootedness in the era before globalization became a key interpretative frame. Compare Audie Klotz' commendable version of the struggle against apartheid, which mostly omits the role of the churches. But Klotz does show how the apartheid regime ended because transnational bodies effected change in global norms that governed how states could treat their citizens.
Explicating linkages would have demonstrated how people interacted and how respective programs mutually influenced one another. Were there any connections between the Lutheran World Federation's 1977 declaration that apartheid was a heresy and a similar conclusion in 1982 by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches? Did Manas Buthelezi's earlier efforts influence those of Allan Boesak later? By outlining such links, De Gruchy could have shown how former Methodist bishop Peter Storey related to the South African Council of Churches, the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, the World Council of Churches, the United Nations, and did pioneering work with racially mixed congregations. In the latter regard, again, Storey was influenced by Rob Robertson, who is mentioned (p. 186, n. 5). But Robertson's struggle from 1957 to get Presbyterians to embrace racially mixed local congregations is omitted. Robertson's creative attempts in 1986 and 1988 to re-introduce Christian activists to direct nonviolent action through workshops conducted by Walter Wink are also absent. Wink encouraged South African clergy to become involved in a 1987 book, sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (see: http://www.westarinstitute.org/Periodicals/4RArticles/Winkbio/wink_bio.html ). The omission of names and linkages in earlier editions is understandable, given the need for secrecy about financial support for the Christian Institute by Norwegian Church Aid, for example. But such considerations do not hold true for the 25th anniversary edition.
While the updates to the 25th anniversary edition are commendable, certain elements remain missing, as De Gruchy acknowledges. Among these, the omission of the bombing of Khotso House (1988) is extraordinary. Individual black church leaders and women are absent for 40 and 211 pages respectively. The text omits the Methodist Church of Southern Africa's adoption of an explicit development stance after 1990. Nor does it mention a similar debate and subsequent shift in the Dutch Reformed Church, exemplified by the fostering of a development stream at Stellenbosch's Theological Faculty. We do not learn how Dutch Reformed, Lutheran and other denominations responded to the post-apartheid land redistribution issue from a brief reference (p. 227).
My biggest regret about the book is that John de Gruchy did not insert his personal experiences explicitly into the text. He did, after all, organize the launch of The Message to the People of South Africa in 1968 as Director of Publications and Ecumenical Studies for the South African Council of Churches. I suspect that he played a role in the attempts to establish a confessing movement in South Africa, given his lifelong work on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The role that De Gruchy himself played as a founder member of the Christian Institute is also not revealed in the text. I met John de Gruchy a couple of times, once at a conference, where his integrity and prophetic intensity stood out. His silence about his own involvement is a tribute to his modesty, but should leave the reader dissatisfied. Church Struggle serves as much as a monument to the courage of the man who wrote it, during some of the darkest days of apartheid, as to the engagement of the ecumenical movement with the state.
. The outpouring of laudatory comments about P. W. Botha, following his death in September 2006, was a bitter pill to swallow for those who endured his regime. Struggle stalwarts like Nelson Mandela remarked on how Botha paved the way for the demise of apartheid through initiating talks with the African National Congress. Others pointed to Botha's removal of the Mixed Marriages Act and relaxation of influx control (see BBC News, "PW Botha: Reaction in quotes," 1 November 2006, accessed at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6105178.stm ).
. One of the earliest references to English-speaking churches in this manner is found in Peter B. Hinchliff, "The Crisis for English Christianity in South Africa," Pro Veritate 1.7 (1962): 1. Hinchliff wrote, "By 'English' Christianity in South Africa I mean those Churches which derive from Britain, who use English as their principal language of worship, who are in communion with a 'mother' Church in England, and some of whose clergy come from England ... [and] are probably unhappy about the apartheid policy of the present government" (p. 1).
. From a different perspective, the merging of a South African liberation theology with the liberation struggle could be construed as a de jure confessing movement, constituting "The Prophetic Voice Within Phlegmatic Churches," as Peter Walshe suggested in a chapter of the same name in The Christian Churches and the Democratisation of South Africa, ed. Paul Gifford (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 74-94. De Gruchy also argues that the Belhar Confession (1982) marked the emergence of a black confessing church (p. 192).
. The combination of legal and financial pressure continued throughout apartheid history, used most notably against the progressive Afrikaans paper Die Vrye Weekblad.
. H. Mvume Dandala, "The Methodist Church of Southern Africa. Submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission," 1997. Accessed on February 27, 2005 (http://web.uct.ac.za/depts/ricsa/commiss/trc/mcsa_sub.htm).
. John W. de Gruchy and Charles Villa-Valencio, Apartheid is a Heresy (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Erdmanns, 1983).
. Audie Klotz, Norms in International Relations: The Struggle against Apartheid (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).
. Walter Wink, Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa (Philadelphia: New Society, 1987).
. John de Gruchy appeared in the documentary Bonhoeffer, reviewed elsewhere on H-Net: http://www.h-net.org/mmreviews/showrev.cgi?path=711.
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Dawid Venter. Review of de Gruchy, John W. de Gruchy with Steve, The Church Struggle in South Africa.
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