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Religious Faith and Anti-Apartheid Activism

Some of the major Christian churches gave their blessing to the system of apartheid. And many of its early proponents prided themselves in being Christians. Indeed, the system of apartheid was regarded as stemming from the mission of the church...Religious communities also suffered under apartheid, their activities were disrupted, their leaders persecuted, their land taken away. Churches, mosques, synagogues and temples – often divided amongst themselves – spawned many of apartheid's strongest foes, motivated by values and norms coming from their particular faith traditions."
Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report, Volume 4 Chapter 3
The response of South Africa's religious institutions to apartheid spanned a wide spectrum – from overt support to tacit acceptance and outright rejection. The Dutch Reformed Church provided a theological justification of apartheid, claiming that it was God's will and that the Bible supported it. It was only in 1998 that the DRC officially recognized apartheid "as wrong and sinful ... in its fundamental nature." Other Christian churches, as well as Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and other faith communities, failed to challenge apartheid racism in a meaningful way, choosing instead to remain silent. This position changed dramatically in the 1980s as opposition to apartheid became increasingly widespread, inside and outside the country.

Certain individuals within faith communities rose to prominence in the anti-apartheid movement as a result of their religious beliefs. These activists worked both publicly and secretly in various resistance organizations to express their disdain for racism and segregation and their support for democratic change in South Africa. Regardless of religious affiliation, all of them shared a belief that apartheid was morally and ethically indefensible – a grave injustice, or a "sin."

Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu remains one of South Africa's most important and beloved figures. Expressing his view about the inter-relationship between religion and politics, Tutu asserted, "Faith is a highly political thing... As followers of God we too must be politically engaged" (Villa-Vicencio 277). Tutu and other religious leaders exercised their considerable moral authority to condemn apartheid as a crime against humanity and helped mobilize support for freedom and democracy. Tutu's influence increased during his tenure as General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (1978-1985). His tireless work in support of the liberation movements received global recognition and, as a result, in 1984 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In a 1999 interview, Bishop Tutu described how he saw God intervene in the cause of South African liberation:
And to be able then to seek to uphold the fervor and the faith of our people, being able to say to them that we had a God who was not deaf, who was not blind, who didn't give advice from a safe distance. We had a God who enters the fiery furnace with you and doesn't say to you, "Well, you know, when you are exposed to fire, you ought to wear asbestos and protective -" No, God comes into the fire with you, because this is Emmanuel. Incredible. I mean, it was almost as if the scriptures were a textbook written specifically for your particular situation. It's been an incredible privilege, a very incredible privilege.
Interview with Mary Marshall Clark, September 15, 1999; from the Carnegie Oral History Project in the Oral History Research Office Collection of the Columbia University Libraries

AODL African Studies Center MSU NEH Matrix