Sign up to our monthly newsletter

Please confirm that you are happy to hear from The Church of Scotland:

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please visit the Privacy Policy on our website.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.

Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: The Conflict in South Africa

Looking Back

Friday, August 9 2013

Looking Back: The Conflict in South Africa

Looking Back to August 1988, when Dr Chris Wigglesworth, General Secretary of the Church of Scotland's Board of World Mission and Unity, was asked to explain the Church's position on the situation in South Africa.


WHY should South Africa feature so prominently year after year, in the deliverances agreed by the General Assembly? And what difference does it really make here or there?

This year not a single contrary vote was recorded when a deliverance was adopted associating the General Assembly with the Lusaka Statement on the Churches’ Search for Justice and Peace in Southern Africa, commending it to the British Government for its fundamental principles, and calling on Church members to act in accordance with it. Yet there has been very little comment in the media.

Some who are not aware of what is at stake might be inclined to think that here is one of those one of those fringe issues which distract the Church from its essential task of proclaiming Christ.

On the other hand, the week after Assembly, when I was able to tell over 250 South African church leaders in Johannesburg, meeting at an emergency convocation, what our Church had agreed they were deeply appreciative of our support in the Gospel.

The question is: do we mean it?

This article has two aims. First, it highlights the Lusaka Statement’s main points for the many folk who have not yet had a chance to look at it.

Secondly, it suggests reasons why we should be keeping South Africa high on our agenda for informed prayer and action of the kind our General Assembly deliverances have repeatedly called for over the last few years.

The Lusaka Statement was drawn up a year ago by over a hundred Church representatives from South Africa, Namibia, and the international community, including the Very Rev. Dr John Paterson representing the Church of Scotland.

It makes three major assertions and goes on to challenge the world church and the international community to act on them.

On this basis the Statement goes on to challenge us to do far more than we have done till now to change things. It is worth spelling out some of the reasons why we should.

Heresy and evil

The present South African regime, currently celebrating 40 years of power, sees itself as probably the most Christian one, meaning by this the most Protestant and Reformed, in the modern world. The preamble to their 1983 Constitution begins:

“In humble submission to Almighty God, who controls the destinies of nations and the history of peoples, who gathered our forebears together from many lands and gave them this their own land… we declare that we are conscious of our responsibility towards God and man; and are convinced of the necessity of standing united and of pursuing the following national goals: to uphold Christian values and civilised norms…”

So many people round the world see the South African system as evidence of what Christians, especially white ones, really think of other people, or at least treat as an acceptable version of our faith.

Unless we disassociate ourselves from what is blasphemous heresy and evil, as increasing numbers of churches around the world are recognising, we compromise the Gospel in the eyes of millions.

The 1986 statement “Evangelical Witness in South Africa” agonises because black Christians in the townships are facing a crisis of faith, especially when they are detained, tortured and even killed by people who claim to be “born again”, when some churches oppose any resistance to this, and when much of the “Christian West” supports the regime by an odd view of reconciliation, while they keep a firm grip of “their own land”.

We should be in no doubt that virtually all the black Christian leadership in South Africa and most white church leaders including even some in the white Dutch Reformed  Church, are looking to us right now for more support.

That came across to me loud and clear when I attended a worship service in a  Cape Province township called Lawaaikamp, which the Government is trying to remove by force.

Stopped and searched at any army road block, then videoed by plain-clothed security police and entering a church surrounded by police trucks, I felt some of the intimidation Christians there face whenever they express their disagreement with the apartheid state.

Later, going to the Lord’s Supper with friends who have been tortured and face the prospect of more, I felt what a responsibility we have, especially with our Scots confession tradition, with its call to “save the lives of the innocent, to repress tyranny, to defend the oppressed”.

It is quite a thought that it is illegal even to pray by name for any of the thousands who are in prison under the state of emergency, most without trial and many in solitary confinement. Peaceful opposition has become almost impossible. Most white people in South Africa have little idea what is going on and too many prefer not to try to find out, in a situation which is frighteningly reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the Thirties.

The South African economy depends not only on badly-paid black labour with no vote and few civil rights but also to a large extent on British and American business links.

I was surprised how much anxious writing there was in the financial press there about the effect of sanctions. The highly inefficient apartheid system cannot continue without support from outside, and the British Government is seen as President Botha’s best friend in this.

Some of them fear that the churches in Britain are not so different from the white Dutch Reformed Church in wanting things to change as little as possible. Our credibility is at stake on the issue of boycotts and scandals.