Oom Bey: 'His life is a shining beacon'

On May 10 in 1995, Beyers Naude, the man many South Africans came to know as “Oom Bey”, celebrated his 80th birthday.

At the time, then president Nelson Mandela told the gathering: “Beyers Naude became an outcast amongst the Afrikaners, amongst many whites and amongst the church that he loved.

“Such is the price that prophets are required to pay.

“Standing in the tradition of great Afrikaners and patriots like Bram Fischer, Betty du Toit, and others, his life is a shining beacon to all South Africans—both black and white.

“It demonstrates what it means to rise above race, to be a true South African.”

Nine years later Naude died in Johannesburg at a retirement village on the border of Fairlands and Northcliff on Tuesday.

His name now marks a major road in the city, formerly named after D F Malan, the man who in 1948 formed the country’s first exclusively Afrikaner government and which ushered in apartheid.

Naude was one of eight children. He was born in Roodepoort in 1915, to Jozua Francois and Ada Naude.

His father, a Dutch Reformed Church minister, was also a founder of the Broederbond.

In 1921, his family moved to Graaff-Reinet, Cape Town. He matriculated in 1931 from Afrikaans Hoer Volkskool.

Naude then studied languages at Stellenbosch University and graduated from its School of Theology in 1939.

During his time at Stellenbosch, Naude slowly began to question the his parents’ belief in the alliance of theology and nationalism.

Naude identified three people in relation to whom he began to question his own politics and theology: Johan du Plessis, who was tried for heresy and dismissed from the NGK Seminary; HF Verwoerd, who lectured Naude in sociology and became prime minister; and Ben Keet, his seminary professor of ethics.

“The seeds of my theological dissent were sown during my time at Stellenbosch, primarily by Bennie Keet.

“I nevertheless had a deep hankering to remain part of the Afrikaner community,” Naude said.

A year later he was inducted in the Broederbond, making him that organisation’s youngest member at the time.

For 20 years Naude ministered to congregations countrywide. He identified the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 as “presenting me with a new crisis of faith”.

Later that year, a World Council of Churches delegation responded to the crisis by meeting South African member churches at Cottesloe, Johannesburg.

It produced a statement of far-reaching symbolic value, supported by the NGK delegates, rejecting the biblical and theological justification of apartheid.

Verwoerd sensed danger and called the NGK delegates to order. He required them to recant, and they did, except for Naude.

“It was the beginning of loneliness and isolation, something that I would experience again and again in the years ahead,” Naude said.

However in 1961, he was elected moderator of the powerful Southern Transvaal regional synod.

This came as a surprise to him—and many others—because he was openly critical of apartheid on Christian grounds.

“I was quite overwhelmed and stunned. Some told me it was the will of God. Quite frankly I did not know what to make of it.”

Naude also helped found the Christian Institute, aimed at uniting Christians of all races, languages and denominations, and was the editor of its controversial publication, Pro Veritate.

Under sustained pressure and criticism because of his anti-apartheid views, he resigned his church post two years later—in October 1963—and left his Aasvöelkop congregation in Northcliff, Johannesburg.

A member of the congregation, journalist Hennie Serfontein, wrote many years later: “In two memorable services… he announced his decision and delivered his farewell sermon on the theme ‘We must show greater loyalty to God than to man’.

“[Broederbond chief] Piet Meyer sat stony-faced through the two services. The farewell speech on behalf of the congregation was given by chief elder Danie du Plessis, then head of South African Railways, who choked back his tears, no doubt recalling that historic day in 1918 when he and Naude’s father formed the secret

Afrikaner Broederbond” in nearby Melville.

Also in 1963, the Sunday Times published a series of articles exposing the Broederbond, how it operated, its strategy of gettings its members appointed to key positions, and how it dominated the Dutch Reformed Church.

Naude was indirectly the source, as he had provided fellow theologian Professor Albert Geyser with the documents to evaluate the extent to which the church was beholden and dictated to by the secret Broederbond.

Unbeknown to Naude, Geyser had leaked the documents to a journalist.

For the next 30 years, Naude was hounded by the political, church and Broederbond establishment.

“What really annoyed the leaders of Afrikaner nationalism when I broke ranks was that I was very bit as much a white Afrikaner as they were.

“I think I reminded them of that side of Afrikanerdom which they have never been able to tame. It is an Afrikaner willingness to cross frontiers—relating the Afrikaner experience of exploitation, poverty and struggle to others who face similar experiences.”

Icon of resistance

In 1973 he refused to give evidence to the Schlebusch Commission, a parliamentary commission which was established by the BJ Vorster government to probe the Christian Institute, the Institute of Race Relations, the University Christian Movement and the National Union of South African students, which were viewed by the government as radical.

In the outside world, he was developing a reputation as an icon of resistance to apartheid and was awarded the Reinhold Niebuhr Award “for steadfast and self-sacrificing services in South Africa for justice and peace” in Chicago in 1974.

His passport was confiscated on his return. Meanwhile in October 1975 he was fined R50 or one month imprisonment for refusing to testify before the Schlebusch Commission. He was arrested on October 28, 1976 for refusing to pay the fine. He was jailed for one night but the dominee of his church—Dr Jan van Rooyen—paid the fine.

From 1977 to 1984 he was banned, but became involved in the underground resistance against apartheid.

He described these years as his “seven lean years”

Naude was a brilliant backyard mechanic and knowledgeable about second-hand cars. He used this as a cover to obtain cars for use by people going into exile or for internal missions.

His go-between was Sydney Mufamadi, now minister of provincial and local government.

In 1980, Naude and three other Dutch Reformed Church theologians broke away from the church, and Naude was admitted to the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk in Afrika, the black sister church of the Dutch Reformed Church.

Lesson for white South Africans

“I have learned from personal experience that the black community is very accepting and ready to receive those who wish to become part of the greater South Africa. There is a lesson here for white South Africans who fear the future,” he said.

In 1985 he succeeded Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the secretary-general of the SA Council of Churches.

Speaking at Naude’s 80th birthday, Tutu said: “The story of Beyers Naude is the story of our struggle, and ultimately our liberation.

“Beyers became a leper in the Afrikaner community.”

In 1987, Naude was part of an Afrikaner delegation which met the ANC in Dakar, Senegal.

After the ANC’s unbanning in 1990, he was asked to open ANC meetings and conferences with scripture readings.

He was also a member of the ANC negotiating team which met the government at Groote Schuur in 1990.

“I told Madiba that I was deeply honoured, while pointing out that I had not actually joined the ANC. This didn’t seem to bother him.”

But for his illness, he would have led the religious proceedings at the inauguration of President Thabo Mbeki in June 1999.

Naude has been honoured both in South Africa and abroad, receiving honorary doctorates, human rights awards and other accolades.

In December 2000, he joined other prominent South Africans and signed the “Declaration of Commitment by White South Africans”, acknowledging the damage apartheid caused to their black compatriots.

Naude believed that white privilege was something that could not endure forever.

“When this is pointed out to whites they either rebel, as in the case of the right-wing, or they try to curtail the change process to their own benefit, as is the case with so many liberals.

“Few whites are prepared to face the full implications of what is required of them and respond accordingly,” he said.

Towards the end of 2000 he again began worshipping at Aasvöelkop when he moved to a nearby retirement home.

The next year he received the freedom of the city of Johannesburg.

Earlier this year he was given the Afrikaans Language and Culture Association’s highest award for nation-building for not only questioning the apartheid system, but standing by his convictions to contribute to the new South Africa.

Naude remained an Afrikaner to the end.

He said: “I live with a constant desire and sense of obligation to persuade my people to become part of the broader South Africa.

“Some criticise me for this, suggesting I should leave them to their own devices, that I am still too tribalised! I can only be who I am.”

He is survived by his wife Ilse, 91, three sons, a daughter, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren. - Sapa

 

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