The Dutch Reformed Church (NG Kerk), whose congregants are predominantly white Afrikaans speakers, says it was part of the problem of apartheid, and wants to be part of rebuilding South Africa.
Church leaders have held several meetings and embarked on projects with victims of the apartheid-era regime as the first steps to make concrete contributions to the country, says the church’s national moderator, Nelis van Rensburg.
“We were very much complicit [in propping up apartheid]. We provided the theological base for apartheid. And that’s how ideology works,” he says.
“If you can give it a religious sanction, it becomes even stronger. And that’s what we did.”
Van Rensburg says the church will continue to repent for its sins for as long as is necessary, knowing that their reconciliatory words must be followed by redress and action.
“Atonement is always necessary. You keep on with it. You keep on with repentance. Until you make sure everyone who’s been implicated and who’s been part of the legacy of apartheid has heard you. It’s not like we, as the Dutch Reformed Church, can decide we’ve done enough,” he says.
The church was established in South Africa in the 1600s with the arrival of Dutch settlers. It was only in 1986 that the NG Kerk welcomed South Africans of all races to worship under one roof.
In recent months the church has had several meetings with political parties, the Khulumani apartheid victim support group and the widows and children of activists murdered and persecuted by the government during apartheid.
Van Rensburg says a profound moment forhim was meeting the widows of two of the Cradock Four. In 1985, ANC activists Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkhonto and Sicelo Mhlauli were killed by security police after being stopped at a roadblock outside Port Elizabeth.
“In 1985, when the Cradock Four were killed, I was a student and very unaware of what happened. And when we became aware we were so ashamed of what we contributed to. Our unawareness was not an excuse. Our unawareness was part of how theology worked in our community. It was no excuse,” Van Rensburg says.
He says the church leadership met Nomonde Calata and Nyameka Goniwe, the widows of Calata and Matthew, and later visited the men’s graves.
Calata’s son, Lukhanyo, who is spearheading an effort to reopen a police investigation into the four men’s deaths and the prosecution of those involved, says his family appreciated the visit “because it shows us that there was a commitment and seriousness that the NG Kerk was showing towards issues of nation-building”.
“The fact that the church acknowledged our pain and looked my mother and me in the eye, and acknowledged our pain and the pain of other victims, and spoke to reconciliation and redress …it is very difficult to put into words what that meant to us,” he says.
Van Renburg says the church is following up their meetings with policy discussions on redress, such as land restitution. He saysthat gestures without measures to undo the injustices of apartheid would be empty.
“You can’t say the one thing without the other,” he says.