Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Pricking the Afrikaner Conscience

Dutch Reformed Church's Johan Heyns leads his denomination away from apartheid. INTERVIEW: SOUTH AFRICAN LEADER

AS spiritual head of South Africa's 3 million Dutch-descended Afrikaners, Johan Heyns is at the eye of the storm. It is a moral and intellectual storm raging through every Afrikaner institution. Mr. Heyns insists that it is a storm that should rage in the soul of every white South African.

``There can be no political solution in South Africa unless whites undergo a fundamental change of heart,'' he said in a recent interview in the book-lined study of his comfortable home set on the slopes of Waterkloof, Pretoria's most exclusive suburb.

About these ads

As the leader of the Dutch Reformed Church, to which 80 percent of government legislators belong, Professor Heyns shoulders an awesome responsibility. He heads a church that not only helped to invent the system of racial discrimination known as apartheid, but sought to enshrine it with a moral and religious justification as well. The church's efforts were so successful that it has taken 40 years for Afrikaners to begin to admit that apartheid is morally wrong.

Heyns was elected moderator of the church's general synod (its highest decisionmaking body) in 1986. He led the church's 1.7-million adherents through a theological somersault that has plunged it - and Afrikanerdom itself - into unprecedented turmoil.

At the watershed 1986 meeting in Cape Town, the church adopted a treatise that ignited the long and painful process of renouncing apartheid.

The document, known as ``Church and Society,'' sounded the end of 130 years of racial segregation in the church, declared apartheid a ``scriptural error,'' branded racism a sin, and declared the church in favor of a system based on social justice and equality before God.

``We are all disillusioned after the very great hopes we had that apartheid would succeed,'' says Heyns, a bespectacled professor of theology who radiates zest and optimism. ``We thought the experiment would be a roaring success. Instead, it was a total failure.''

Heyns counseled three successive Afrikaner leaders as parish priest in the neighborhood of the official residence near Cape Town. He says apartheid could have worked if the tribal homelands had been developed to the point at which blacks actually wanted to go and live there.

It was the failure of apartheid to reverse the flow of blacks to the cities - coupled with the creeping recognition of its economic unviability - that preceded any moral revulsion within the Afrikaner establishment, he says.

About these ads

Heyns says his break with apartheid began when he first received communion with a black man while studying for a postgraduate theological degree in the Netherlands more than three decades ago.

``When I sat at the table of the Lord taking wine and bread together with a black man, then something happened deep, deep down in my heart because that was my first experience of visible unity,'' he says.

``I went back to my country with a completely new starting point, because I realized for the first time that reconciliation was possible in South Africa.'' Heyns's efforts at leading his church in an about-face on apartheid has made him a familiar sight on state-controlled television and a regular guest of Western embassies. But it has also landed him in a lot of trouble.

It caused a right-wing breakaway from the church and precipitated turmoil among those who remained. Right-wing critics accuse him of trying to subvert the church for the reformist goals of the ruling National Party, which far-right Afrikaners regard as anathema to white interests.

Anti-apartheid clerics accuse him of clinging to the National Party's insistence on ``group rights'' - a euphemism for using racial identity as the point of departure in any future inter-racial political bargaining.

No doubt Heyns has traveled a long way on the road to renouncing apartheid, but he has not gone the whole way.

Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the Dutch Reformed Church's relationship with the black ``daughter'' churches - the African, mixed-race, and Indian branches of the white ``mother'' church.

The Rev. Allan Boesak, moderator of the mixed-race Dutch Reformed Mission Church, has risen to international prominence through his unequivocal rejection of apartheid. He is one of Heyns's most outspoken and effective critics. Several weeks ago, he became the first person this century to be confirmed for a second term as president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the international body that represents some 57 million adherents. When he was first elected president in 1982, Reverend Boesak persuaded the world body to suspend the membership of the Dutch Reformed Church - and two smaller Afrikaner churches - on the grounds that apartheid was a heresy.

In recent months, Heyns has adopted a more activist stance in challenging the government on issues such as arbitrary detention, conscientious objectors, and the right of anti-apartheid groups to peaceful protest.

In a landmark statement last April, Heyns urged the Pretoria government to drop its insistence that the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) renounce violence before talks between the two sides could begin. He said the government's insistence could not be justified on ethical grounds, and disavowal of violence by ANC guerrillas should be a result of negotiations rather than a condition for talks.

SINCE his intervention, a number of important events have occurred. Jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela has met with former President Pieter Botha and pronounced his commitment to peaceful development in South Africa.

The administration of President Frederik de Klerk - a member of the smaller Reformed Church - has allowed a resurgence of popular support for the ANC with a series of symbolic protest marches. The government decision did not come easily, and Heyns was a key go-between. He met with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Reverend Boesak to urge them to join him in a meeting to persuade the government to allow the protest. They in turn urged Heyns to join the protest march. They agreed to differ. But Heyns has begun to emerge as an honest broker.

``In principle, the task of the church is to be an agent of reconciliation,'' he says. ``I would certainly try to materialize that sort of calling.''

A recent request made by Heyns to visit Mr. Mandela was turned down by then-president Botha. He has not asked Mr. De Klerk, but is confident De Klerk is a genuine reformer.

``I believe he is a man of principle who believes in social justice,'' says Heyns, recalling that De Klerk had never once used the term ``apartheid'' during his 17 years as a legislator.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.