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The Role of the Church in Reconciliation in South Africa

By Dion Forster
April 2010

The Christian Church is one of the most pervasive and significant institutions in South African society. For the past 350 years Christianity and the Christian Church have made significant contributions to the best and the worst of South Africa’s history.

Christian History in Southern Africa
Christianity first settled on the southern shores of Africa in 1652, when the Dutch East India Company founded a community of the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk to serve the soldiers and officials at the refuelling station then known as the “Cape of Good Hope.” The first officially-recorded missionary to be despatched to southern African was Johannes Theodorus Van der Kemp of the London Missionary Society who arrived in the Cape in 1799.

The efforts of the early missionaries were met with mixed success. Robert Moffat admitted in a mission report that he had “fewer Christians than fruit trees,” while David Livingstone famously became an explorer “largely because he was discouraged by the lack of converts in his southern Tswana mission station.”1

However, with the arrival of the English settlers in the early 1800s, missionary activity in southern Africa received a great boost. By 1911 there were more than thirty missionary societies active in southern Africa with a total of 1,650 missionaries in the region. It was said that, “South Africa may well claim to being….with the possible exception of the South Sea Islands, the best occupied mission field in the world.”2

Christianity has had an immeasurable impact on just about every aspect of South African life. In the last National Census, 79.8% of South Africans indicated that they are Christian3. According to that census 7.3% of Christians in South Africa are Methodist, 7.2% are Reformed, 7.1% are Roman Catholic, 5.5% are Congregational, 3.8% are Anglican, and the remaining 48.8% or the population belong to Pentecostal, Charismatic “Independent,” and African Initiated Churches.4

Some may celebrate these statistics; however, the reality is that the Church in South Africa has a great deal of work to do in order to help Christians to overcome the devastating effects of the racial ideology of Apartheid.

Apartheid and the Church in Southern Africa
As is the case with the Church throughout the world, the social and political climate of the day played a significant role in the development and appropriation of Christian mission on southern African soil.

The most significant and disturbing social and political changes began to take effect in southern Africa during the twentieth century.5 Many scholars would agree that the racial ideology of Apartheid was by far the most significant social and political force that the Church had to contend with in southern Africa.

First, a brief synopsis of this system. Apartheid (an Afrikaans word meaning “separateness”) is a system of ethnic separation in which persons were classified into racial groups according to the colour of their skin. The main groups were black, white, coloured (persons of mixed racial descent), and Indian. These race groups were separated from one another geographically, akin to the Indian “stans”—the First Nation reserves of the United States and Canada, and the aboriginal reserves in Australia.

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Dr. Dion Angus Forster is a minister and academic. He is the former dean of John Wesley College, the seminary of the Methodist Church of southern Africa, and a research associate and lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Stellenbosch (BUVTON). Forster serves as a chaplain to the Global Day of Prayer and the Power Group of companies in Cape Town, South Africa. His most recent book on ministry in the workplace is entitled Transform Your Work Life: Turn Your Ordinary Day into an Extraordinary Calling (Struik Christian Books, 2010).