Living in South Africa produces tremendous problems and pressures for a Christian. I speak out of my own experience.

First of all, I am a man. Because I am a man, I am related to all men by common creation. I am committed not only to myself but to humanity as a whole, and, by extension, to the inalienable rights of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Second, I am a white man. By virtue of physical birth, I am racially related to a particular racial group. This commits me to the European or Anglo-Saxon ethnic group, and I have loyalties to it.

Third, I am an African white man. I didn’t settle in South Africa. I was born here. My wife’s ancestors here go back two hundred years. In fact, the first white sailors and navigators were rounding the South African coast in 1487, before America was even discovered. South Africa was settled by white people at approximately the same time as the first settlers landed in what became the United States of America. This puts white South Africans into historical perspective. They are not, strictly speaking, part of a colonial situation. White South Africa has deep historical roots. So then, the fact that my parents and I were born in Africa commits me not only to the continent of Africa as a whole, and particularly to its black majority, but to the permanency of white people on the African continent.

Fourth, I am a South African African white man. In other words, I was born and brought up in a particular country of this continent, and I love that country. I am loyal to it. I am committed to it. I am not ashamed of it. I may be sad about a particular policy, but I am not ashamed of the country as a whole, because there are hundreds and thousands of very wonderful people here of all races and backgrounds. Alan Paton called South Africa “The Beloved Country.” It is a country that is easy to love, even though it also makes you weep.

Then there is the fact that because I was born in this country, I am a citizen of it. As such I am under its laws, whether I like them or not, and I have to live with the tensions created thereby. Being committed to a country and, as a Christian citizen, to its laws obviously sets up other types of tension and commitment.

Fifth, I am a Christian South African African white man! This introduces yet another commitment—a commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is far above and beyond any men, country, or government to which I am committed. So now I am related and committed by common redemption in a particular way to my Christian brethren of all races. I am committed to Christ by common redemption and to Christian principles by divine command.

Article continues below

Now all that spells “dilemma.” And complexity. In this country of 22 million people, approximately 3/5 of the population are black Africans, just over 1/5 Europeans, and probably just under 1/5 Asians (which would mean Indian and Chinese and also “Coloured” people, who are the product of mixed marriages). So white or non-black Africans are outnumbered by about 4 to 1. This is a very different sort of proportion from that in other African countries. I think someone said that in Kenya it is about 200 to 1. Among the black African people, there are about eight major tribal groups, speaking different languages, having various levels of amicable and sometimes not so amicable relationships. This also adds to the complexity. In fact, when people come to South Africa, I make only one request of them: that they admit complexity. I don’t ask them to support the system or to start a revolution—just recognize complexity. It is the simplistic armchair solution to extremely complex situations that is so tiresome.

Now to apartheid. Apartheid is an Afrikaans word meaning apartness, or separateness. It is a name that has become attached to a particular political policy of “separate development,” to use the South African government’s term, in which different racial groups are supposedly intended to develop “along their own lines.” The policy formalizes, in a sense, the principle of “birds of a feather flock together.” This was the most tragic mistake, perhaps, in the history of South Africa—the formalizing of a social pattern into an ideology.

Socially, the policy means segregation, but practically it is not a tight segregation. Whites and blacks do have contact of sort with each other every day in homes, in shops, in banks. It may be a structured type of relationship, but there is contact nevertheless. For example, although whites and blacks are not able to travel in the same taxi or bus, African “nannies” bring up many European children and develop deep ties within the domestic situation.

Politically, the policy seeks to establish what the South African government calls “Batustans” or African areas, which are to be more or less self-governing. That is the political theory, anyway. Africans are not to be involved in the European body politic and vice versa. Bantustan land cannot be purchased by Europeans and Africans cannot purchase land in white areas.

Article continues below

What has produced this policy? First, it has been produced by about 350 years of history. It is not something that originated in 1948, when the Nationalists came to power. Its seeds were sown in the early 1700s, when the white settlers met tribes migrating south from the northeast and mideastern areas. But in 1948 a kind of pattern of social living was turned into a political ideology, and given the name apartheid.

Second, apartheid is based on insecurity and fear. It is a policy based on the self-preservation instinct of white men. Without commenting on the morality or immortality of this, one must admit that it is a powerful human instinct, and it underlies the entire policy.

Third, apartheid has been produced by political despair over the concept of shared political power by two major racial groups with major differences. The South African government maintains that shared power has never worked anywhere. Take Cyprus, for instance, where the governmental relationship between Turks and Greeks is very uneasy. And this is between two European groups, not different races. Where in African countries does one see a situation of shared power? Throughout Africa it is one group basically that is in power, and often a tribal group at that. In South Africa the whites see this, but they realize too that Africans do have legitimate political aspirations. So the idea is to try to create a separate situation in which Africans can exercise their own political power. That is the government idea as most people understand it. Conceptually it is not without some substance. It purports to have political pragmatism on its side.

Fourth, we come to something that is not easy for Africans to hear. There is real and justified disappointment over what has happened in independent Africa. The South African government observes that in independent Africa people have cried for “one man, one vote.” What has happened has been one man, one vote—once. Thereafter, the situations have moved—very dramatically in some places, not so dramatically in others—toward a one-party state, often followed by a military coup. There have also been great economic problems, not to mention some horrible atrocities such as those in the Congo, Biafra, Southern Sudan, and Rwanda. All these negative things are in our press, as our negatives are in the press everywhere else. The South African attitude therefore is, “Are we to hand over political power and have a situation like those?” So there is a fundamental disappointment based on the fact that while African states cry for democracy in South Africa, hardly a single African state can truly be called democratic.

Article continues below

Fifth, apartheid is based on plain sinful selfishness, being conceived by the white groups primarily in their own interest.

Sixth, apartheid has been produced by a lack of spiritual faith, a lack of conviction that we can really dare to love our fellow men and leave the consequences to God. We have not really dared to put political realism on one side and embrace our Christian faith in a life-risking commitment. I believe this is what the Scriptures call us to do.

However, in all fairness, I believe one has to say that the South African government has several strengths. First of all, it has done more than any other previous government in South Africa in housing. Although slums are not entirely uprooted, they are well on their way out. What we see on the edges of many of the cities elsewhere in Africa is becoming rare in South Africa.

Secondly, schooling, and particularly primary schooling, is good. The literacy rate in South Africa is around 1 in 6. In Ethiopia, for instance, it is about 1 in 70. Good medical facilities are also available virtually free to African people. So credit must be given where credit is due. But the weaknesses, in my mind, outweigh the strengths.

The major weakness is that the policy is unfair. In the blueprint conception of apartheid, approximately 75 per cent of the people get 13 per cent of the land. That is not fair.

Second, it is not economically sound. In the early fifties, Prime Minister Verwoerd appointed a commission under the direction of a Mr. Tomlinson to investigate the economics of apartheid. Tomlinson went back to Verwoerd and said the policy would cost astronomical sums. But Verwoerd, being the committed ideologist, went ahead anyway.

Third, the policy is, in my judgment, unworkable. Economic expansion and the resulting urbanization are incompatible with apartheid. South Africa has a dramatically expanding economy, bringing more and more people to the cities. The policy, as it is conceived, will therefore never work, because while apartheid is seeking to move people out of the cities, the economy is expanding and drawing people back into the cities. After twenty years of apartheid, with the government seeking to reverse the trend to the cities, every indication is that African participation in the South African cities is greater than ever before. In fact, one report says that by 1990, 70 per cent of the entire African population of South Africa will be in the cities. Another result of this is that government efforts at job reservation, where certain jobs are reserved exclusively for white people, are breaking down.

Article continues below

Fourth, apartheid is unscriptural. People do have certain inalienable rights. If we are committed to Jesus, we are committed to equality, dignity of the individual, and freedom. Perhaps the fundamental flaw in apartheid is not its political conception but the fact that in its practical outworking it denies human dignity.

Now I want to call attention to some factors in the South African situation that are encouraging to one who does not subscribe to the policy.

First of all, there is an authentic concern in the country for what is going on and a developing sense of conscience about it. There is also a radical split in the Nationalist party, the governing Afrikaaner party. Since union became a political fact in South Africa in 1910, the Afrikaaner nation has been monolithically solid. There was no chink anywhere. But in the last eighteen months there has been a split right down the middle of the party and the Afrikaaner nation, plus restlessness in the Dutch Reformed Church. In fact, in the last general election we were treated to the spectacle of two Afrikaans political parties going at each other hammer and tongs.

The new party, tagged the “Verkramptes,” meaning the “tight ones,” over against the “Verligtes,” the “enlightened ones,” was, however, soundly beaten. In the election and, as a whole in the last provincial elections, there was for the first time since 1948 a swing away from the government. The Nationalist party has, I think, passed its peak and is on its way down. This appears to be a valid reading of the last elections. For example, it had looked for awhile as if the province of Natal, traditionally English-speaking, were going to go completely Nationalist. Nationalists had been taking more and more seats in the provincial council. But in the last elections, the Nationalists in Natal were soundly defeated.

A second factor working against apartheid is that people are for the first time being touched in their pockets by the increase in taxation. Afrikaaner people are beginning to look at the bread-and-butter issues and not only at the ideology. Political idealism sometimes goes out the window once people’s pockets are touched.

Third, there is a tremendous opposition from the young people in South Africa. Mini-elections held in many private schools during the last elections went consistently 85 per cent against the government. In the English-language universities, the students are fairly solidly opposed to apartheid. A student newspaper put out by the University of Cape Town contains a vast amount of political material, very maturely stated and for the most part unanimously opposed to apartheid.

Article continues below

In the Afrikaans universities, formerly strongly in favor of government policies, questions are being raised. Students are not automatically voting the way their parents voted. Where before there always was a slavish following of what mother and father had done, Afrikaans young people are starting to look at the issues for themselves. When Albert Geyser, one of the Dutch Reformed men who have taken a stand against the government, spoke at Stellenbosch University, he spoke to a standing-room-only crowd and for the most part had a sympathetic hearing.

There is also a profound crisis of conscience in the Dutch Reformed Church as a whole. Over the years the work of this church and its ministers has produced a wedding of religious mysticism and political nationalism. When a man’s politics and religion are united, the combination is almost invincible. But now the Dutch Reformed Church has come out strongly against migratory labor (i.e., taking Africans from rural areas and bringing them into the cities), calling it “a cancer in our midst.” These are strong words aimed straight at the powers that be.

An organization called the Christian Institute has arisen to take the most dramatic Christian stand on the matter of race in the entire nation. It is led basically by Dutch Reformed men who have paid a large price to step out from the ranks of their church and take a stand. There is also increasing opposition from the church at large, particularly the English-speaking churches. Evangelical witness on the political issues has not been, on the whole, a strong one, but consciences are stirring there, too. In short, there is confrontation in the air.

There is solid, sustained, and relentless opposition to the system from the English-language press. The South African English press has a noble record of opposition. Pick up any English-language South African newspaper, any day of the year, and you will find various levels of critical analysis of government policies. This is to be commended.

There is also opposition from industry. Many are refusing to go along with the government policies on job reservation, and others have put their money solidly behind the Progressive party.

Article continues below

Another encouraging factor is Prime Minister Vorster’s pragmatism. He is not an ideologist like Verwoerd. He is a man who has an economic machine under him and wants to keep it going. Verwoerd brooked no exceptions to the ideology. Vorster, on the other hand, is a pragmatist, and the first Nationalist prime minister to extend his hand to various African states. Although one may question the validity of his motives, I think that Vorster is trying to relax some of the apartheid system. One would therefore say to people from outside, “Don’t squash the little progress there is, even if it is not as spectacular or as fast as you would like it. Encourage it.”

For example, it was a tremendous step forward when South Africa elected a multi-racial Olympic team to go to the last Olympics. This was without precedent in South Africa’s history. If it had been encouraged, it would have been one of the most dramatic and healthful political breakthroughs the country has seen. When it comes to sports, no South African cares if the competitors are black or white: he wants them to win for South Africa! When the Olympic team was excluded from the games, those who were seeking to work for change were justifiably upset. A step in the right direction had been smashed. Is that wisdom?

Now in closing I want to mention what I think a Christian can do in this situation, despite the tremendous tension between idealism and realism that he faces.

I would say, first of all, that as a Christian one must not confuse Christ with Caesar. One must not get one’s faith tied to the state. The Christian stands with Christ on the Word of God and its principles. Principles are the most relevant things in all the world for ambiguous and confusing situations.

Second, the Christian must work for change. He must be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The solution starts with individuals where they are. So the Christian must work for change by witness, by criticism of the situation as he sees it, by political involvement, and by speaking the prophetic Word in the name of Christ to the situation, a Word that judges nationalism, whether black, white, or any other kind. He should denounce what is evil and promote what is good.

Third, we have to work for dialogue and contact. It is a disastrous policy, for example, for independent Africa to keep South Africans out of its countries. How will South Africans ever see an alternative unless they can see a free, independent African nation in action? We must also stop talking about solving the problem by military strength. South Africa is a powerful military machine, more than able to cope with military assault from independent Africa. Such a confrontation would be catastrophic for everyone.

Article continues below

Those of us within the situation have also got to work interracially, and be open and honest about it, with the authorities. We have to try to walk the tightrope!

Finally, the Christian, of all people, must have a ministry of reconciliation. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.” This passage on the ministry of reconciliation in Second Corinthians 5 is crucial. It summarizes, I believe, the heart of our Christian responsibility.

I don’t know the political answers any better than anyone else. But I do know that I am committed as a Christian to a ministry of reconciliation, to love, to dialogue, to contact, and to proclaiming the Christ of Calvary—a Christ who didn’t take a Sten-gun or a Molotov cocktail but a cross.

Michael Cassidy is team leader of African Enterprise, an interdenominational, interracial, and international team that is engaged in evangelism in Africa. He has the M.A. from Cambridge University and the B.D. from Fuller Seminary. He is a South African and an Anglican.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.