One controversial student leader says yes.

BARBARA R. THOMPSONBarbara R. Thompson is a free-lance writer from Brevard, North Carolina. She is a coauthor with F. Kefa Sempangi of A Distant Grief (Regal, 1979).

In the midst of increasing polarization and escalating tensions, a new generation of South African student leaders is grappling with poignant and perplexing questions that threaten to plunge South Africa into civil war.

Among these student leaders is Chris Swart, a graduate of the University of Capetown and the former president of a unique South African student organization: the Student Union for Christian Action (SUCA). Swart is a Rhodes scholar, currently studying political science at Magdalen College, Oxford, England.

The Student Union for Christian Action is a bold South African experiment in nonracial and cross-cultural relationships. Begun in 1979 to address concerns expressed by Christian students at the South African Christian Leadership Assembly (SACLA), today the union—purely a student-run movement—includes more than 400 black and Afrikaans-and English-speaking white student leaders from almost every campus in South Africa. Although a newcomer compared to the established Students YMCA and the Students Christian Association, it is the only student organization to cut across racial and cultural barriers, and is growing in spite of harassment by the South African government. With encouragement from evangelical leaders such as evangelist Michael Cassidy, members of SUCA have committed themselves to communicating a simple truth: blacks and whites can live and work together in peace.

Mr. Swart speaks here in his personal capacity; his views do not necessarily represent all SUCA members.

What prompted student leaders to form the Student Union for Christian Action?

There is a desperate need in South Africa for students to come together as Christians and look for solutions to the political and social problems that are tearing our country apart. After meeting at SACLA in 1979, we felt that if our commitment to Jesus Christ was solid, we could work together despite the terrible tensions between our respective cultures. We hope to be an alternative community, to transcend the rising barriers to Christian unity. We want to demonstrate that blacks and whites can work out their differences rather than resort to war.

Also, we want to help prepare each other for Christian leadership in our country. The need now is for peacemakers; after the coming bloodshed it will be for people to help heal physical and emotional wounds. As students, through building deep relationships with God and with each other, we want to help provide the cement on which a new South Africa can be built.

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Have you adopted a specific political platform?

No, it isn’t possible when you have as many different groups working together as we do. There is no way to opt for one political direction and still transcend color and culture lines.

At the same time, we don’t ignore the issues. We come together in Christian fellowship but not in a vacuum. In the context of dealing with social and political issues, we tell students, “We are Christians and believe Jesus Christ is Lord of our lives. So what does it mean to look at Marxism or capitalism? How should we respond as Christians to military conscription or a guerrilla attack or a riot?” We deal with these controversial subjects in student conferences, and we always have at least one Afrikaans-speaking white, one English-speaking white, and one black contribute from his or her own perspective. Some students go away with their views intact, but most have had their assumptions sharply challenged.

What steps do you take to avoid polarization?

We don’t try. And we don’t aim at reconciliation for its own sake. In a sense we encourage polarization, because that’s when people get their real feelings out. Our conferences are often electric with conflict and tension. People say what they really think, and that honesty enables us to work through issues. To truly follow Christ, one must go further than reconciliation between our current views and stances. Our views, and indeed our lives, must truly change. The reconciliation that comes then is genuine and strong, bringing deep healing.

Can you give a specific example of this kind of reconciliation?

The most dramatic instances I’ve seen are in the lives of Afrikaner students. Like the English-speaking students, they come to the conferences as members of the ruling class; many have never related to black Christians as equals, only as masters to servants within carefully defined cultural barriers. The level of indoctrination is very high in South Africa. Many whites are completely unexposed to what is happening—totally oblivious to it. Many also don’t want to know. So students come to these encounters really believing that black people are happy with apartheid, that they want their own homelands, that they are glad to come to work in the towns.

When they suddenly see and hear from blacks about the kind of suffering they are subject to, their stereotypes are shattered. They begin to relate at the friendship level, and to see things through the eyes of black Christians. In this new framework, applying Christian principles forces you to change not only your assumptions, but also your conclusions.

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At one conference, some Afrikaans-speaking student leaders were so challenged that they returned to their university and tried to restructure their existing national student union. When they failed, they broke away and formed a Christian-based student political union. The relationships they had built up together in Christ enabled them to withstand the tremendous pressures put on them during that encounter by student bodies, the government, and even their churches.

Some black students had a similar experience. They were ostracized in their communities because of their contact with whites and suffered a great deal as a result. But they were prepared for this pain because of their deep commitment to each other in Jesus Christ.

South Africa’s prospects are generally considered grim. Is it realistic to hope that concerted Christian action can turn the tide?

There is historical precedent for Christians saving a society from violent revolution. The Wesleyan revival in England gives us encouragement. Largely because of a massive revival, led by John Wesley, William Wilberforce, and members of Parliament, England avoided a bloody revolution in an era when revolutions were erupting all over Europe. It is the only instance I know of, of the ruling class voluntarily giving up power in a situation ripe for revolution. It’s said that this was a primary reason that Marx hated Christianity—because the massive spiritual revival in England averted revolution there.

Zimbabwe is another example. Here there was war. But the conflict was lessened considerably by Christians, who served as catalysts for both internal settlement and the Lancaster House settlement [named after the London site of the preindependence talks between the British government and Zimbabwean leaders]. Then, after the elections, when whites were planning a coup, again Christians working behind the scenes managed to bring opposing leadership together.

So there are these possibilities. As tensions grow in South Africa, with a corresponding increase in people’s insecurity, I think it is more likely that we will see a general turning toward God. The Christian’s potential for peacemaking increases with the increase in instability. But our primary goal must not be to protect our interests or to avoid revolutions. It must be to follow Christ.

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You have a sense that time is running out?

Yes. It may already be too late. But one can only operate on the basis of hope.

What positive steps are you taking as a union of Christian students to help prevent disaster in South Africa?

Besides showing that it is possible for blacks and whites to work together, we encourage students to focus on the need of our country rather than on themselves. We say, “Look, you’re students, the privileged class of society. When you become a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher, what will you do with your skills? Is being a tax lawyer the only option? Would you consider serving the poor in legal-aid services? Would you think about teaching in a black school?

How do students react to this challenge?

I think you find the same resistance from all first-world students. We come from a materialistic society and, whether we are aware of it or not, our security lies in our wealth. So we have to keep hammering away at each other with the biblical alternative. It isn’t an intellectual problem, and it doesn’t have an intellectual solution. It’s mainly deep relationships that make people want to change.

Are you well received by the student community as a whole?

Both whites and blacks regard us with suspicion. It bothers whites that we have contact with blacks, and that we try to explore movements such as Marxism in an attempt to find a Christian response. The blacks worry because we are multiracial. Many blacks don’t trust whites and feel that at this stage there should be no contact between the races. But this kind of reverse racism is decreasing in the black community. The power of the Left is a growing force in South Africa, and more and more people are adopting a class analysis rather than a racial analysis.

How do you respond to the growing power of Marxism in South Africa?

Marxism may well be the ideology of the future in South Africa. The policies of the government are pushing everything in that direction. The more the West supports the present regime, the more guerrilla movements turn to the East, and the more likelihood there is that the East will take substantial control. I am worried about this, but I don’t want to be reactionary. I don’t want to be anti-Communist, I want to be pro-Christ. We need to understand that capitalism also causes enormous suffering for the majority of South Africa’s people.

Because Marxism is going to provide a major impetus in South Africa, it is absolutely crucial that I as a Christian know Marxist theory well. I want to know how it applies in other countries, what its strong points are, where it falls down, what the internal contradictions are, and whether or not I as a Christian and Marxists can work together as cobelligerents.

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Do you think Christians can work with Marxists in South Africa?

Yes, to a limited extent. One has to be careful not to compromise on basic issues, or to be used. These are dangers inherent in working with any secular force, whether Marxist or capitalist. There are different kinds of Marxists, and while we as Christians have different assumptions and different goals—on particular issues such as equitable distribution of wealth and trade union rights—there is room for cooperation to influence government policy. In South Africa, the vast, institutionalized discrepancy between rich and poor makes it impossible for any institution other than the government to redress the balance. No other agency has enough power.

In your experience, does the support for apartheid by the Dutch Reformed Church make black students less open to the gospel?

Yes. This is an enormous problem. Even though blacks are traditionally very religious, the gospel is losing ground in the black community. That is why apartheid is such an evil system. It oppresses people in the name of Jesus, not only destroying their lives, but also driving them from Christianity.

Also, many black students feel the church isn’t delivering the goods because it isn’t addressing political and social issues. An extraordinary number of blacks live below the poverty line, and in some areas, as many as one out of four black children die before the age of five of diseases related to malnutrition. In such an environment, spiritual and other matters take second place to survival.

Another major problem is that people who can’t escape these intolerable conditions resort to the quick release buttons of sex and alcohol. I heard recently that 70 percent of all births in South Africa are illegitimate. When you live in such economic and social conditions, caused primarily by government policy, the environment isn’t conducive to evangelism.

Are there Christian groups dealing with these needs?

Yes, some of the mainline denominations have programs, and groups such as African Enterprise are doing a tremendous job of bringing social and spiritual needs together. But it’s a drop in the ocean. For example, there is one area in Natal where 100,000 people are crowded together and virtually starving. They haven’t had rain for years. The Catholic church has tried to provide assistance there by distributing relief goods, but even the archbishop of Durban noted that the supplies they were giving were like pouring water on a desert. It is only the government that has the resources to reconstruct that area.

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What do you see as SUCA’S role in the future of South Africa?

It is difficult to say because the situation is so complicated and the options are so few. We can set an example by our relationships, and we can take part in Christian revival, particularly as it reaches out to leadership. And as the civil war escalates, we can join the increasing number that refuses to take part in the violence. That in itself will be a powerful witness. It will help transform the church into an alternative community that addresses society’s needs in a meaningful way. Society will never change for the better unless the church models a genuine alternative.

Aren’t you setting yourself up to get caught in the middle?

Humanly speaking, it is inevitable that the violence will escalate. The white side will rapidly militarize even further and expect all whites to join them in the fight against so-called terrorists. Guerrilla violence will rise as well.

Christians are going to get caught in the middle in the sense that we won’t back out of the fire. In a revolutionary society you have to choose one side or the other. If you refuse, you are crushed by both. That’s sometimes the role of the peacemaker. If necessary, that is what we’ll have to do. That is our role as Christians in the kind of society we live in.

Isn’t there an alternative?

I don’t think so. Romans 12 tells us that we should not be overcome by evil and that we should not try to overcome evil with evil. Evil is to be overcome by good. This means that the end can never justify the means. As Christians, we are not supposed to be living with an “effectivity ethic.” It’s not important whether we succeed, only that we obey. We do what God commands, and he is in charge of the consequences.

The cross is an example. Humanly speaking, it was a failure. But it was what Jesus had to do, and God used his obedience in a very dramatic way. That’s what the third way is all about. It’s not taking sides, but being cobelligerents with certain groups on certain issues, and still never compromising basic principles.

What can the church at large do to help you during this time?

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You can pray for a real revival that will result for both whites and blacks in changed hearts. Whites must give up their racism and much of their economic wealth to share with the underprivileged. Blacks must give up their reverse racism and bitterness.

Pray that the church will really be the church, that it will resist the temptation to identify itself with a particular political grouping, but instead will take a prophetic, witnessing stand on crucial issues.

We also have a practical need for scholarships for black students. Their educational opportunities are extremely limited in South Africa, and, since they are going to be the next leaders of our country, the more expert they become, the better. I hope Christians will encourage their colleges and universities to offer scholarships.

It is important that political pressure be brought to bear on the government of South Africa. It won’t respond to anything else. Ironically, the Reagan administration probably has more potential for good with respect to South Africa than any past administration because Reagan is seen as a friend. I hope he can help install a democratic government in Namibia. But in South Africa, current American policies are encouraging the government to dig in harder and remain reactionary. Under the guise of reform, the current U.S. administration, by its tacit and overt support for the South African government, has probably done more harm than any other, and contributed greatly to the suffering of thousands of people in southern Africa.

If the United States can bring constructive pressure to bear on South Africa—it is important that criticism not be seen as destructive—then a great deal of good can be accomplished.

Finally, the church at large must realize that although the South African government professes to be Christian, apartheid is a heresy, and Christians around the world need to know that our government is persecuting our brothers and sisters in Christ.

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