The Truth and Reconciliation Commission to an outsider is a very strange body. Set up with constitutional warrant and parliamentary decree, the Commission is also led by two former church leaders, one in the splendour of an Archbishop’s attire. Religious language permeates the process, with terms like “reconciliation” and “confession” strongly in evidence. Hearings are punctuated with moments of silent prayer and reflection.
Religion has played an important public role in the past that South Africans are struggling to come to terms with. Particularly (though not only) “Christian doctrine, language and sentiment are… interwoven in the social and cultural history of South Africa.”1
Christian churches gave their blessing to the universally condemned system of apartheid. The politicians that invented apartheid came from churches. Some of the apartheid laws, for instance the mixed marriages act, were motivated by churches (especially the DRC). And churches actively implemented apartheid policies.
Out of churches, mosques, temples and synagogues also came many of apartheid’s strongest foes, including many of South Africa’s present political leadership. Churches, mosques, temples and synagogues gave theological legitimisation to resistance to apartheid. For some leaders in the resistance movement, theology was an important site of struggle precisely because of its position in legitimating apartheid; and it was necessary to turn the theological weapons of the oppressor against the oppressor.
Churches, mosques, temples and synagogues also bade their members to eschew the political in the quest for the eternal. In so doing they did not extricate themselves from involvement, however. Some churches pressing for a solution beyond politics were covertly involved as agents of the state. Others have come to admit that not to have opposed oppression, even in the name of protecting the identity of the church as church, was to have failed in their vocation and to have lent tacit support to the regime.
Churches, synagogues, mosques and temples also suffered under apartheid. Land was appropriated by being declared “white” under the notorious Group Areas Act. Schools were closed. Removals affected numerous congregations, forcing many to shut down. On the other side the St James Church of England (which confessed tacitly supporting the state) was attacked in the name of resistance to apartheid.
Many faith communities have important international links which were mobilised both to defend and to oppose apartheid. The changing names of church denominational structures from “South” to “Southern” Africa, reflect their growing regional identities. This also means that such communities are in a position to assess the regional effects of apartheid oppression, as their members in neighbouring states were also affected.
Finally, like business, faith communities (especially churches) benefited from apartheid. They were beneficiaries of removals as victims left empty buildings and manses. Their support of the state gave them legitimacy in the eyes of the powerful, and many of the powerful were counted as loyal members. Even those churches who espoused neutrality or a “Christian alternative” to ideological conflict received concessions from the state because they were not seen as its opponents--something that was more than apparent to members of non-Christian communities.2
In light of all this, it should not have come as a surprise that the question of a special hearing on the role of faith communities during the apartheid years should have been raised early in the life of the Commission. Add to this the fact that churches, synagogues, temples and mosques claim an enormous committed constituency, with lines cutting across many of the racial, class and ethnic barriers that a post-apartheid South Africa is trying to transcend, and one can see the importance of bringing them more fully into the reconciliation process. Moreover such communities are themselves places where real reconciliation needs to take place and where the values and processes of democratic citizenry need to be entrenched.3Indeed, people on both sides of the apartheid struggle were often members of the same faith community both nationally and locally, and many people who did not see themselves as on any “side” found the struggle confusing, not the province of religion, or secondary to other questions felt to be more central to their religious worldviews. The wide spectrum of positions, convictions and worldviews which one finds in religious communities, even within on e tradition of faith, is a caution against strong dualist views on the apartheid struggle and a challenge to learn for the future how to come to terms with the search for a common language of accountability in building a “conciled and reconciled society”. Reconciliation and the enhancement of human dignity in such communities could be a leaven for the whole society.
At its hearings in East London, the Commission was greatly encouraged by the willingness of faith community leaders to apologise for their role in giving support--or their failure to sufficiently oppose--apartheid oppression. This was in marked contrast to the business hearings the week before, most of which consisted of claims of hardship under and dubiously founded celebrations of opposition to apartheid--flying in the face of the fact that the precursors of apartheid were the various legislative Acts ensuring cheap and accessible labour for industry and mining. On the other hand, sadly, it must be observed that faith communities seem to have gone the way of the business sector in claiming that “now that society has changed” they can go on building-up their own institutions. Another reason for having faith communities as part of the TRC process, therefore, is to remind them that, like the business sector, they have a moral obligation to be involved in the transformation of a society they so profoundly affected.