Trc faith Communities Hearings Report

An account of the submissions

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3. An account of the submissions

3.1 Three caveats

In addition to the problems with defining “faith community”, there are also problems inherent in assessing the submissions themselves. Some were extensive and detailed, chronicling with a high degree of introspection the highs and the lows of the respective community’s life during the apartheid years. Others were sketchy and vague, making generalisations (especially about being “opposed to apartheid”) without supplying specific instances. The impression created by this is that, judged in terms of quantity, those communities that went into more detail about the past were more “involved”--whether for or against apartheid. While imprecise, perhaps such impressions cannot be helped in a report of this nature. On the other hand, those communities which supplied the most detail seem to be the most ready to own up to the past and to move ahead into the future, although doubts remain about the various documents supplied by the DRC69--despite their relative length.70

Much of the evidence that we have to draw upon comes from the submissions themselves. This creates another problem: that communities may have a selective memory or even suppress the truth. This occurred during the hearings when the mostly white Baptist Union testified to opposing human rights abuses under apartheid, of taking their protests to the government of the day and so forth. Following this, the mostly black Baptist Convention’s presentation strongly relativised the Union’s claims to have opposed to the old regime, accusing it of active complicity. Whether this was an instance of “white” vs. “black” perceptions or a deliberate attempt to mislead the Commission on the part of the Union, it shows that we are dealing with perceptions and perspectives that are highly particularistic and relative to a number of “hidden” factors, including the ongoing construction of identities within and between faith communities.71

Perhaps then we should present the submissions not so much as what faith communities did, but rather what they said they did during the years under consideration.72 This means that our report will have to go beyond the accounts in the submissions to examine other sources relating what various faith communities did during that time. It will mean attending to the unsaid as well as the said. Not only will this help fill in the picture of those years, but it will also allow us to begin to evaluate the preparedness of faith communities to deal with their past and move into the future.

The third caveat will come up again, so we only mention it briefly here. When for instance the CPSA submission is examined, of whom and for whom does it speak, confess and ask forgiveness? Its individual members? All its individual members? Its leaders? Its parishes? What does it mean when a church apologises to its spiritual leader (in the CPSA’s case, Archbishop Tutu, for failing to support his call for economic sanctions in the 1980s)? At the hearings, the moderator of the DRC said that he spoke on behalf of “the greater portion of the church” when it came to commitment to reconciliation with the other sectors of the DRC family, but the church still had to consult locally with its individual members before a formal statement could be made.

The answer to the question of who speaks for whom is never clear or unambiguous. In this way, however, faith communities are no different from other kinds of bodies and sectors that have testified before the Commission, including business and the media. It is worth mentioning that the different ways that faith communities are organised also shapes the issue of representation. A hierarchical church such as the CPSA finds it far easier to send a representative (or to make representation) at hearings such as the TRC holds that a community which stresses the autonomy of the local congregation, such as the UCCSA, or of its individual members. This also has strong implications for how different faith communities can be held accountable, not only for the past, but for following through on the promises they made.

What follows is a synoptic report on the submissions to the TRC on the part of faith communities and the statements made at the hearings. A distillation of some 500 pages of written submissions and three full days of transcripts from the hearings, it is far from comprehensive, aiming rather at representing the diverse nature and activity of faith communities during the period under consideration. It focuses on what the communities actually said or wrote to the Commission, although as stated already it will supply other details to help fill in the picture.

3.2 Reflecting on gross human rights violations of the past

The original letter to the faith communities sent by the Commission posed these questions:

“Given the prominence of references to morality and religion in the submissions of various political parties and amnesty applications, in which way, if any, did the theology and activities of your denomination contribute to the formation of the motives and perspectives of those individuals, organisations and institutions responsible for gross human rights violations, either in upholding the previous system or in opposing it?

“The conflicts of the past have been described as a “holy war”. With the benefit of hindsight, what was the contribution of your [community or organisation]73 in creating a climate or a justification for gross human rights violations to be committed?

“In which ways, through acts of commission and acts of omission, did your [community or organisation]74 contribute to the conflict of the past?

“In which ways did you fail to live up to those principles of your faith which oppose human rights violations?

“In which ways did your [community or organisation]75 actively oppose (gross) human rights violations?”76

Some general observations about the responses of faith communities to these questions may be in order, before turning to the details of the submissions in the next sections of this report.

With some notable exceptions, faith communities in their responses were virtually unanimous in apologising for playing a role, whether through omission or commission, in the abuses of the past.77 Again with notable exceptions, faith communities--even the most conservative--recognised that strategies of disengagement contributed to the maintenance of a “climate” which allowed human rights abuses to continue. One of the striking admissions came from the Church of England in South Africa, which recognised how a theology of disengagement could be “manipulated” into support for the state. Certainly, as the International Federation of Christian Churches’ submission confessed, such theology gave “tacit support” to state structures. The Seventh Day Adventist Church noted that attempting to stay out of party politics was effectively a vote for the status quo. Along with those who admitted passive complicity, many if not most apologised for not “doing enough” to oppose apartheid.

No group apologised for active complicity in human rights abuses,78 whether on the part of the state or of the liberation movements, although some of churches admitted they supplied chaplains to both sides of the struggle, contributing to interpretations of that conflict as “holy war”.79 Communities admitted that some of their members may have been responsible for human rights abuses on the side of the state during the apartheid years, though explicitly how and where their theologies or organisational activities contributed to the actions of those guilty of human rights abuses was not generally spelt out.

No group confessed to having actively supported or being complicit in the policies of apartheid as they were actually implemented by the state.80

We can broadly speak of two ways in which faith communities acted as agents of oppression: by deliberate acts, if not of outright support of apartheid, of tacit support and implication in state structures; and by failing to act in accordance with their own traditions by allowing oppression to continue. Some of the groups which apologised for “failures” to better oppose apartheid mentioned poor communication with members and being reactive rather than proactive.81 While providing important lessons for future community and ecumenical action, and underlining the third caveat above, these do not constitute support for oppression and will not be dealt with here.

While we shall make use of the terms, it is clear that there are different ways of understanding “complicity”, and probably also “solidarity” with the victims, as well as “responsibility”. The hearings and submissions both demonstrated that there is a wide divergence in understandings, with some communities considering themselves “engaged” by their own standards--even “prophetic”--but decidedly not when compared to others.82

In some analyses of faith communities, the term “apolitical” may apply (with the implication that to be apolitical was to be in tacit support of the former regime)83 while other ways of seeing might define engagement (or indeed “politics”) differently.84

It is possible to summarise the identities of faith communities in their submissions as taking on three roles in relation to the climate of the period under question (sometimes one, sometimes two, sometimes all three at the same time--see our third caveat above): agents of oppression, victims of oppression, and opponents of oppression.

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