August 06, 1990 12:00 PM

The Reverend Allan Boesak was tucking a suitcase into his white BMW a few weeks ago when reporters confronted him in the parking lot of Cape Town’s Peninsula Hotel. Was it true that he was having an affair? For once, the fiery cleric—who, along with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, rose to prominence as a leader of South Africa’s antiapartheid movement during the 1980s—found himself at a loss for words. Ducking behind a pillar to evade a photographer, Boesak, 44, who is classified as colored, insisted he was alone at the luxury hotel. Then he drove off. But when the reporters knocked on the door of the ninth-floor suite registered in his name, they found inside Elna Botha, 30, a white TV producer and South African Broadcasting Corporation correspondent who is also a niece of former Minister of Home Affairs Stoffel Botha.

Hands shaking, Botha pleaded with the reporters not to reveal her presence, maintaining the publicity would damage Boesak and “hurt a lot of people.” Indeed, when headlines in the white press gloated about “Rev. Romeo,” Boesak’s wife, Dorothy—the mother of his four children—announced that their 21-year marriage was over. “I cannot go through this again,” she said, referring to a 1985 scandal over an alleged previous infidelity. “It’s a menopausal sickness among men over 40.” Botha’s husband of two years, Colin Fluxman, was also devastated. The 45-year-old SABC anchorman broke down on the air while reading a news report about his wife and Boesak. “She is dead to me,” he said later.

The following Sunday, Boesak tearfully told his congregation at the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in the mixed-race Bellville South township that he was resigning all his clerical positions (with the exception of the presidency of the 81-nation World Alliance of Reformed Churches, which he will hold until the August executive meeting). “It was the biggest shock the local parish has ever had,” said Johan Retief, Boesak’s white co-minister. “People were crying.”

Although Boesak’s church initially refused to let him resign, the scandal may achieve a long-standing aim of South Africa’s white government—to strip Boesak of his moral authority and neutralize him as an apartheid critic. Boesak has been imprisoned in the past, and details about his earlier relationship with a white church worker were traced to the police. “What it boils down to this time,” says a friend, “is a choice between Elna and the Church.” In a statement last Wednesday, Boesak confirmed his resignation and said he had “no valid reason” to end his liaison with Botha, since his marriage was in trouble before they met.

Though long a thorn in the government’s side, Boesak did not start out as a rebel. “He came up through their own ranks and exposed the rottenness at the heart of the [white establishment] Church,” says a family friend. The son of a rural schoolteacher and a seamstress, both colored, Boesak, at 14, became a sexton at the Bellville South Church, whose mother body, the white Dutch Reformed Church, is the spiritual center of the Afrikaner community. But his seminary thesis in 1970 described his disillusionment with the DRC’s system of separate “missions” for whites, blacks, coloreds and Indians. The DRC justified apartheid with such “Christian” precepts as the idea that blacks were created to serve whites just as angels were to serve God. At a 1982 meeting of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Boesak had apartheid declared a heresy, resulting in the expulsion of the DRC white hierarchy.

Entering secular politics during the “80s, Boesak led protests at home and abroad, but since the re-emergence of Nelson Mandela, he had been keeping a lower profile. Boesak has indicated that he’d like to get into politics, but it remains unclear in the wake of the scandal what role he’d play in the era of a free Mandela, who commands the moral high ground because of his 27 years’ imprisonment.

In Bellville South, Boesak appears to have retained the sympathy of his former parishioners. On a recent Sunday, Rev. Retief led them in prayer for the troubled minister. “He’s an ordinary man like us,” whispered one woman, “a human being with failings and feet of clay. We must forgive him, as the Lord forgives us.”

Susan Hack in South Africa

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