As South Africa’s white minority government cracked down on black dissent amid the divided country’s worst racial violence in recent years, the state-run radio singled out three men for special denunciation: the Rev. Beyers Naudé, Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Rev. Allan Boesak. One white, one black and one a mixture of both, the clerics have become allies, bearing witness to the in-humanity of apartheid and preaching for justice without bloodshed. Marching at the head of protests, mourning at the funerals of blacks killed by police or by fellow blacks and using their pulpits to call for reconciliation, they have confronted Pretoria’s government with courage and conscience, just as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took on racism in the American South. As Naudé, 70, once a minister in South Africa’s all-white, staunchly Afrikaner Dutch Reformed Church, says, “Christian obedience expects that you learn to stand in solidarity with victims of injustice, oppression or any dehumanization.”
But faced with blacks’ mounting anger and the government’s repression, the churchmen fear that events in their nation may be outrunning them. More than 500 people have been killed in rioting, many of them victims of police firepower, but some the targets of black rage. Even with a state of emergency declared last month, and the detention without charges of nearly 1,400 people, the police have been unable to quell the violence and arson. The death toll rises daily. That means more mass funerals, which have provided the main opportunities for the triumvirate to issue calls for change. On July 31 State President Pieter W. Botha declared a ban on outdoor funerals in black townships; Bishop Tutu responded, “If they pass a law forbidding me to preach, I shall break it.” Though blacks welcome the clerics’ gospel of liberation, the calls for peace are increasingly less heeded. “I preach nonviolence,” says Boesak, 39, “but sometimes I feel I am shouting into the wind.”
Though they speak warmly of their ties to each other, the three men have not attempted to unite as leaders of an organized political front. “The real motive binding us is our Christian faith and our common loyalty to Christ, His gospel and His message,” says Naudé. “There is no formal agreement between Desmond, Allan and myself. We feel identically, but each of us acts on the basis of his own conscience.” With their diverse racial backgrounds and differing personal histories, Naudé, Boesak and Tutu each bring unique qualities to the spiritual alliance.
The son of the Rev. Jozua Naudé, a Dutch Reformed minister and Boer War commando who, as one of the “bitter-enders,” refused to surrender to British forces in 1902, Beyers Naudé grew up with a powerful but narrowly focused sense of social justice. As a young minister in 1939 his conviction that Britain was an arrogant and aggressive power even led him to admire Adolf Hitler. By 45, he was prominent in the Afrikaner church and a member of the Broederbond (the league of brothers), a secret society whose vows of silence and service enable 14,000 Afrikaners to protect the bastions of white privilege and manipulate every aspect of life in South Africa (total population: 32 million—70 percent of whom are black).
In the ensuing 20 years, Naudé underwent a conversion reminiscent of the biblical account of Paul’s revelation on the road to Damascus. “Three things influenced me,” he says. “Firstly, my questioning of the biblical justification of apartheid brought me clearly to the conclusion that there was no justification. Secondly, I was often invited by young ministers serving black and colored [mixed-race] communities to visit their parishes and see for myself the suffering apartheid was causing. Finally, Sharpeville brought matters to a head and forced me to take a clear stand.” It was at Sharpeville, in March 1960, that police opened fire on a demonstrating crowd of blacks, shooting many in the back and killing 69. When the World Council of Churches sent a delegation to meet with its South African member churches, it issued a statement, the Cottesloe Declaration, questioning the religious justification of apartheid, which Naudé signed. A furious Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the father of apartheid (which the ruling National Party instituted in the 1950s), demanded that the Dutch Reformers recant. Only Naudé refused. Eventually, he resigned from the Broederbond, broke with his church and helped found an antiapartheid ecumenical group called the Christian Institute of South Africa. “I was seen as a person who betrayed the Afrikaner,” he said. In 1977, following another round of violence sparked by riots in the black township of Soweto, the government silenced Naudé with a “banning” order. For seven years he endured a kind of civil death. A banned person may not meet with more than one person at a time, may not write, teach, leave a defined area or enter a factory. It is a criminal offense in South Africa to quote anything a banned person might say. Only last year was Naudé allowed to live a public life again.
But before Naudé was silenced, he had influenced a colored minister, Allan Boesak. “I had learned to hate,” says Boesak. “Then in 1964, I met Beyers Naudé and it was a turning point in my life. Here was a Boer, an Afrikaner, yet totally different. He overthrew my theory that all Boers were bad.” A minister in the Dutch Reformed Mission Church, the colored branch of the Afrikaner Church, Boesak was born in the remote town of Kakamas on the Orange River, where it cuts through the desert of western South Africa. He claims descent from a Hottentot slave of the same name who led a rebellion against the British in the early 19th century. When Boesak’s father, a schoolteacher, died, Allan settled with his mother in the town of Paarl, where they lived reasonably content until the government declared the area belonged to whites and forced them out. His hatred of the ruling race was not diminished when a white professor at the coloreds-only University of the Western Cape told his class that blacks had not yet acquired the mental development to study Greek and Hebrew.
In 1982 Boesak led a successful campaign to have the World Alliance of Reformed Churches oust the Afrikaner Church for the “heresy” of apartheid, and was elected president of the alliance. “We’ll be hearing a lot more about Allan,” says Tutu. “He’s a man of extraordinary intellect and he has shown that he can rise above a very debilitating experience.” That crisis came early this year when the Johannesburg Star printed charges that Boesak, who is married with four children, was having an affair with a white divorcée, Di Scott. A church inquiry cleared him of adultery and the South African Media Council recently labeled the story a smear campaign perpetrated by members of the security police. As the youngest, most modern minister of the three, Boesak has taken more militant stances, leading his congregations in prayers for the government’s downfall. When President Botha pushed through reforms granting coloreds and Indians representation in separate houses of parliament, Boesak led the colored protest, demanding full representation for all races. “Truly,” he said when Botha recently clamped on emergency rule, “we are dealing with the spiritual children of Hitler.” But despite his rebel incantations, Boesak remains committed to peaceful change. “I have tried to check the drift toward violence,” he says, “but the people need a creative outlet for their rage.”
Boesak dedicated his recently published book, Black and Reformed, to Desmond Tutu. Tutu, 53, thrust himself into a crowd of angry blacks to save a black accused of collaborating with white authorities from being beaten to death, and he has threatened to leave South Africa with his wife, Leah, if such killings continue. From the outset, he has seen the role of South Africa’s Anglican church as bringing “true freedom with real justice. If that fails, then I am frightened.”
Born in the western Transvaal, Tutu was forced to drop his dreams of becoming a doctor when his father, a schoolteacher, ran out of money. He was working as a teacher himself when he saw a white man tip his hat to his mother. The Rev. Trevor Huddleston’s example inspired Tutu to become a minister. In 1975 he became South Africa’s first black Anglican dean. Spurning the dean’s high-class residence in Johannesburg, he chose to live among his black parishioners in Soweto. Two years later he headed the liberal South African Council of Churches, which was viewed by the government as dangerously left-wing. The government subsequently conducted an inquiry into the SACC’s finances, which it hoped would discredit Tutu. Recently he resigned to become Bishop of Johannesburg, much to the dismay of conservative upper-class white members of the church. The 1984 Nobel peace prize confirmed his status as the leading voice for the liberation of black South Africans. By commanding the respect of Western leaders, he has stirred worldwide protest against apartheid, but increasingly militant blacks are scorning his more moderate message. “I always have hope because I believe that God is in charge of his world,” says Tutu. “Despite the gloom, things are going to work out. Our task is to see that they work out with a minimum of death and violence.”
Boesak is more fearful: “What we warned the government about so many times is coming true. We told them that an unjust system, which requires force to maintain, will always require to be supported with greater and greater degrees of violence.” Naudé is convinced that nothing less than the release of politically imprisoned leaders and the right of exiles to return will create a climate of calm that will make negotiation possible and meaningful. Even Tutu has said he would pray for the man who picks up a gun to fight for his rights if the government continues to deny them. It remains to be seen whether South Africans of all races can transcend their hatreds, as these men have, to bring about the peaceful solution they pray for.