The Role of the Church in Reconciliation in South Africa

The Christian Church is one of the most pervasive and significant institutions in South African society. For the past 350 years Christianity and the Christian Church have made significant contributions to the best and the worst of South Africa’s history.

Christian History in Southern Africa
Christianity first settled on the southern shores of Africa in 1652, when the Dutch East India Company founded a community of the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk to serve the soldiers and officials at the refuelling station then known as the “Cape of Good Hope.” The first officially-recorded missionary to be despatched to southern African was Johannes Theodorus Van der Kemp of the London Missionary Society who arrived in the Cape in 1799.

The efforts of the early missionaries were met with mixed success. Robert Moffat admitted in a mission report that he had “fewer Christians than fruit trees,” while David Livingstone famously became an explorer “largely because he was discouraged by the lack of converts in his southern Tswana mission station.”1

However, with the arrival of the English settlers in the early 1800s, missionary activity in southern Africa received a great boost. By 1911 there were more than thirty missionary societies active in southern Africa with a total of 1,650 missionaries in the region. It was said that, “South Africa may well claim to being….with the possible exception of the South Sea Islands, the best occupied mission field in the world.”2

Christianity has had an immeasurable impact on just about every aspect of South African life. In the last National Census, 79.8% of South Africans indicated that they are Christian3. According to that census 7.3% of Christians in South Africa are Methodist, 7.2% are Reformed, 7.1% are Roman Catholic, 5.5% are Congregational, 3.8% are Anglican, and the remaining 48.8% or the population belong to Pentecostal, Charismatic “Independent,” and African Initiated Churches.4

Some may celebrate these statistics; however, the reality is that the Church in South Africa has a great deal of work to do in order to help Christians to overcome the devastating effects of the racial ideology of Apartheid.

Apartheid and the Church in Southern Africa
As is the case with the Church throughout the world, the social and political climate of the day played a significant role in the development and appropriation of Christian mission on southern African soil.

The most significant and disturbing social and political changes began to take effect in southern Africa during the twentieth century.5 Many scholars would agree that the racial ideology of Apartheid was by far the most significant social and political force that the Church had to contend with in southern Africa.

First, a brief synopsis of this system. Apartheid (an Afrikaans word meaning “separateness”) is a system of ethnic separation in which persons were classified into racial groups according to the colour of their skin. The main groups were black, white, coloured (persons of mixed racial descent), and Indian. These race groups were separated from one another geographically, akin to the Indian “stans”—the First Nation reserves of the United States and Canada, and the aboriginal reserves in Australia.

Cunningly, this ensured that black citizens, who are the majority population group in southern Africa, did not have a right to vote in “white” South Africa (even if they lived there) since they were only eligible to vote in their “independent homeland.” The black independent homelands were the most remote, least arable, and least economically viable tracts of land in southern Africa. Implementing this system from the early 1940s meant that many native South Africans were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands throughout southern Africa.

The land itself was expropriated and either put to use by the government or sold to white South Africans to establish farms. In order to maintain this system of segregation, and force black persons to remain in the black homelands, black South Africans were systematically oppressed and disenfranchised by various means.

Economically, they were disenfranchised through job reservation (meaning that certain jobs and professions were not open to black South Africans), Bantu Education (a system of education that trained black South Africans to do nothing more than unskilled and manual labour), inequitable access to health care, and more severe restrictions on freedom of movement.

The violent and systematic implementation of this evil system had considerable, and damaging, effects on southern African society as a whole, and particularly on the individual South Africans who suffered under it. The effects of Apartheid are likely to be felt for many generations to come.6

Within this context, the missional question must be: What would God want Christians to do in order to change society to reflect the Kingdom of God? Surely, mission in this context would be quite different from mission in China, or even in some parts of Europe? It was out of this realisation that the churches in southern Africa began to be shaped for their mission of healing and transformation. At times, the mission of the South African Church had a decidedly social and political overtone.

Neville Richardson notes just how influential and significant this ideology of systematic oppression was and how it would affect the Church:

…the church under apartheid was polarized between “the church of the oppressor” and “the church of the oppressed.” Either you were for apartheid or you were against it; there was no neutral ground. Given the heavy-handed domination of the minority white government, those who imagined themselves to be neutral were, unwittingly perhaps, on the side of apartheid. This complicity was especially true of those Christians who piously “avoided politics” yet enjoyed the social and economic benefits of the apartheid system… While young white men were conscripted into the South African Defence Force, many young black people fled the country to join the outlawed liberation movements that had their headquarters and training camps abroad. What could the church do in this revolutionary climate? And what should Christian theology say now?7

Out of this context the churches of southern Africa sought to bring about an approach to Christian salvation that is free from oppression and subjugation, is filled with God’s love that celebrates diversity without dividing and the reality of being graciously united with God and with all the people whom God loves, and includes a society that reflects the values of God’s kingdom. This became the Church’s mission.

What was required for this mission was a measure of flexibility that allowed for an interaction between orthodoxy (what we believe) and orthopraxis (what we do), an approach to faith that recognised and celebrated the truth of who God is (personal piety), yet was expected to enact God’s will for individuals and society (social holiness).

This concept of mission as social action may sound somewhat utopian. However, I will now sketch just one example of how the Church brought about liberation, restoration, healing, and transformation—signs of God’s kingdom—as part of this mission emphasis.

Christianity and Christians in Post-Apartheid South Africa—The Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Many Christians, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, gave the best years of their ministry to model the possibility of a racially integrated society. These efforts came at great personal cost. For nearly forty years church pulpits were one of the only relatively safe places from which the policies and abuses of the government could be addressed. Sadly, many of those who spoke against these abuses were placed under banning orders (i.e., banned from preaching, attending public gatherings, or being in groups of more than two or three persons). Others were jailed for extended periods or murdered.


In spite of these threats, the Church developed many prophetic statements (such as the confession of Belhar, the Coettesloe Declaration, and the Kairos document), and supported the task of social and political liberation in South Africa.

When Apartheid ended in 1994 with the first democratic elections in South Africa, the task of facilitating healing and reconciliation was brought to church leaders for implementation. A ground-breaking process, called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)8, was rolled out across South Africa under the leadership of Archbishop Tutu.

The TRC was an official body sanctioned by the newly-elected government to hold hearings at which victims of gross human rights abuses could give statements of their abuse. The perpetrators of the abuses had an opportunity to give testimony and request amnesty for their crimes.

The intention of the TRC was to allow victims an opportunity to tell their stories and perpetrators to tell the truth and apply for amnesty so that retribution could be averted in the “new South Africa.” Central to the TRC was the notion of forgiveness and restorative justice.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from this particular expression of the Christian faith is that the context in which mission and evangelism takes place is critical in shaping the ministry of the Church. A second important lesson would be that we should avoid the temptation of judging success in ministry by numerical growth—as was shown, in some instances numerical growth is an indicator of need rather than success.

What is certain is that the Church in southern Africa is faced with a number of complex contextual challenges which will require a great deal of courage and faithfulness if the Christian faith is to continue to make a positive impact upon society.

I hope the discussion above has made two points: (1) mission as social action is a truly holy, God-honouring, and practical way to transform individuals and society for God’s glory and kingdom and (2) mission is not just “religious” in nature. The parent, school teacher, economist, and even politician, can be part of God’s mission of healing and transformation. True Christian mission requires the active participation of all Christians. This is the work of every disciple.


1. Isichei, Elizabeth. 1995. A History of Christianity in Africa: From Antiquity to the Present. New York: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 100).

2. Ibid, 100.

3. See the 2005/2006 Christian Handbook. Johannesburg: WITS University Library. These statistics are also available online at A theological critique of this data is available in Hendriks, J and Erasmus, J. 2005. “Religion in South Africa: 2001 Population Census Data.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 121: 88-111.

4. See Forster, Dion. 2008. “God’s Mission in Our Context—Critical Questions, Healing and Transforming Responses.” In Methodism in Southern Africa: A Celebration of Wesleyan Mission. Eds. Dion Forster and Wessel Bentley. Kempton Park, South Africa: AcadSA Publishers, 70-99.

5. It would not be possible to chart all of the significant shifts in society and politics in southern Africa in a study of this scope. For an insightful and scholarly account of the social and political trends from the first colonies at the Cape through to the dying days of Apartheid in South Africa, refer to Sparks, Allister. 1990. The Mind of South Africa. New York: Ballantine Books.

6. See for a basic, accessible introduction to the history of Apartheid. See for a succinct outline of the crimes of apartheid.

7. In L. Gregory Jones, Reinhard Hütter, and C. Rosalee Velloso Ewell, eds. 2005. God, Truth, and Witness: Engaging Stanley Hauerwas. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 231-232.

8. See

Dr. Dion Angus Forster is a minister and academic. He is the former dean of John Wesley College, the seminary of the Methodist Church of southern Africa, and a research associate and lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Stellenbosch (BUVTON). Forster serves as a chaplain to the Global Day of Prayer and the Power Group of companies in Cape Town, South Africa. His most recent book on ministry in the workplace is entitled Transform Your Work Life: Turn Your Ordinary Day into an Extraordinary Calling (Struik Christian Books, 2010).