Imagine being restrained while someone stretches the inner tube of a car tire over your head and gradually pulls it down. The tube first covers your eyes so that you cannot see, then comes over your nose, and finally covers your mouth – you can no longer cry out or breathe. You struggle silently until the lack of oxygen shuts down your brain.
This was reality for an unknown number of South Africans who were tortured and killed by death squads during the apartheid years. In his book, Into the Heart of Darkness: confessions of apartheid’s assassins, Jacques Pauw describes how the assassins boasted about their prowess at suffocating their victims with car tubes—a technique they called “tubing”. Other methods of torture included shoving an iron rod up the anus, or electrocuting the victim with a power generator.
The death squads were under the instructions of South African defense and police force generals. According to the killers, they acted with the full knowledge of then Prime Minister of South Africa, F. W. de Klerk, above.
The assassins also believed their actions were in keeping with the teaching of the Afrikaans churches, in particular, the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), to which 63 percent of Afrikaners belonged in the 1970s. The assassins thought that they were defending a good Christian government in the fight against a “revolutionary onslaught” and that they tortured and killed with both political and biblical justification.
One of the functions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) set up at the end of the apartheid era was to hear testimony from perpetrators of violence who wished to apply for amnesty from prosecution. The applicants had to fulfill two conditions: their crimes had to be politically motivated, and they had to tell the whole truth. Many of the assassins of apartheid sought amnesty before the TRC, but according to Pauw, none of them showed genuine remorse for their crimes.
But they all shared a common complaint: They were embittered that the elite on whose behalf they killed — in the government, police and defense forces — abandoned them, taking no responsibility for instigating the atrocities. The killers were also abandoned by another powerful elite: the DRC, which similarly took no responsibility for the same atrocities.
Until the 1980s there was nothing to distinguish the policies of the DRC from those of the ruling National Party on racial and political matters. The DRC was often referred to as The National Party at prayer. The duplicity of the scriptural teachings of the DRC can be appreciated by considering some of the biblical passages this church used to justify apartheid.
The DRC quoted Gen. 9: 21–25 (The curse of Ham) to preach that Black people are descendants of Ham and therefore subject to the curse of Ham. That Ham himself was not cursed, and that no mention of race, or skin color, is found in the text, did not dissuade the DRC from citing these verses to justify the subjugation of Black people. The DRC was not deterred that mainstream Christianity had long since discredited the curse of Ham as justification for slavery and racial hatred.
The DRC used Gen. 11: 1–9 to teach that there should be a separation of peoples. According to these verses, at the time of the building of the Tower of Babel, there existed only one people and one language. The people began constructing the tower with the aim of reaching heaven against God’s wishes. God therefore halted construction by confounding the language of the people so that they spoke different languages and could no longer understand each other. The people then dispersed to different parts of the Earth.
The DRC taught that God caused the confusion of languages because it is his wish for different races and nations to speak different languages, and to live in separate places. The DRC must, however, have known that the notion that different languages came about due to people attempting to build a tower is fanciful. According to linguists, different languages evolve, as those who speak the same language lose contact with each other in the centuries after migration and gradually drift linguistically in different directions.
The most compelling passages that gave scriptural support for apartheid were perhaps Romans 13: 1–7. The apostle Paul stressed that governments are put in place by God, and that therefore anyone who defies such an authority is resisting God’s agents. Paul emphasized that we need to remember that God’s agents hold the power of the sword with which they are free to punish offenders.
Paul’s words provided biblical justification that the government is to be obeyed. Opposing the government was equivalent to being against God, and those who did so were labeled as terrorists or communists wanting to wage a total onslaught on the government. Even the subjugated are meant to accept their lot because they too are Christian.
The DRC ministers could, however, not have believed their own rhetoric. They knew that Paul’s words were not in keeping with the oft-quoted words of Jesus: “All who take the sword die by the sword” (Matt. 26: 52). As the Bible analyst Dennis McKinsey points out: “how could sword-swinging rulers be God’s ministers, when Jesus says that all those who take up the sword shall perish by it?”
Furthermore, if Christians complied with Paul’s teachings there could be no Christian opposition to regimes such as Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia or Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. And how could Afrikaners justify resisting the British in the Anglo-Boer wars in light of these verses?
The pervasive influence of the DRC even extended on to the battlefield, as is illustrated by an incident during one of the bitter battles fought by the South African Defence Force in Angola in the 1980s. The officer in command of the SA troops in the battle, Colonel Deon Ferreira, was thrilled that his men had defeated the Angolan forces of the 47 Brigade.
He was appalled, however, when the killing on the marshy grasslands turned into a massacre. In a humane gesture, he ordered that the enemy survivors, mostly Angolan youths of 16 and 17, be allowed to flee.
The Colonel’s command to stop the killing caused his HQ DRC chaplain to fly into an uncontrollable fury. Using the most obscene language the chaplain screamed at Ferreira Old Testament verses that justified smiting the enemies and wiping them out entirely. This minister was not an outlier. He was conforming with DRC policy, which condoned violence in the defense of apartheid.
Black South Africans were subjugated and dehumanized and there was a steady supply of indoctrinated young men willing to torture and kill for Church and country. So in a blending of State and Church the ministers of the Nationalist government drafted the oppressive apartheid laws while the ministers of the DRC preached scriptural justification for these laws. The outcome was that Black South Africans were subjugated and dehumanized and there was a steady supply of indoctrinated young men willing to torture and kill for Church and country.
Change of heart
As it became apparent that apartheid would fail, the DRC experienced a change of heart reminiscent of a road to Damascus conversion, and in 1986 the church admitted that it had been wrong in using scriptural passages to justify apartheid.
After much internal debate, the DRC agreed to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and in November 1997 the moderator of the DRC, the Rev. Frederik (Freek) Swanepoel, represented the church before the Commission.
The other mainstream Afrikaans churches did not appear before the Commission. Swanepoel requested forgiveness on behalf of the DRC but his confession consisted mainly of platitudes such as: the DRC had been responsible for “spiritual and structural injustices” and “that great wrongs had been done”.
Swanepoel said that in the past the Church had been part of the problem but they now wanted to be part of the solution. But being part of the solution surely requires being open about how one had caused the problem?
The most open moment of Swanepoel’s “confession” was not volunteered but was in response to commissioner Bongani Finca, who inquired about the frequency with which security force amnesty applicants mentioned that the church taught them that what they did was in the service of Jesus Christ and that the church blessed their weapons of terror. Swanepoel then admitted that the Church had been wrong in biblical instruction about apartheid and confessed guilt in this regard.
The DRC’s “confession” was warmly accepted by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (above) and in seconds, decades of Church support for an evil regime and indoctrination of children and parishioners with bigotry was forgiven. Apologies were not sufficient. The DRC needed to explain how the church had abused and selectively used scriptural verses in order to dehumanize Black people and how it had deceived its parishioners into thinking that the policies of apartheid were in keeping with God’s wishes.
The DRC needed to be open about how their teachings influenced others to kill and torture for apartheid and needed to take responsibility for its role in these killings. A unique opportunity to learn from religious institutions how they can become vehicles to propagate hate and bigotry was lost. The DRC received reconciliation but provided little truth in exchange.
It is particularly disturbing when a church subverts its calling in order to partake in the persecution of innocent people. During the decades of apartheid, South Africa was not the only country in which the church exerted a malevolent effect on state and citizens. For example: the Catholic Church was complicit in the disappearances in Argentina, as well as the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda. The Serbian Orthodox Church supported the genocide of Bosnians. These churches have never been held to account for their roles in these atrocities.
Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) wrote: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.”
Jefferson’s words remain true. To extend Jefferson’s point: a Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by a minister of religion is as inappropriate in hearing confessions by the church as is the confession box in hearing confessions by paedophile priests.
• Editor’s note: Michael Meyerson’s article first appeared in the Australian Rationalist “Apartheid’s (now Rationale) in 2018 under the title “Apartheid’s Church” and is republished with permission.