The Common Good
July 1994

South Africa: The Spirit of Reconciliation

by Beyers Naude, Will Winterfeld | July 1994

Inauguration day in South Africa had special significance
for Dr. Beyers Naudé, and not just because the new South Africa
was born as he celebrated his 79th birthday.

Inauguration day in South Africa had special significance for Dr. Beyers Naudé, and not just because the new South Africa was born as he celebrated his 79th birthday. Three decades ago Naudé was one of the first leading Afrikaners to oppose apartheid openly, and for that he was defrocked as a minister by the white Dutch Reformed Church, hounded by the security police, investigated, tried, and banned by the government.

When the African National Congress was unbanned in 1990, Naudé was the sole Afrikaner in the ANC delegation that negotiated with the government. His unique position of respect in the black community led some to call him "the most trusted white man in South Africa." Naudé was interviewed for Sojourners the day after Nelson Mandela’s inauguration by Will Winterfeld, a member of Jubilee Partners in Comer, Georgia, and an international church observer of the election. —The Editors

Beyers Naudé: I’m so privileged that I’ve experienced what is happening now in South Africa. What right did I have to expect this to happen? How many others—my brothers and sisters, Christians and non-Christians—suffered through exile or imprisonment and torture? They went through much more than I went through. I really see this as a gift from God, and every morning when I get up and do my morning prayers, I start by saying, "Thank you, God, not only for today but for this special period."

Will Winterfeld: How will it be possible for those who have been the oppressor in South Africa to have a genuine experience of repentance, where they will turn around and start the process of forgiveness?

Naudé: I think some will be able to see that they did oppress. It will depend on their Christian faith and on what repentance and restitution means to them. Some people will not be able to turn around, simply because it is demanding too much.

When so much wrong has been done, so much suffering, so much injustice has been perpetrated, there is no way there could ever be a full restitution for the injustice and pain in our country. But if we have a sincere sign from them and someone coming forward to say, "We were wrong," I’m quite convinced that we will be astonished by the loving response from our black community.

If you ask me how this is possible, I have to be honest and say I don’t know. I think I would have harbored deep bitterness and resentment, but in some incredible way God has sown the seeds of a gracious attitude, of the spirit of ubuntu, in the hearts and minds of the whole African community. It has left me with a sense of deep humility and gratitude.

Winterfeld: Do you support the need for a "truth commission" as a final closing of the apartheid history book?

Naudé: I believe it should be done. We never will get a full situation of open transparency, but we should seek to bring forth the major concerns about injustice and suffering and dishonesty. This needs to come into the open or there will never be peace in the hearts of us violated.

As far as I know, none of the leaders of the Nationalist Party ever said they were sorry about the system they created.

Winterfeld: Many Christians outside of South Africa have worked for decades to see these elections come about. What now is required of them in a post-election South Africa?

Naudé: There are a number of matters that urgently need to be addressed by Christians. This society is still controlled by the concept of force to resolve problems, but we must move beyond that. How do we affect reconciliation between people who hate each other? How do we handle it in a way that we can truly be reconciled, in a way that we can build together where previously we destroyed?

We need to look together at what are the major causes of this conflict: poverty, unemployment, and the situation of marginalized people. What do we do to stand in solidarity with them?

Winterfeld: What are the dangers in a new South Africa?

Naudé: One of the dangers is that people will simply sit back and say the major responsibility is on the government or on institutions. As in the past we still have a commitment to justice, human rights, and dignity. We have the task to expose corruption, dishonesty, bribery in a culture where these could be taken for granted.

Winterfeld: What about the black youth who have been marginalized since the Soweto uprising in 1976?

Naudé: I am deeply concerned about the millions of unemployed youth, especially in the urban areas. They made tremendous contributions to the struggle against oppression. One of the major tasks of the government is to look into the expectations of these people and to deal with them.

Winterfeld: The black and colored Dutch Reformed churches have reunified. What does this mean for the white church?

Naudé: The new logo of the black and colored Dutch Reformed Church says everything. It is an uncompleted circle that is open at the bottom. The name is the Unifying Reformed Church of South Africa. It is a symbol saying that we do not wish to close that circle before the white church is inside. Then we can talk of a church that is not unifying but unified. The longer the white church stays outside, the longer the spiritual impoverishment.

I think we as a white community owe a deep gratitude to God that at this point in time he gave us Nelson Mandela, and also that he put F.W. de Klerk as a colleague who was willing to take second place. We have a tremendous spirit of reconciliation. We need to go on our knees to say we are deeply privileged.

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