South African church group flirts with civil disobedience

It was, almost to the second, 9 p.m. when the final vote was taken. After nearly six hours of often soul-searching debate, 35 South Africans -- men and women, black and white -- were deciding whether to engage in an act of civil disobedience to oppose apartheid, South Africa's system of racial separation.

The proposal: Gather in Pretoria's Church Square, hold a prayer meeting (in violation of the government's Riotous Assemblies Act, which forbids outdoor gatherings other than sports events), then place a copy of a banned book (about the forcible removal of black South Africans from "white" land) at the feet of a statue of South African patriarch Paul Kruger. The people making the choice were delegates to the annual meeting of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) in this small town north of Pretoria. They had heard Sam Buti, SACC president and a black churchman, bring up the example of Martin Luther King's nonviolent resistance campaign in the American South. And they heard his exhortation, "This is the moment. We are in an acid test, . . . " as he urged them to vote in favor of the protest.

But when the ballots were tallied, the motion was defeated by a single vote.

"If a body such as the SACC cannot identify with the greater majority of black people in their time of need and struggle," Dikobe Martins, a worker in a church-run community center, said after the vote, "it gives credence to those who define the church as one of the oppressors."

The controversial vote was perhaps the most dramatic example yet of the growing pressure on churches here to more actively oppose the South African government's racial policies.

That pressure is being felt in many denominations in this country, including the powerful Dutch Reformed Church. The DRC's "mission" churches for Indian, Colored (mixed race), and black African people, are threatening to break away from the all-white "mother" church unless it reexamines its stand on apartheid.

The DRC has interpreted scripture to justify many aspects of the government's plan to denationalize black South Africans and dub them citizens of underdeveloped tribal reserves.

The DRC frequently finds itself embroiled in other controversies -- ranging from its stand on racially mixed marriages to the question of whether black servants should be allowed at church funerals of their white employers.

The SACC has, on the other hand, taken clear-cut stands against apartheid -- periodically earning the organization veiled threats from government ministers.

Nevertheless, some churchmen have been pressuring the SACC to "go beyond making resolutions" and take affirmative steps to oppose the government here.

Last year, the SACC voted in principle to support its members who felt a need to disobey a law of man in order to obey the law of God. At this year's conference, which ended May 9, one group of delegates came up with the idea of the prayer meeting in Pretoria's Church Square.

At first, some delegates pressed the SACC to nail copies of "The Freedom Charter" -- a document drawn up in 1955 at a meeting in Kliptown, South Africa -- to the doors of some Pretoria churches. The charter is closely identified with the banned African National Congress (ANC).

Subsequently, the group chose to leave behind a copy of the 120-page book, "Black Uprooting from 'White' South Africa," after the service. The book -- which calls on Christians to "do some constructive thinking and praying" about alternatives to mass resettlements -- was banned in late April, and it is an offense to distribute it.

After the proposal was voted down, Peter Storey, the SACC's vice-president, called it a "solemn moment" that indicated "just how desperately difficult it is to come to a decision like this."

But some delegates took a much harsher view. Walter Mbete, a black Methodist delegate, said the decision "proves that the church is too scared to face the crunch when it comes."

Shortly after the vote, one man was heard urging black delegates to support formation of a "black council of churches" to replace the multiracial SACC.

Bishop Desmond Tutu, the SACC general secretary, who had favored the protest, was more restrained. The controversy had at least focused attention on the need to take action against apartheid, he said.

"We cannot go on just passing resolutions," he told the Monitor.

The SACC did pass some 22 resolutions, however. Among other things, it called for the establishment of a "single nonracial educational system" here, resolved that church- related schools should serve as models for such a system, and advocated repeal of laws preventing racially mixed marriages.

But as the conference ended, it was clear that many delegates will be expecting the SACC to match its words with actions -- particularly since delegates also resolved to "actively, visibly, and sacrificially identify with the people's liberation struggle."

As Mr. Martins says, "After liberation, the church will be judged on its pre-liberation stance, and this stance will determine its function in a future free Azania" (the name some blacks give to a majority-ruled South Africa).

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