The arrest of two Anglican bishops and 51 other church leaders in South Africa came as part of a government crackdown on protest against the nation's discriminatory racial policies. The crackdown can only appear to the world as sadly at variance with steps toward reform of those policies. The episode involving the clergy promises a welcome new solidarity among church people in opposing present laws and supporting genuine reform. "It transcended all the denominational and color barriers," said one of the arrested ministers.
Their arrest and jailing for more than 24 hours was in response to the church leaders' march toward Johannesburg police headquarters to protest the detention of a fellow minister. He had been working with Colored (mixed race) students involved in the boycott of classes to protest discrimination in education. Though many churchmen have expressed opposition to apartheid, this appeared to be the first time a group of them had joined in such a protest action, the kind of thing that became familiar in the United States during the civil rights movement of years past.
Earlier this month a motion for an act of civil disobedience to oppose apartheid was defeated by one vote at the annual meeting of the South African Council of Churches, which represents or cooperates with most of the country's major churches except the white, Afrikaans-speaking Dutch Reformed Churches. One of the sentiments expressed was that "after liberation, the church will be judged on its pre-liberation stance." By this reasoning, the future effectiveness of the church would depend on the degree of its identification with freedom rather than oppression now.
The trial of the 53 church leaders is set for July 1 on charges of obstructing traffic and violating a law prohibiting most kinds of outdoor gatherings. This will be just about a year after the council of churches declared its support for "members who commit themselves to acts of conscious affirmation of interracial fellowship." And it will be just about a year since Prime Minister Botha said that, if South Africa wanted security and stability, there would have to be cooperation and consultation among the nation's racial groupings "on a basis of Christianity." South Africa's historical Christian ties would seem to call for no less.
A new religious backing for reform would fit into a liberalizing political attitude found among South African whites in a recent nationwide survey. Political policies promoting "racial justice" were found to be the main priority not only of English-speaking whites, who have long tended in this direction, but of Afrikaans-speaking whites, who have tended to resist change. The challenge, as the United States took so long to find out, is to adopt policies that actually do promote racial justice rather than simply perpetuate oppressive practices under different legal mechanisms.