ARTICLES

Volume 23 - Issue 3

Theology in South Africa: The Current Situation

by David T. Williams

Some time ago, the author went to the annual conference of the Theological Society of Southern Africa. This was held at what used to be a Catholic seminary some distance north of Pretoria, a complex now used for non-theological purposes by the University of Pretoria. Such a change in use is in itself some indication of what is happening in theological education in South Africa. The conference itself, as such usually do, provided an opportunity to meet colleagues, a very necessary thing in South Africa where distances are big and academics can feel quite isolated from others in the same field. It also provided opportunities to share research, views and other information. Attending it thus provided much of the necessary insight to consider the state of theology in the country.

What was striking, compared to conferences held in previous years, was, firstly, how few there were attending it. There are some twenty universities in the country, most teaching theology or religion in some form, and a large number of Bible colleges and other institutions involved in theological training. The society itself has a membership role of nearly two hundred, itself less than the total who would be eligible to belong, and yet there were only twenty who attended the full conference, with perhaps another ten on the main day. Why so few? The second thing that struck the author was the general air of gloom and depression in nearly all of those attending. Everyone seemed to have a tale of woe, and was pessimistic about his or her future in theology. Why was this? The third notable characteristic was an overall feeling of a loss of direction, uncertainty about what theology should be concerned with in the new South Africa. There was an overall theme for the conference, but the impression was that this was not selected out of a driving desire to investigate and consider that topic but really came from a feeling that the conference had to deal with something. Obviously these three are connected, and they do serve to indicate something of what is currently happening in South Africa.

The Legacy of apartheid

There is no aspect of life, theology included, which has escaped the effect of the political process in South Africa, particularly in the last few years, which has concluded half a century of dramatic political events. It is these recent changes that have most coloured the mood and situation of theology. ‘Coloured’ is of course a most appropriate term. South Africa is totally connected in the minds of most of the world with the policy of ‘apartheid’, more euphemistically ‘separate development’, which tried, since the Nationalists came to power in 1948, to implement an ambitious programme of social engineering designed to keep the various races living in South Africa apart. The details of what were attempted are well-known; the country was divided into various ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ areas; there were separate amenities in many areas of life so that the races were kept, as far as possible, from contact with each other. This is not the place to evaluate what happened, except to note that the policy came under increasing criticism because it was felt that it was not in fact applied equally. Moreover, and this is coming out in the stories heard by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the chairmanship of the former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, the policy resulted in the great suffering of countless people caused simply by the application of the policy and by countering opposition to it. Cassidy1 graphically describes some of the practical effects of the policies.

It can hardly be surprising that for very many years almost the sole topic of interest in theology related directly to apartheid. De Gruchy2 even excludes other aspects, such as traditional Western theology, despite its influence in training ministers, from his survey of South African theology. The policy was intended, looking at it from the best possible light, to reduce, even eliminate the race problem from society. In fact the race problem dominated everything, including, of course, the practice of theology. The issue of the relationship between church and state was high on the theological agenda, issuing in a variety of distinct attitudes.3What is then noteworthy is the observation that South Africa has for a couple of decades been one of the most productive areas of the world for theology. This is for a couple of reasons, both inevitably linked with the race issue.

The first side of this is that the previous government, reflecting the ethos of its support, which was predominantly of the Afrikaans sector of the population, perceived itself to be in South Africa and in power as a result of divine favour. The essential idea was of a people, a ‘volk’, in covenant with God and therefore blessed and guided by him.4 The preamble to the previous constitution claimed that God himself had brought the settlers to South Africa.

With that background, Christianity was actively supported by the government. This was not only an aspect of the covenant, but was also a means of uniting the nation, a little similar to the way in which Constantine had sought to unite the Roman empire by accepting Christianity as a ‘religio licita’ in 313 ad and by insisting on agreement in doctrine at the Council of Nicaea in 325 ad when the Arian dispute threatened to destroy that unity. A key way in which this was attempted was naturally by means of the school system, in which a policy of ‘Christian National Education’5 was implemented. Religious Education was a supposedly compulsory subject in every school,6 and Biblical Studies was an optional subject which could be offered in the secondary schools and as part of the Matriculation qualification on leaving school. There were regular, often daily, school assemblies at which both Christianity and patriotism were encouraged.

Of more direct significance for theology in South Africa was the policy of supporting the establishment of departments and even faculties of theology in nearly every university and other tertiary educational institute in the country.7 The highly qualified staff of such departments often taught a mere handful of students. What it did mean was a large number of professional theologians in the country, who obviously engaged in academic study and research. It is hardly surprising that there was production of theological material really out of all proportion to the size of the population as a whole. This is now a major factor in the current feeling of gloom, for the new government sees no reason for its support of such a high number of departments and faculties. Currently several faculties are closing or becoming departments, and nobody in theology can feel assured that his or her job is secure.

The other side of the belief that the Afrikaans government was in power by divine favour, and that its policies were the will of God, was the necessary attempt to justify those policies theologically. It is now quite notorious that the curse that Noah uttered when he awoke from his drunkenness (Gn. 9:24), was seen to justify the inferior position of the Hamites, interpreted as the black race, even if the actual curse was applied to Canaan. A further way of justifying the apartheid system was an appeal to Deuteronomy 32:8:

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,

when he separated the sons of men,

he fixed the bounds of the peoples …,

Acts 17:26 was also used. The justification for apartheid is outlined more fully elsewhere, such as in Cassidy8 and more completely in Morphew.9

Not surprisingly, apartheid and Naziism have often been compared for their racial attitudes; indeed many Afrikaners were deeply influenced by Germany.10 It is interesting that Hitler viewed himself as having a divine call to save Germany.11 There was even resistance to entering the second World War, despite being part of the British empire at that time. Opposition to the apartheid government thus saw itself in continuity with the Confessing Church in the third Reich.12 Even today the influence is still present. The right-wing awb13 has a symbol that looks remarkably similar to a swastika, but with three not four arms. From another perspective, however, it is three sevens, again indicating a strong link between religion and politics.

The natural result of this was that opposition to apartheid was also theological. The latter part of the apartheid era, in particular, saw a proliferation of documents dealing with the issue. Perhaps the most influential was the ‘Kairos’ document,14 published originally in 1985. This described three sorts of theology current in South Africa at the time, a non-political ‘church’ theology, a ‘state’ theology which advocated obedience to the government, justified by texts such as Romans 13, and a ‘prophetic’ theology which confronted the existing order. It is perhaps significant that just a decade later, they are all but forgotten, even by the current generation of students. An enormous amount of productive energy in the form of meetings, congresses, editing and other related activities had gone into a theological opposition to apartheid. It had even been declared a heresy by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, led by Allan Boesak.15 This was a significant move, seeing that it was the closely related Dutch Reformed Church which had provided the main justification for the system. However, all of a sudden, the need for this theological effort disappeared with the change of government. It is proving difficult in some quarters to find new areas of interest in which to be involved!

The overriding political concerns have generated a focus on a number of specific areas, in which South Africans have then naturally taken a special interest. The relation between evangelism and social action, for example, has become important for many of the more traditional churches, which have in the past neglected the latter.16 Another obvious area is the nature of humanity and of sin.17 In the former case, in contrast to Western individualism, the African worldview sees the nature of the person in relationship; ‘I am because we are’.18 The Western tendency to dualism is rejected; salvation affects the whole person and relationships. This may be seen as an affirmation of incarnation into the whole human situation.19 In the latter case, sin is then not so much transgression as a disruption in harmony. Particular note is also taken of what is often called ‘structural’ sin, where it is the organisations that are seen to be in error, while individuals themselves may not be aware of personal wrongdoing in their participation in the system. Naturally flowing out of this is a concern with creation, which was actually the topic of the conference referred to above. ‘Green’ issues are however not in vogue,20 partly due to the geographical isolation of South Africa, from many of the problems that afflict Western Europe. It does however experience some acid rain, and increased skin cancer due to the ‘ozone hole’ over the Antarctic. It must also be observed that environmentalism has been described as a rich person’s luxury, being of little perceived relevance to the poor, who are forced to do such things as chop trees for firewood. Some aspects, such as population limitation, are also viewed with hostility as a ploy to reduce numbers and so political power. Environmental concern may be expected to increase; issues of water, population and erosion are becoming more noticeable.

Again the situation has resulted in a perception that theology is practically a political subject. Indeed, much theological writing could be accused of being unrelated to Christianity, and could well have emanated from other religions, or even from humanism. However, particularly with the political changes, there is a growing interest in the manifestation of Christianity in an African context.21 Indeed, this is seen in South Africa as essential; a ‘buzz-word’ is ‘contextualization’, although this too is often not specifically Christian. There is a need to relate specifically Christian ideas to the situation. The author, at least, sees a need to relate such topics as Christology and the salvation enacted in Christ22 to a wider context than the metaphysical and eschatological, applying them to human life.

How far such perceived needs will be met in South Africa will naturally be affected by the outworking of government policy, particularly in the funding of Universities. Current indications are that whereas in the past a government subsidy was paid for any student registered in theology as in any other subject, the government will in the future subsidize only a specific number of places in any subject. Universities, being autonomous, would be free to register more, but they would receive no state subsidy. Some universities would not be granted any places for specific subjects, so they would then most likely not offer the subjects at all. This will likely mean the restriction of theology to a few institutions only.

Secularization and Pluralism

Government support for Christianity can actually still be justified by the enormous proportion of the population that claims to be Christian (77% in the 1980 census23). In this regard a lot of students opted for Biblical Studies as part of a degree or tertiary course, often intending to teach the course in schools, producing far more teachers with that qualification than could possibly be absorbed into the system. Nevertheless, this is a symptom of the fact that Christianity enjoyed, and still enjoys, an acceptance in the population as a whole. Insofar as theology is ‘fides quarens intellectum’, ‘faith seeking understanding’, intense theological activity might be expected in the country as a whole.

And yet it must be asked if the claim to have such a high proportion of Christians is justified by the effect on society as a whole. It just does not tally with the current explosion in crime of all sorts, the violence and corruption which currently characterizes South African society. It must be asked whether South Africa is not now in the same situation as countries such as Britain were a few decades ago. when most of the population would claim to Christian, and church-going was the acceptable thing; all this, however, declined rapidly as the years passed. The indication must be that the faith professed was not genuine so, as it became less fashionable to be Christian, fewer would claim to be so. In that case, the country will experience a rapid decline in at least nominal Christianity over the next few years. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing; a Church consisting of a few really committed people surely better reflects what Christ wanted than one full of nominal adherents.

Indeed the move away from the traditional churches is well under way. English speaking churches, particularly in the traditional denominations, are declining fairly rapidly, and the same is true to a lesser extent in the Afrikaans community. Particularly in the latter case, this is encouraged by a feeling that a Christian profession did not prevent the loss of a government that claimed to be Christian. God is seen to have failed, and is therefore not worthy of being followed. Thus the forces of secularisation which have been so effective in Europe have been augmented by the particular South African circumstances, specifically apartheid. Not that these are disconnected. In Europe, the forces of individualism stemming from the Enlightenment produced industrialisation, colonisation and a capitalist system which fuelled a secular world-view. It was those same forces which were behind the establishment of apartheid, the desire to better one’s own group and to develop it economically. Apartheid was sometimes referred to as ‘internal colonisation’.

Interestingly, the same move away from the Church is also happening in the black community, but for different, if complementary, reasons. Here the perception is that the black population had suffered greatly under a government which claimed to be Christian. In the rejection of that government and its policies came the rejection also of the faith which it had professed.

Secularisation naturally goes hand in hand with pluralism. This latter has also been encouraged by the political events of recent years. It has been important politically to gain the support of the sectors of the population which follow religions other than Christianity. The vast majority of adherents to non-Christian religions are non-white.24 It has been felt that the only way in which this can be done is to accept the validity of all religions, or to render religious observance a private matter only. As in other countries, pluralism, like democracy, is ‘politically correct’. It may be observed that the academic study of religion, as distinct from theology, is now more common. To give one example, by no means an isolated case, the faculty of Theology at the University of South Africa, which is a very large correspondence institution, is now the faculty of Religion and Theology, and its journal, formerly ‘Theologia Evangelica’, is now ‘Religion and Theology’. Such moves may be politically appropriate, but they are unlikely to be financially beneficial. The government is seeking to limit funding for theology, but it is perhaps even less likely to fund religious studies as it is less use to the community as a whole. Training of ministers does after all perform a social function, and some support by the state can be justified, even when its emphasis falls elsewhere, on economics, science and technology.

The way in which pluralism will be implemented is still a matter for debate. There is the vexed question of whether religious education should take place in state schools and other institutions, or whether what is taught should reflect the local community or the religious affiliation in the country as a whole. While some feel that religion should be excluded completely, others see its value in society as drawing it together or as a means of moral motivation.

In the former case, it is interesting to see the tendency towards a form of ‘civil religion’ as manifested elsewhere, notably in the United States, where there are ‘saints’, ‘martyrs’, ‘holy places’ and ‘days’, and other features of religion, the observance of which serve to cement the society together. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela is rapidly becoming a ‘saint’, there are plenty of ‘martyrs’ such as Steve Biko, there are ‘holy places’ such as Robben Island, and days such as June 16, the anniversary of the Soweto youth uprising in protest at the government insistence that Afrikaans be used as a medium of education in schools. It may be expected that this trend will continue.

In the latter case, it is naturally difficult to provide moral motivation in a pluralistic situation, where different sets of ethics and different motivations and sanctions exist. The traditional African moral code of ‘ubuntu’, which can be loosely translated ‘humanness’, is under pressure with the loss of traditional society and its ancestral sanction coming under strain. Christianity also seems to be finding it hard to present a consistent moral stand when its theological base is questioned. There is no consistent Christian opinion on such topical issues as abortion and capital punishment. The divorce rate is one of the highest in the world.

As regards moral motivation, the Islamic community in particular is vocal, and suggests, with due cause, that Christianity has failed to prevent the moral problem of apartheid, the current crime wave, and also sin on a more personal level. Islam is becoming very influential in South Africa; although numerically small25 and mainly in the Asian community, it now provides a disproportionate number of government ministers and officials.

A religious nation

A further strong argument for retaining religion at an official level in South Africa, and then Christianity in particular, is that religion is deeply embedded in the lives of many people, more especially the Africans. There has been some rejection of Christianity in order to revert to the old customs and beliefs, but far more typical has been a leaving of the traditional denominations in favour of what used to be called ‘African “Independent” churches’, more commonly today ‘Indigenous’ or ‘Initiated’. Many of the aic’s strongly profess Christianity, but include African culture such as dancing and music, and practise spiritual healing. More seriously, they usually include elements of traditional belief, the veneration of the ancestors, in a syncretistic mix. Such has indeed often been practised unofficially in any case by adherents of the traditional churches; in the aic’s it is done openly. Naturally the growth of these churches has not just been from a desire to practise African culture and beliefs, but has been encouraged by a desire for African leadership.26 Most traditional churches have moved towards a more representative leadership, but many just could not wait. Membership of these churches is now about 40% of the population.

Leadership of these churches is often of a very low educational level, often primary school, but such leaders are accepted for a number of reasons. There is often natural leadership ability, but very often also a claim to supernatural power, of being called and endowed by a definite call of God, manifested in vision or dream, and evidenced by such a healing ability. Their poor educational system, again often a result of the apartheid system, was of course one reason why such leaders were not acceptable in the traditional churches, but it has meant that the standard of theology and discernment of unorthodox beliefs has also been at a very low level. These churches are then outside of ‘normal’ theological education, which in any case is often rejected as ‘Western’.

This has also contributed to the lack of a feature which is present elsewhere in Africa, the desire to relate traditional belief, especially the role of ancestors and their veneration, to Christianity. The early missionaries naturally rejected traditional belief, in many cases not even perceiving that it included a belief in God. This is because God is believed to be utterly transcendent, apart from the world, and only acting, and being approached, by means of the ancestors, the ‘living-dead’. This cleavage between traditional belief and Christianity was of course again exacerbated by the separation in society due to apartheid.

However, more recently, in keeping with the rest of Africa, there has been more of an acceptance of traditional belief, but also a desire to relate it to Christianity. Jesus has been seen as an ancestor, the greatest of all,27 notably in one case as ‘brother-ancestor’ (cf. Heb. 2:11).28 A further profitable line of approach is to examine the nature and role of the ancestors, and so see these as in some way fulfilled in the Person and work of Christ. Traditional belief could then perhaps be seen as a ‘preparatio evangelica’, maybe not so intended by God, but still used by him.29

Theological education

A perception of educational inadequacy, as in other areas of society as well, has not just been accepted. There has been a tremendous thirst for education, including theological education. Such a thirst is naturally of course partly due to the desire for the status that education gives in society. While in white South Africa, theological education has been in the hands of the universities and a number of seminaries, these have not in general been open to Africans, as the entrance qualifications have been out of reach, and the cost, even with government subsidy, has been too much. The result has been a proliferation of Bible colleges offering diplomas and other qualifications. In very recent years, some have been affiliating to the universities and offering their qualifications, a move welcomed by the latter as a means of raising their student numbers, at least on paper, and by the former as a way of giving an accredited qualification. Such proliferation has also been the result of the multiplicity of churches, each wanting its own training. As the number of denominations in South Africa, mainly the AIC’s, is over 6,000, the growth of this sector has been marked.

However, in recent years, again partly due to the opening up of the universities, but mainly due to the expense of running a college at anything more than the most basic educational level, many of the colleges are closing down. Naturally it has not only been the cost of running the college itself, but fewer people are able to afford even the minimum fees, or even of being out of work for a number of years. Some have closed due to the amalgamation of previously segregated institutions; it was quite common in the apartheid years for one denomination to run separate colleges for each racial group. This was one way in which the staggering economic cost of apartheid was manifested. Also contributing to the drop in numbers has been the overall drop in the status of Christianity and so of ministers. Although still respected in the community, there have been many cases of sexual scandals, corruption and other things not really in keeping with the profession. It should perhaps be added here that in the apartheid years with its practice of job reservation, the ministry was one profession open to all races which could lead to great influence. There are many people now in political positions who were formerly in the Church. Their acceptance into such positions is not always by any means due to an insincere Christianity, far from it, but it does reflect something of the standing of Christianity in South Africa.

New movements

Proliferation of churches has not only been a feature of black society, but has occurred also among the whites. Here the main reason, which also affects the black Church, is the charismatic movement, manifested mainly in the so-called ‘third wave’. The last two decades have seen the establishment of many movements, usually imported from America, and still very influenced from the other side of the Atlantic. Most major cities now have their ‘Christian centres’, and groups such as the Rhema church are fairly common. These groups are almost invariably large, although the size is a little deceptive, seeing that very many people join only for a while. They are very popular, partly due to the vigorous and participatory style of worship, use of choruses, hand-clapping and raising, so much in keeping with modern culture. Phenomena such as ‘slaying in the Spirit’ and the ‘Toronto blessing’ are much in evidence. Contributing to the popularity is the practice of healing, which, as in the AIC’s, naturally generates popularity. Incidentally, just as the AIC’s, these groups tend to reject theology as irrelevantly intellectual. Allied to the practice of healing has been the teaching of such as Hagin and Copeland, a belief in being able to claim material prosperity. The theology has however been to a large extent discredited; it may well seem to ‘work’ in a rich society, but it conspicuously fails in areas where poverty rather than affluence is the order of the day. It is interesting that the Rhema church, which majored on the prosperity theme when it was established in the early 1980’s, no longer teaches it so determinedly; in contrast, the church is rather making a name for itself by more conventional social action, even verging on the political.

It was actually the apolitical side which was initially one of the things that made the ‘third wave’ churches so popular. People were tired, and almost invariably made to feel guilty, at the repeated social and political preaching of the mainline churches. They wanted the spiritual message of the gospel and not politics, and they found this in the evangelical churches. That, with the other attractions of the ‘third wave’ churches, assured the latter of great popularity.

The root of this popularity could then be suggested to be the underlying materialism of South African society. It may well be suspected that the idea of selfless giving, done for no benefit to the giver, is almost absent from the South African worldview. The same tendency is of course also present in the other wing, that of political activity. Indeed, and this is particularly the case in the black community, the Church is almost totally polarized between the charismatic element on the one hand and the socio-political wing on the other. The non-charismatic evangelical emphasis seems to be minimal.

One reason for this, as well as the fact that both extremes see evangelicalism as defective according to their viewpoints, lacking, or at least not stressing, both political emphasis30 and the exercise of spiritual gifts, is that the evangelical stress on eschatology is viewed as irrelevant. On the one hand, South African society has been totally absorbed in the problems of the present; a long term view has been squeezed out by immediate concerns. On the other hand, a preaching of a future heaven is derided as ‘pie in the sky when you die’. Indeed, the African worldview is not forward looking. Mbiti,31 a Kenyan theologian, has in fact suggested that the African view of time is, firstly, orientated to the past—hence the stress on tradition and the ancestors—and, secondly, consists of a discontinuous series of events rather than an appreciation of connected cause and effect—hence the lack of scientific development. Evangelicals have been guilty of emphasizing benefits which are not wanted, and of presenting solutions to problems which are not appreciated. Tutu in fact encapsulates the usual African view of ‘white’ theology, in an oft-quoted remark, that Christianity has produced answers, ‘and often splendid answers’, to questions which were not asked.32A gospel meaningful to Africa has to present the immediate and material benefits of belief, or it just will not even be considered. The African view tends to be that religion, and so also Christianity, should give immediate material benefits.33

Outside influences

‘Third wave’ theology is one example of an import from outside the country. One of the ways in which the international community sought to bring pressure on the apartheid system was by means of isolation, depriving the country of full participation in international life. This was not altogether a bad thing; one unexpected benefit was that because there was little trade with countries to the immediate north, aids was largely kept out of the country. It, or at least HIV, is now very widespread, but the onset was delayed for several years. In many areas, this isolation stimulated distinctively South African activity, such as in arms manufacture and oil from coal technology. Intellectually there was also a measure of isolation; books from overseas were often not available, although this was never a really serious problem. Actually this isolation still continues, but caused by factors other than the political; with a weakened economy and dropping value of the South African Rand, travel overseas and the price of books are often prohibitively expensive, although ways are found to overcome this problem as well, such as the proxy travel that the information revolution, such as the Internet, makes possible.

Perhaps this lack of real isolation is the reason why South African theology has not produced a distinctive brand of its own, but in general mirrors what is happening overseas. This is true in a variety of ways, reflecting the diversity of society as a whole.

Hardly surprisingly, due to the similarity of German and Afrikaans, the Afrikaans community is quite influenced by German theology, and this is reflected in what is taught in Afrikaans universities. Similarly the English speaking universities mirror Britain and the United States. Intellectually, not surprisingly with the historical links, there is more sympathy with the former, but the sheer volume from the latter, such as in production of books, renders that side also influential. Distinct again from those influences, the ‘historically black’ universities (today often called ‘historically disadvantaged’) find intellectual roots in the liberation theologies. Obviously there is felt to be similarity with the Latin American situation, and also with the ‘black theology’ of such as James Cone, although it is well appreciated that neither really matches the South African experience. Morphew34 helpfully distinguishes between black consciousness, which sees a positive value in black culture, black theology, the reaction of Christianity to racial issues, and liberation theology, the reaction to economic oppression. Naturally the three overlap, merge and interact.

Influenced by these movements, feminist theology has some adherents. There are some feminist theologians in South African universities, and the country is well disposed to feminine emancipation, in line with the political ethos of the equality of all. Women were often at the forefront of political protest.35 There is now a deliberate attempt to see women in positions of power. In this connection, we should note that the divorce rate is one of the highest in the world, and marriage is decreasingly popular, as in Europe. This latter trend, interestingly, is particularly the case among educated black women, who often openly have boyfriends and children, but do not want to be married, due to the fact that they would then lose much of their freedom due to the very chauvinistic attitudes of black males, inherited from traditional society.

Apart from these major influences from overseas on South African theology, there are also several other factors, some of which do have a more marked effect. Firstly, there is still a large number of missionaries in the country, although less than there used to be because of the state takeover of schools and hospitals over the last few decades. In the past, these did have a major influence, and what was taught is still visible in much of church life.36 Today however, the interplay between missions and colonialism is often well appreciated,37 and so missionaries are often viewed negatively as contributing to the oppression of the past. It is generally believed that missionaries only came to Africa for their personal benefit. Secondly, and from a different theological perspective, the World Council of Churches, and particularly its Programme to Combat Racism, has been influential, at least recently, more in an indirect way due to its support for political and social activities. Thirdly, and very recently, overseas influence is coming into the country due, on the one hand, to the return of those who were in exile in the apartheid years, and have often gone directly into positions of great influence, often in government, and, on the other hand, to the influx of expatriate Africans. There has always been a lot of expatriates in South Africa, usually from Britain, but with the change in government there has been a flood of people from the rest of Africa into all levels of society, including the professions. They have brought their church backgrounds with them, and so quite a few churches now reflect West Africa, Zambia or Malawi. These will no doubt exert a growing influence on theology unless, as may well happen, local sentiment, fearing loss of jobs, halts or even reverses this flow. A fourth but minor influence, is that churches and universities in Europe have been involved in the training of black South Africans, and are often still supporting that interest, such as by support of individuals and secondment of personnel. The Church of Scotland, for example, is quite active in that way, thus giving a continued, albeit mild, injection of Scottish theology.

A place to watch

Visitors to South Africa not surprisingly tend to visit just a few of the dramatic attractions that the country has to offer. Cape Town, with its world-famous Table Mountain, is always popular; many come to see the animals, and visit the Kruger National Park. There are the majestic Drakensburg mountains. Visitors with a little more time will add such things as the ‘Big Hole’ of Kimberley, the magnificent beaches, the Garden Route. But South Africa is a big and diverse country, and unless the visitor can stay years, much will be missed, even much of interest and value. Any quick visit to the theological scene in South Africa will also do little more than scratch the surface, touch the high points. Yet it is to be hoped that the visitor will be so captivated by what the country has to offer that a return visit becomes imperative. For the theologian as well, South Africa demands more than a token survey. For those who are interested in how the Gospel will affect the world in the next few decades, South Africa will repay much more attention. It contains the issues that will become more significant as the next millennium unfolds, the interplay of races, the contact of first and third worlds. It has the economic centre of a continent that will, if current trends continue, contain the highest proportion of Christians in the world. Prozesky38 comments that apart from the interest due to the politics, South Africa is interesting due to the diversity of faiths in a small area, faiths which are, however, largely ignorant of each other due to the politics, so reflecting the situation in the world as a whole. It is not without cause that an American professor recently advised one of his graduate students to study in South Africa as one of the most significant places to do theology today. In many ways, South Africa is a microcosm of the world, the place where the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ will be demonstrated. It can be watched with unfolding interest.


1 M. Cassidy, The Passing Summer: A South African Pilgrimage in the Politics of Love (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989) p. 152f.

2 J.W. De Gruchy, ‘South African theology comes of age’, Religious Studies Review 17.3 (1991), p. 218.

3 D.J. Morphew, South Africa: The Powers Behind (Cape Town: Struik Christian Books, 1989), p. 19f.

4 There are few better ways of understanding this very vital aspect of South African life than of reading J.A. Michener, The Covenant, This is fiction, but much of Michener’s work is closely based on reality.

5 Morphew, op. cit., p. 127.

6 In practice it was often not taught in non-white schools, the time being used for other subjects such as Maths.

7 De Gruchy, op. cit., p. 218.

8 Cassidy, op. cit., p. 119f.

9 Morphew, op. cit., p. 107f.

10 Morphew, op. cit., p. 61f.

11 Morphew, op. cit., p. 41.

12 De Gruchy, op. cit., p. 218.

13 Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement).

14 ‘The Kairos document: Challenge to the Church: a theological comment on the political crisis in South Africa’ (Braamfontein: the Kairos theologians, 1985).

15 The background and justification for this is documented in J.W. de Gruchy & C. Villa-Vicencio (eds) Apartheid is a Heresy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983).

16 Cassidy, op. cit., p. 254f. The organisation that Cassidy founded, Africa Enterprise, has consistently tried to preach the gospel in a holistic way.

17 Cassidy, op. cit., p. 205f.

18 J.S. Mbiti, African Religion and Philosophy (Oxford: Heinemann, 2nd. edn 1989), p. 106.

19 J. Kiernan, ‘African and Christian: from opposition to mutual accommodation’, in M. Prozesky, Christianity in South Africa (Bergvlei: Southern, 1990), p. 25. This book was first published under the title Christianity Amidst Apartheid (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990).

20 Although there are some interesting projects, such as tree-planting, being done from religious motivation.

21 This can be seen, for example in the articles in journals such as the Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, published by the University of Cape Town.

22 I have tried to do this in The Office of Christ and its Expression in the Church: Prophet Priest King(Lampeter: Mellen Biblical press, 1997).

23 The basic figures are given by G. Lubbe, ‘Religious pluralism in South Africa’, in Prozesky, op. cit., p. 216.

24 Lubbe, op. cit., p. 210.

25 1–2% in the 1980 census (Lubbe, op. cit., p. 216).

26 Kiernan, op. cit., p. 22.

27 J.S. Pobee, Toward an African Theology (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979), p. 94.

28 C. Nyamiti, ‘African Christologies today’, in R.J. Schreiter (ed.), Faces of Jesus in Africa (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1991) p. 12.

29 Williams, op. cit., pp. 143–51.

30 It is interesting to see that even traditionally apolitical churches, such as the Baptist Union, felt compelled to make some political statements during the closing years of the apartheid government, and to make submissions to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

31 J.S. Mbiti, New Testament Eschatology in an African Background: A Study of the Encounter Between New Testament Theology and African Traditional Concepts (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 24.

32 D.M. Tutu. ‘Whither African Theology?’ in E. Fasholé-Luke et al., (eds.) Christianity in Independent Africa(London: Rex Collings. 1978), p. 366.

33 Kiernan, op. cit., p. 21.

34 Morphew op. cit., p. 149.

35 De Gruchy, op. cit., p. 220.

36 For example, few black Africans will go to church without at least a jacket, and probably still in a suit and tie, while most whites have long since abandoned such formal wear.

37 Cf. B. Stanley. The Bible and the Flag: Protestant Missions and British Imperialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Leicester: Apollos. 1990).

38 M. Prozesky, Introduction, in J.W. de Gruchy & M. Prozesky (eds) A Southern Africa Guide to World Religions (Cape Town: David Philip. 1991), p. 2.

David T. Williams

African Evangelical Fellowship and University of Fort Hare