Religion remains more closely linked to politics than most people would like to admit, said panellists during a discussion following the Cape Town premiere of In Gods Naam, a short documentary directed by Dr Siona O’Connell, of the University of Pretoria (UP).
The film takes a close look at the role the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK) played in endorsing the apartheid policy of the National Party and investigates the establishment of the Uniting Reformed Churches in South Africa (URCSA) after policy changes in the NGK.
After 1857, the church began to hold separate services for ‘brown people’, and soon, separate churches were established. According to Dr O’ Connell, who is a professor in the School of the Arts at UP and founding member of the Critical African Studies project at UP (CAST UP), “the film highlights the critical role of churches during apartheid by either endorsing or by challenging it and providing safe havens for protestors.
After 1857, 53 years after the inauguration of the Slave Church, the Dutch Reformed Church began to hold separate services for ‘brown people.
Dr O’ Connell says “that the fact that the NGK’s Groote Kerk in Cape Town is adjacent to the Iziko Slave Lodge is telling, speaking in all senses not only to a colonial and slave history, but how the threads thereof continue to hold the fabric of South Africa together today.” The ‘coloured’ congregation that worshipped at the Slave Church in Long Street, Cape Town, was kicked out due to the Group Areas Act of 1950, which saw thousands of ‘coloured’ and ‘black’ families moved to the Cape Flats. The expulsion of congregants from their church resulted in having to establish another place of worship and having to contend that congregants were scattered all over the Cape Flats. On another level, this expulsion is part of the groundwork for the Belhar Confession, the theological confrontation against apartheid.
Sections of the Bible were interpreted to justify the separation, and then to justify apartheid. The URCSA took issue with the NGK and its stance on apartheid and started protesting for unity and equality. “With the end of apartheid, the URCSA were convinced that a confession was necessary on the part of those who had supported apartheid, and the Belhar Confession was issued. In this confession, the church declared that reconciliation and unity were essential to delivering the message of God. As a church that believed in one God, it had the responsibility to share this message with anyone who wanted to hear it, regardless of race.”
The film also highlights the aftermath of the Belhar Confession and the lack of structural unity between the NGK and the URCSA.
A still from the documentary film In Gods Naam.
Dr O’Connell has a personal interest in the film as her maternal great-grandmother was a member of the Slave Church. “For me, the question of unification speaks directly to the hankering and attachment to a part of South Africa’s past that was all about domination and exploitation. In 2020, I cannot see any argument for separateness that is reasonable and justified.”
She adds: “We all know how apartheid turned out and how far too many ‘black’, ‘coloured’ and Indian people continue to pay the price. This film is a call to action for anyone who is invested in South Africa and who is serious about unsettling the sacred cows by asking uncomfortable questions. It is, as well, a response to how ‘colouredness’ is understood and why it matters beyond the Cape.”
The film premièred recently at the URCSA Gestig, in Cape Town, which is celebrating its 220th anniversary, followed by a panel discussion hosted by Professor Norman Duncan, Vice-Principal: Academic at UP. Panellists included Jolina Zimiri, Chairperson of the Festival Committee #SAGestig220; Reverend Dr Llewellyn MacMaster, Minister of URCSA Gestig (Belhar Congregation); Professor Hennie Stander from UP; Reverend Riaan de Villiers from the NGK Groote Kerk in Cape Town and Dr O’Connell.
The ‘coloured’ congregation that worshipped at the Slave Church in Long Street, Cape Town, was kicked out due to the Group Areas Act of 1950.
The debate included some hard-hitting questions including what impact the failure to unify the two churches has had on the URCSA, and whether the two churches were any closer to uniting after 25 years of democracy. Rev MacMaster said he believed the church had missed an opportunity “to be a powerful witness in this country, to be a testimony to the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, a witness that oneness in Christ is more powerful than separateness under apartheid.”
Some of speakers commented on what could be done to promote unification, while others spoke to the history of the church.
In South Africa, the relationship between racism, power and religion is evident when looking at the NGK’s role during apartheid. Factions still exist, and moving forward seems almost impossible. As viewers are reminded in this gripping film, “anything is possible in the name of Christ”, said Rev MacMaster.