On apartheid

Iain Benson considers the role Christianity played in making and unmaking apartheid in South Africa.



Iain Benson considers the role Christianity played in making and unmaking apartheid in South Africa.


The argument that religion framed the apartheid regime, and therefore religion should be discounted as having ongoing validity or importance, is actually being made in South Africa by certain academics. It’s an argument I refute on the basis that there is no human thing, nothing, that’s perfect. Everything that humans do, or join, or organise is susceptible to corruption, disagreement, and problems.

To those who say that religion was the problem behind apartheid, it’s important to recognise that the strongest base for the rejection of apartheid emerged from within religion, and particularly Christianity and Judaism. The major proponents of the anti-apartheid movement were people like Desmond Tutu, Frank Chikane, Oliver Tambo. All of these people, and the key formulators … framers of the ANC, African National Congress, they were all Christians. They were strongly Christian. Oliver Tambo, after whom the airport is now named, who was a great friend of Mandela’s, who’s the person after whom Justice Albie Sachs named his young son – Oliver Tambo is a committed Christian who considered becoming a minister.

Mandela himself – remember that a lot of these leaders within the ANC were educated in religious schools, educated in Christian mission schools. Mandela himself, all of these people – Martin Luther King, Gandhi – all of them were religiously framed people. They thought about the world in terms of religious conceptions like right and wrong. Right and wrong has meaning – as the atheist judge and a friend of mine, Albie Sachs, has said, recently retired judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa – he understood that religion formed, as he put it, not only the cornerstone of human rights but the basis where most citizens get their conception of right and wrong. So the right and wrong critiques the conception … Christian conceptions of justice formed the backbone of the critique of apartheid.

The group that was religious that supported apartheid had a particular kind of theology that even within that tradition was deeply controversial. And for a variety of reasons they became dominant – much of it to do with cultural maintenance, not religion itself – and their apologies since, within that church, have made it clear that they consider that an aberration and a cultural disaster. So while you had a malign religious conception framing apartheid, you had a more powerful and richer tradition emerging within the Christian traditions and others against apartheid.