For the first time in 30 years, South African churches from across the theological, political, and racial spectrum met together last month to discuss reconciliation and their role in the future of South Africa.

Approximately 230 delegates and observers gathered November 5–9, representing 85 organizations, including the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK), which for years supplied the theological justification for the government’s policy of apartheid; the South African Council of Churches (SACC), a strident opponent of apartheid; and evangelical and Pentecostal groups, which, for the most part, have avoided political debate.

Together they denounced apartheid as sin. But specific actions to dismantle the system of racial segregation remained points of debate. A formal declaration issued at the end of the five-day conference stated: “Some of us are not in full accord with everything said in this conference, but on this we are all agreed, namely, the unequivocal rejection of apartheid as a sin.”

Held at Rustenburg, a resort about 50 miles outside of Johannesburg, the conference took as its theme “Towards a United Christian Witness in a Changing South Africa.” It was chaired by SACC general secretary Frank Chikane and Louw Alberts, an NGK layman who served for 34 years as president of South Africa Youth for Christ and chairman of the 1973 Billy Graham crusade in South Africa.

Michael Cassidy, founder and president of Africa Enterprise, delivered the opening address at the conference. He was also named chairman of the statement-drafting committee.

Hopes for unity were bolstered on the second day of the conference by a surprising confession from Afrikaner theologian Wille Jonker. Setting aside for a moment his prepared speech, Jonker, a professor at Stellenbosch University and an ordained NGK minister, said, “I confess before you and before the Lord not only my own sin and guilt, and my personal responsibility for the political, social, economical, and structural wrongs that have been done to many of you and the results of which you and our whole community are still suffering from, but vicariously I have also to do that in the name of the NGK of which I am a member, and for the Afrikaner people as a whole.”

Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu responded to Jonker’s words: “When that confession is made, then those of us who have been wronged must say, ‘We forgive you,’ and together we must move to the reconstruction of our land.” The exchange was received by a standing ovation from the conference.

The following day, Pieter Potgieter, moderator of the NGK, stated “unambiguously” that Jonker’s confession was the official position of the Dutch Reformed Church.

While welcoming Jonker’s confession, the SACC’s Chikane said that “confession goes with deeds.” Other black and colored church leaders expressed even greater skepticism about the sincerity of the NGK’s apparent change of heart.

Cassidy welcomed the confession and acceptance as “a significant moment” of reconciliation. However, he added that “the State itself and its present leaders need to say apartheid is morally wrong and sinful, not merely ill-advised, and that they repent of it.”

The seven-page Rustenburg Declaration is not considered binding on any of the 80 denominations and 40 organizations represented at Rustenburg, which will carry out further discussion on the document.

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