11 November 2009

From East Germany to South Africa

It was not only in East Germany that weighty events were taking place in the latter months of 1989. In South Africa, too, the End Game had begun. In September 1989, the South African theologian John de Gruchy had been in New York where - together with a Marxist professor from the GDR - he watched the growing popular protests in the GDR and in his home county, an experience he described in 1997 at the Leipzig Kirchentag:
Redeeming the past in South Africa:
The force of truth, forgiveness and hope in the search for justice and reconciliation

In September 1989 my wife and I spent a sabbatical semester at Union Theological Seminary in New York. For a few days we were host to the director of the Marxist-Leninist Institute in Rostock. He belonged to a group of theologians and philosophers from the German Democratic Republic, which was visiting the United States. It was highly ironic that in this way a Marxist professor from East Germany and a white, Christian theologian from the anti-communist, apartheid-ruled South Africa should meet in the United States of America! Nevertheless, we were bound together during this week in a way that neither of us would have been able to foresee. For this was the week of weighty, world-changing events, both in East Germany and in South Africa.

As we sat together, the East Germans and South Africans, we watched the events together on American television!Among the reports shown that week there were two that were boradcast immediately after one another. The first showed television footage of protest meetings in Leipzig and the of East German citizens fleeing over the border into Czechoslovakia, and the second was the escalation of the protest marches against apartheid in Cape Town, my hometown. Whatever the reaction may have been of our East German guest we knew that this meant the beginning of the end of apartheid. On top of that, we felt that the dramatic events in Eastern Europe were taking place in the same historical context as the events in our country. And that should come true. For without the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it was unlikely that change would have taken place in South Africa at that time.

For good reason, the reunification of Germany and the transition to democracy in South Africa have been characterised as two of the main events in the formation of world politics in the late 20the century. Some even claimed that these events were the prelude to a new world order. Even if we are somewhat sceptical of this claim today, these events have undoubtedly changed the course of history, no matter how we evaluate them. Events of weighty importance took place in Germany and in South Africa, radically transforming our lives and the lives of many others throughout the world.

Anyone who has watched television reports about the pro-democracy protests in Leipzig or Cape Town, would have seen the presence of priests, pastors and even bishops - at least in Cape Town! - among the leaders. There were many others among the crowds that were there from Christian conviction and commitment. Yes, Christians, and some church leaders and groups have played a key role in those important events of the transition, just as they had been committed as the precursors of these changes.But we should be reminded that the contribution of the churches to the struggle against apartheid was far from clear, it was hesitant and ambiguous. Some churches even provided the theological justification of apartheid. Even those churches that were against apartheid, have hands that are unclean.

The churches have much to confess about guilt and failure. In the majority of cases, the Christian opposition to apartheid was left to prophetic loners, charismatic leaders, ecumenical bodies and quasi-religious organizations. Too often the churches hid behind such brave testimonies, prophetic, instead of getting involved prophetically in the struggle for justice and liberation.(Provisional translation from the German)

In his book Christianity and Democracy, de Gruchy has written about the parallels (and differences) between the transition in the two countries.


janetlees said...

It's very interesting to read about de Gruchy's views on the common ground between the German and south African situations as one who was working with churches in SA in 1994 - the end game still had a few years to run after 1989 - but I am continually reminded of the powerful effects on my own life and faith of being involved in such a small way in the last decade of Apartheid (I first visited SA in 1984). I am reminded again of a young white Christian woman who recalled that often quoted saying 'It is enough for evil to propser that good people do nothing' and her saying 'That was me'. How often could we also say the same.

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