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Son of a priest, father of a church

On the 1 July “Oom” Beyers Naude took a hard earned rest – and a new man took over as general secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC).

The new man’s name is the Reverend Frank Chikane. Like Beyers Naude, he is no stranger to the struggle against apartheid. The 36 year old Chikane has been a Vice President of the UDF and an executive member of the Soweto Civic Association.

In the past eight years, he has been detained five times. He was one of the accused in the Pietermaritzburg Treason Trial where 22 UDF leaders were charged with treason and furthering the aims of the ANC. The charges were dropped in November 1985.


Chikane, who was born and bred in Soweto, comes from a religious family. “My father is a priest of the Apostolic Faith Mission at Naledi,” says Chikane. “We used to hold evening prayer meetings at home.”

Frank Chikane had his first bitter taste of apartheid when he was 16 years old. “I was beaten up by white policemen for producing a torn dompas,” he says.

After passing matric at Orlando High, Chikane went to the University of the North to study for a BSc degree. “It was the time when Black Consciousness was very popular. It played a very important role in my life”

In September 1974 Chikane and his fellow students at the university celebrated the FRELIMO victory in Mozambique. There was rioting on the campus and many of the students were arrested.

Chikane travelled back and forth from Pietersburg to Johannesburg to get legal help for his friends in jail. He did not rest – and became very ill in the middle of his final exams. The university refused to let him write the exams again,

“That was when I decided to become a priest,” says Chikane. “I began training as a priest in the same year.”


“In 1976 the church sent me to Kagiso where I became the priest of the Apostolic Faith Mission. I preached in that church for only two weeks before the 1976 riots started.

“I will never forget that day when I woke up in the morning to find that my church had been burned down. It was a sad day for me. It showed that there was something wrong with the church.

“People did not look upon the church as a helping hand. They saw it as something that stood in the way of their struggle. The people believed that the church made them close their eyes on their suffering.

“I began to believe that it was the duty of the church to help people and to tell them that God is with them in their suffering.”

And help the people, he did. He started an advice office to help the people of Kagiso, especially the old people. He started training courses and found jobs for the blind. And he started self help projects for women who had no work.

In 1977 the police came to the church and arrested a man and his wife. The young reverend Chikane went to the couple’s home to see if the children were alright – and found the police waiting to arrest anybody who came to the house. It was Frank Chikane’s first detention.

Frank Chikane’s time in jail- and the many times after that – made him think very carefully about religion and politics. In all the time he has spent in jail, he has never lost his love for the people of his country.

He tells the story of the prison guard who trusted him so much that he refused to lock the cell at night. He had to remind the guard to lock the door ­ because he didn’t want the guard to lose his job.


“By the time I finished my training as a priest, I was having problems with my church. They said that I was too busy with politics.

“They gave me a certificate that said I could work as a priest so long as I obeyed the laws of the country. I knew that it was going to be difficult for me. In 1980 the church suspended me.”

Chikane then helped start the Institute of Contextual Theology (ICT) and became its director. In 1985 Chikane and his fellow workers at the ICT wrote the famous Kairos document.

“It is not a communist document as some people think. It calls on the church to be on the side of the poor and the weak and to help them in their suffering,” says Chikane.

“The word Kairos means truth and this document says that the church must face the truth. The church cannot say that it is facing the truth when it keeps quiet when people are suffering.”

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