AN INTERVIEW WITH DR ALLAN BOESAK
When Dr Allan Boesak starts to talk, you soon understand why he has such a huge following. In his own beautiful way, he knows what to say and how to say it. He does not mince his words. Nothing stops him — not death threats, not the threat of banning or detention, and definitely not the hate and anger of any apartheid government.
In short, the man is cool. He’s not scared and he’s got style. Nobody can make the likes of Adriaan Vlok froth at the mouth like he can!
Dr Allan Boesak has three important positions. He is head of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa. He is the president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches with a membership of over 70 million people in 46 countries. And he is a patron and “founding father” of the United Democratic Front. Dr Boesak is a busy man — but he kindly made time to speak to Learn and Teach:
Dr Boesak, can you tell Learn and Teach readers something about your early life? We know that your family was poor and that you were one of eight children. Can you tell us a bit more?
I was born in 1945 in Kakamas in the Northern Cape. I lived there for the first six years of my life. My father was a teacher at a little mission school. He died when I was almost seven and we left Kakamas for Somerset West.
We read somewhere that, as a child, you worked “barefoot as a labourer” to support your family. Can you please tell us about this?
My mother was a seamstress. She worked in dress shops, earning very, very little money. So all of us children had to go out and work to help — not only during the school holidays but on weekends as well.
I worked on a chicken farm. I picked grapes. I packed fruit and made sausages in a meat factory. I worked in supermarkets. Early on Saturday mornings I would get orders from neighbours and friends and make deliveries… I also delivered newspapers. That’s how I got through high school and also university. There wasn’t a holiday that I didn’t work.
At the age of 14, you became a sexton in the Sendingkerk. Can you tell us how this happened?
The sexton in our church was very old, and he needed help. I was very active in the church. I was a member of the Sunday School Youth Brigade… half my life had to do with the church. The minister asked me to help the old sexton and so I did. In the end, I was doing it all — ringing the church bell, cleaning the church, making sure the minister had a glass of water during the service, locking up afterwards… but I never saw this as a job, like sorting eggs on the chicken farm. This was something I did for the Lord.
Was your family politically involved in any way? Do you remember any early childhood experiences that made you politically aware?
My family was not really politically involved, but when we came to Somerset West, my mother bought an old, broken-down house in Victoria Street and we spent a lot of time in the evenings fixing it up.
After about a year we had it all fixed up and it was paid off. Then, one day, we got a notice saying Somerset West was going to be declared white and our area was one of the first to be ‘cleaned up’. That was one of the first things which really brought home to me what apartheid meant. There had been other experiences, much like anyone else had, but losing our home made me really feel the violence of apartheid.
After that I began to notice other things — the way the white women spoke to my mother in the dress shop where she worked, altering dresses. It was the start of my political education. Later, after I became a minister, I experienced the same thing. My first congregation was in Paarl. My congregation came from the northern part. This area was also declared white. One of the older women was very upset. ‘Where are we going to live now?’, she asked me. ‘How can the government call itself Christian and do such a thing?’ She told me she was coming to church on Sunday and she wanted to hear from me what God and the Bible said about this. In other words, she was asking me for the Christian response to the Group Areas Act. It was the first time that I was challenged to make a ‘political’ sermon.
I look back on the Group Areas Act as one of the most important things in my life. The house I was born in was bulldozed when the area was declared white. The church I was baptised in grew old and empty, also because of the Group Areas Act. The Somerset West house was also bulldozed, and so was the church I was ordained in and got married in… all these important landmarks in my life are no longer there.
The Group Areas Act has robbed me of my history and that has made a very deep, painful mark on my life. I kept asking myself: how can these people do this? Who gives them the right?
Can you tell us something about your education in South Africa and later in Holland?
I went to school early, attending the Dutch Reformed Mission School in Kakamas from the age of five. The story goes that I gave my mother such a hard time, she sent me to school to get me out from under her feet!
In Somerset West I went to the Danie Ackermann Primary School and then to Gordon High School. I finished high school in 1963, aged 16. Then I attended the Dutch Reformed Mission Church Theological Seminary. Today, the seminary is part of the University of the Western Cape — in those days it was separate from it.
I finished my theological training at 21 but I had to wait for my ordination until I turned 22. I had to wait three months for that, I already had a call from a congregation and I was so impatient. I was ordained the day after I turned 22, the youngest minister ever to be ordained in our church.
I ministered my congregation in Paarl during 1968 and 1969. In September 1970 myself, Dorothy and our six-week-old daughter, Lieneke, went to Holland, to Kampen, home of the oldest seminary for the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.
I went because I always wanted more than the church could give me at that time. The theological training was not good and I said so. The church was fully under white control and they wanted to keep it that way. They said they couldn’t give us a better training. As late as 1966 they were telling us we couldn’t cope as well as a white person could.
That made me decide that I was going to prove them wrong, so I looked for opportunities to study after I left the seminary. At Kampen, the Dutch were very strict with me. I was told that if I couldn’t match the Dutch students, I would be sent home. It scared me to death. I studied Greek, Hebrew, Latin, knowing that if I failed one subject it meant failing the whole course. At the time, I felt this was very hard, but later I was pleased that they expected exactly the same from me as from the Dutch students.
I returned to South Africa for a month in June, 1976 to write a report for the Dutch churches. I went back to Holland to hand it over and then me and my family returned to South Africa in July.
Could you please tell us about the work you did at the University of the Western Cape when you got back?
UWC students asked me to come and talk to them after I returned from Holland. That was my first public appearance. In those days, there was no hall big enough to accommodate all the students. I remember that I gave my speech standing on a table outside the cafeteria. There was a huge crowd.
From that came the idea that I should become student chaplain. I liked the challenge of working on campus. The position was created for me.
It meant almost anything — preaching every Sunday, giving students advice on anything from problems with parents to love- life problems, very serious political problems, handling the police when there were confrontations on campus and dealing with an extremely hostile university administration. Those were the days before Richard van der Ross became the first black rector of UWC. Students there today don’t know how lucky they are to have Jakes Gerwel as rector.
Since 1976, you have held many positions in the church. Can you tell us about these positions and also about your election as president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches?
In 1978 I was nominated as secretary of Synod, but lost. By 1982 I had been voted on to the executive of the Mission Church. I held the number two position of assessor. In 1986 I became moderator.
In 1982 I also became president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC). I have no idea how that happened, really… I had never served on the executive, but by 1982 racism was an important issue.
The general council meeting of the WARC was held in Ottawa, Canada in 1982. I was asked to speak about racism and the church and to show how the Bible condemned racism. This later became known as the “apartheid is a heresy” debate.
I gave my speech and took part in the debates which came out of it. One hundred and forty-eight churches throughout the world nominated me as the only candidate they wanted for the position. It was only the third time the Mission Church had taken part in a WARC general council meeting and the first time I had ever attended one.
The position was very demanding. But I soon learned to cope. In a way, I love the challenge of things like that. My mother had always taught me not to worry about whether I would make it or not. I may fail, but it won’t be because I didn’t try.
Could you talk about the people — such as Martin Luther King — who have influenced you, politically and religiously?
My mother. She always said she believed passionately that God was for the poor and oppressed and today this is the most important part of my whole theology. She gave us a faith in God and taught us values, such as not being impressed with money or status, but rather with honesty and honour.
Then there was a man I met when I was 18 — Beyers Naude. He helped me to understand the basic principles of non-racialism. He showed me it really was possible for a white person to change in this country. The first black minister at our church in Somerset West also taught me a lot.
Other influences have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was against Hitler and who was hanged for his part in a conspiracy to kill Hitler. And I admire Martin Luther for what he did — not only for his own people, but for everyone. His call for non-violence is fundamental for me.
Both Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King had a basic sense of what was wrong and what was right. Bonhoeffer said that if his congregation couldn’t stand up against Hitler, then they had no right to sing hymns. These are people willing to take unpopular stands because they believe that what they are doing is right. Their own popularity meant less to them than standing for truth and justice.
Could you explain simply for our readers the idea of liberation theology?
Our Dutch Reformed Mission Church confession states that the Biblical truth is that God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed — and that the Church should also be on the side of the poor and oppressed. For a very long time, the church has served the rich and the powerful and the rich and powerful have protected the church. Instead, the church should stand with the people and help fight in the struggle for truth and justice. That, for me, is what liberation theology is all about.
In January 1983 you called for “a broad front” to fight against the new tri-cameral constitution. This led to the birth of the United Democratic Front. Can you please tell us about your thinking behind your call for the Front?
There had been no discussions when I called for the Front for the first time. I had simply looked at the political situation. It was very clear to me that if the government could succeed in getting the ‘coloured’ and Indian populations to join sides with them, the cause of democracy would be put back 20 years. And after this act of betrayal, would there be a role for the Indian and ‘coloured’ people in the future?
There were all these new organisations. I thought that if we got them all together and were united against the tri-cameral parliament, it might help us stand together on other issues in the future. I was also driven by the ideal of non-racialism.
Could you please tell us what you think the UDF achieved until its banning in February last year?
The UDF achieved a unity that had almost never happened before. It brought so many people, at so many different levels, into the struggle. Not just intellectuals or just workers but from every level of society. And it was able to mobilise people, even in the Western Cape, with its long history of division. It showed that the ideal of non-racialism wasn’t just a dream but could be a reality.
One day, when we are busy building the new South Africa, people will realise just how valuable the UDF has been. The UDF wasn’t able to overcome the system, but the state cannot touch the historical gains that have been made. All this was achieved against incredible odds.
Looking back, do you think the UDF had any weaknesses which can serve as lessons for the future?
We should have been much more involved, right from the beginning, in local leadership and grassroots organisations. We only started doing this when the state of emergency hit us and it should have been done before. In the beginning, we were too involved in setting up national structures.
Last year, there was a call by Cosatu and other organisations for another broad front. The meeting to launch the front was supposed to take place in Cape Town last September, but unfortunately the government banned it. Do you support the need for a new front?
We definitely need a new front. The UDF can’t work as it did. Now we need to build on the foundations it has provided. We need to move forward. We can’t wait for something to happen to bring the people together, we can’t allow others to plan our future for us.
You once said: “If Mandela dies in prison… 1976 and the violence then will look like a Sunday School picnic because our people will believe that the SA government murdered him.” Do you think Mandela will be released soon? What do you think will happen if and when he is released?
I think Mandela will be released eventually, but I don’t know how soon. Western governments are clear that for any negotiations to start, his release is essential. lt is important now not to talk about the release of Mandela only: the government must release his comrades and must unban his organisation. If that is done then negotiations are the next step. So it is a step backwards for Margaret Thatcher to be talking about the release of Mandela only. It is not enough on its own to unlock the door for negotiations.
You have often spoken angrily about how the West — especially the USA, Britain, West Germany and Japan — have helped and continue to help the South African government. What should these countries be doing if they truly want to help bring about the end of apartheid?
They should unite their forces in a few, very effective, financial sanctions. For example, they could put South Africa under enormous pressure if they refused to put off repayments of the national debt. This strategy would achieve in a few months what it will take years for disinvestment to achieve. Or, they could cut air air links with South Africa. A few, well-chosen sanctions would be very effective and it could all be over within a few months.
What do you say to those, like Margaret Thatcher, who say sanctions will mostly hurt those who they are meant to help?
I say they are lying. Margaret Thatcher would be speaking more honestly if she spoke about how many British people would lose their jobs because of sanctions against South Africa. And the argument that change can’t take place with a weakened economy ignores one very important fact — that in South Africa, it is apartheid that is destroying the economy in the first place. It is very clear that it is the government’s policies that are hurting the South African economy.
How do you feel about Thatcher’s visit to Africa and claims that this might lead to some kind of “peace summit” in Southern Africa?
I have more confidence in the heads of the frontline states than in Margaret Thatcher. They won’t allow her to lead them down the garden path with loose promises if nothing happens in South Africa itself. I find it strange she can talk to Pik Botha but not to black South Africans themselves…
At a meeting in Vereeniging in March of the NGK, the NGK in Africa, and your Dutch Reformed Mission Church, there was progress towards unity of the three churches. The white members at the meeting confessed to being part and parcel of the apartheid system and asked for forgiveness. Later, the NGK backed down and refused to support the confession of Us members at the meeting. Do you think the white churches will ever see the light?
I don’t know if they will ever see the light. But what happens must, in some way, change the Dutch Reformed Church, whatever Heyns (the moderator of the NGK) says. It was such an incredible meeting — the church must be affected. We have a white Dutch Reformed Church not really willing to move beyond 1986, still not willing to speak about apartheid and to start dismantling it, as the black churches are. There is a big separation between the black and white churches.
Do you believe that it will be possible for the three churches to achieve unity in the future?
We are talking about forming a non-racial wing at the moment between the Mission Church and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa. But, I feel that there will always be a pure white Dutch Reformed Church, even if some of the white churches do join the non-racial wing.
Do you think it is important for all whites, not only NGK members, to admit their guilt for the crimes of the past before a new South Africa can be born?
Yes. People must understand this is not a gimmick or a political strategy, it is not meant simply to make black people feel good. It is absolutely necessary, like an alcoholic who must first admit that he is an alcoholic before he can start getting better. If that doesn’t happen, then the change will never be genuine.
Do you think there will be a difference when PW Botha goes and FW de Klerk comes to power later in the year? Are you encouraged by such things as Vlok releasing hunger strikers?
I would hope there would be a difference with FW, but I’m not going to hold my breath for it. PW said much the same things when he came to power as FW is saying now. Even the National Party must begin to understand that no-one lives on promises alone — certainly not on theirs. When FW begins to do some of these things that he’s talking about, then we’ll see. l’m not very encouraged by Vlok releasing the hunger strikers: he had no choice. I would have been more impressed if he had kept his word.
What do you think the hunger strike has achieved?
I think the hunger strike has shaken the country and the world. It was a sign of desperation, but also one of incredible courage and a refusal to give up hope. It showed just what people are the same kind of sacrifice to win the struggle, but it will happen eventually.
Finally, do you have a message for the readers of Learn and Teach magazine? Do you think there will be peace and justice in our lifetime?
I am there will be peace and justice. People say that I’m optimistic, but we are seeing the final convulsions of this beast before it goes down. People must not give up hope.
NEW WORDS childhood experiences — things that happened to you when you were young a landmark — a landmark in somebody’s life is when something important happens that changes their life in some way a seminary — a special school to train priests theological training — training in religion and God ordained—when somebody is ordained, they are made a priest confrontation — an argument or fight between two people or groups of people racism — racism is the belief that some race are better than others. In South Africa many white people believe they are better than black people an issue — an issue is an important problem that people are arguing or discussing non-racialism — this ts the belief that all races (black and white) are equal and have the same rights betrayal — a betrayal is when you do something that harms people who trust you, for example, if you help the enemy or your opponents sanctions — sanctions are a kind of punishment that countries use against other countries. Usually, sanctions stop a country from buying and selling goods, a strategy — is a strategy a plan of action