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The true South African – Beyers Naudé
"Take a look at Beyers"
“If someone asks me what kind of a person a New South African should be, I will say: 'Take a look at Beyers and his wife Ilse.'” - former president of South Africa, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, 23 May 1995.
On 10 May 1915 a son was born to the Reverend Jozua Naudé and his wife Adriana Johanna in the mining town of Roodepoort in the then Transvaal Province of the Union of South Africa. Jozua Naudé was a passionate supporter of the Boers who had 13 years before been beaten by the might of the British Empire. Jozua and Ada decided to call this son, their fourth child, Christiaan Frederick Beyers, after Jozua's friend the Boer General. But as the boy grew up in the Cape Province town of Graaf Reinett to which the family moved 1921, he was known as Beyers (often shortened to Bey).
There was little in this beginning to indicate that the boy would grow up to one who would be labelled later by his people as a “volksverraaier” (a traitor to his people) for his rejection of apartheid and his championing of human rights in the oppressive society of a South Africa ruled by the Nationalist Party.
The Afrikaner Nationalist
This remarkable man, known to thousands, if not millions, in South Africa and abroad, as “Oom Bey” (Uncle Bey), followed his father's footsteps into the ministry of the Dutch Reformed Church after completing his studies at the University of Stellenbosch, known at the time as the breeding ground of Afrikaner nationalism. Beyers followed the pattern, becoming in 1940 the youngest member of the Afrikaner Broederbond (Afrikaner Brotherhood), a highly secretive organisation dedicated to achieving Afrikaner dominance is all aspects of life in South Africa.
In the same year Beyers married Ilse, daughter and granddaughter of Moravian missionaries from Genadendal (Valley of Mercy), the oldest mission station in South Africa. He had met her and they had fallen in love while still at the University of Stellenbosch. He had also a month earlier (at the end of July) entered the ministry of the Dutch Reformed Church as the junior minister of the Wellington, Cape, parish.
By the time of the Nationalist Party victory in 1948 Beyers and Ilse were living in Pretoria with their three sons Johan, Jozua and Hermann. Their only daughter, Liesl, was born in 1950.
The light begins to dawn
An experience which began a process of internal searching and questioning for Beyers was his six month trip abroad in which he studied youth work in the church. This was an exciting time for Beyers as he began to change much of his thinking around issues of church and society. The motivation for the trip and his questioning came from discussions with students at the University of Pretoria as well as the historical changes beginning elsewhere in Africa where independence movements were gaining momentum in the colonies of Britain, France, Portugal and Belgium.
As Beyers himself would write later, “With independent African states beginning to emerge, I began to think about the future role of the church on the continent and in South Africa. I thought about the old concept of mission, and wondered whether the church would be ready for the challenges if would have to meet.”
The trip abroad had led to profound disquiet in Beyers's heart: “I had to go abroad in order to be confronted by situations of injustices in my own country,” he wrote. “I was led to the conclusion that there was no way in which the policy of apartheid could be justified on scriptural grounds.”
His thinking and studies were leading him into painful places, painful thoughts, given his deep Afrikaner roots and loyalties: “In this process I had to overcome all the accepted views, traditional outlooks, deep feelings of loyalty, and to see that this was essential if I wanted to remain obedient to the call of Christ and to the truth of the gospel.”
Beyers was aware what this kind of thinking on the part of a person who was seen as something of an up-and-coming leader within church and community could entail: “I began to realise something of the price that would have to be paid.”
Sharpeville to Cottesloe
Then came a cataclysmic event in South African history – the shootings at Sharpeville, a black township south of Johannesburg, where police opened fire on an unarmed crowd of black people protesting against the infamous “Pass Laws” and killed 69 of them.
By this time Beyers was Dominee (minister) of the Aasvoëlkop parish in Johannesburg, in a mostly upper-middle-class suburb called Northcliff. Here he began in earnest to study and question, and formed Bible study groups with fellow ministers who were also questioning the church's role in society, and in particular, its role relative to apartheid.
The Sharpeville massacre put the spotlight squarely on the churches and their roles in society, especially as the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Joost de Blank, sent a letter to the World Council of Churches (WCC) demanding the the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa be expelled from that body. The WCC sent one of the body's associate general secretary, Dr Robert Billheimer, on a fact finding mission to South Africa.
As a result of Billheimer's mission a consultation was organised for December 1960 at which all WCC member churches in South Africa would examine the situation in South Africa and what the role of the churches should be.
Beyers was nominated to serve on the planning committee for the consultation with representatives from other churches. The consultation took place at Cottesloe, a men's residence of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and so gained fame (or notoriety, according to one's viewpoint) as the Cottesloe Consultation.
Cottesloe to the Christian Institute
Apart from the controversial nature of the outcomes of the consultation, part of the notoriety it achieved in some people's eyes was the fact that delegates, who were drawn from all races, ate and lived together for the duration. The reaction to Cottesloe on the part of the Afrikaner press and the government was decisive in pushing Beyers into a more radical questioning, into taking a stand: “I felt I had been struggling for such a long time. I asked myself: 'How long are you going to remain silent and fearful? ' Eventually I came to the point where I said I can't continue to live this way. It is not possible. How will I live? What will I preach? … How do I justify this kind of duplicity?”
The final push for Beyers came from the meeting of the Transvaal Synod of his church in Pril 1961, where the Cottesloe statement was discussed for two and a half days, at the end of which time the delegates to Cottesloe, were, in the words of Beyers's biographer Colleen Ryan, “asked to sit like accused men in the front of the hall, and were given an opportunity to speak.” (Pilgrimage of Faith , David Philip, 2005)
Beyers later wrote: “For me it was a turning point in my life, because the night before the final decision was made at the synod, I to decide – would I because of pressure, political pressure and other pressures which were being exercised, give in and accept, or would I stand by my convictions which over a period of years had become rooted in me as firm and holy Christian convictions? I decided on the latter course … I could not see my way clear to giving way on a single one of those resolutions (the Cottesloe resolutions), because I was convinced that they were in accordance with the truth of the gospel.”
In the end, the synod voted to reject all of the Cottesloe resolutions and to withdraw from the WCC. As he would say later, Cottesloe was, for the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), “...an event where the DRC allowed the voice of blood, passion and nationalism to override the voice of God.” (Quoted in Charles Villa-Vicencio's brilliant book, The Spirit of Hope, Skotaville, n.d. But around 1994)
The Pilgrimage of Faith begins
In 1962 Beyers and a group of members of one of his Bible study groups (most of which had meantime ceased functioning because of the Dutch Reformed Church's reaction to Cottesloe) decided to start a journal, which they called Pro Veritate , and Beyers agreed to become editor.
Later that same year Beyers and a group of supporters decided to for the Christian Institute (CI) and he decided to leave the Broederbond. To guide the formation of the CIU a group of people formed themselves into a committee which started to plan the CI.
The following year became the “crunch” year for Beyers. In April 1963, to his own, and many other's, intense surprise, he was elected, by quite a large margin, to the position of Moderator of the Southern Transvaal Synod of the DRC.
In August of 1963 the CI was formally constituted and, anticipating a negative reaction, the Naudé family moved out of the church house in Roosevelt Park suburb and into their own home in the near-by suburb of Greenside.
Beyers came to the point where he had to choose between the CI and the church, as the moderature made it clear that he could not continue his membership in both: “I had to decide whether I would remain within the … church [leadership] and therefore within the confines and restraints which were clearly set for myself and for my future ministry, or otherwise to risk the step into the unknown, into what to me had become a decision of obedience to my faith. It was very painful. But it became clear to me that I had no option. If I wanted to remain obedient to my Christian calling, if I wanted to also help my own people in a wider sphere, I had to accept the directorship [of the CI].”
Beyers announced his decision to the Aasvoëlkop congregation in his sermon on Sunday 22 September 1963: “...the choice facing me is not primarily a choice between pastoral work and other Christian work or between the church and Pro Veritate , or between the church and the Christian Institute. No, the choice goes much deeper; it is a choice between obedience in faith and subjection to the authority of the church. And by unconditional obedience to the latter, I would save face but lose my soul.”
At his farewell service in the congregation on 3 November that year Beyers told his parishioners, “What lies ahead, no one knows – but that is not really important. ...Wrestle with Him, the living Word, just as Jacob wrestled with God … Whoever does that will discover what every man and every community must discover: the answer to our question, the light for our life, the hope for our future, lies in total obedience to Him who is the living Word – and to Him alone.”
After the service Beyers formally handed over his robe of office and stepped into that lonely unknown.
It was the beginning of a “Pilgrimage of Faith” that would include unimaginable hardship and great blessing.
Persecution and banning
The hardship and persecution did not take long to arrive. In May 1966 the security police raided his and Ilse's home, the offices of the CI, and the homes of the executive of the CI. In February 1972 then Prime Minister John Vorster appointed a Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate a number of organisations, including the CI. Beyers refused to testify to this committee and was jailed in October 1976 as a result.
Then came one of the darkest days in the story of the resistance to apartheid – the banning of a number organisations and individuals on 18 October 1977. Beyers was served with a five-year banning order, severely restricting his movement and making it illegal for him to enter a black township or to meet with more than one other person at a time. The banning, when it expired, was extended for a further three years.
The CI was also banned on that dreadful day, putting an end to all of Beyers's hard work in bringing together people on the basis of a common Christian faith.
During the next seven years Beyers worked tirelessly, mostly alone, to build bridges between people, to try to help keep the flame of freedom and understanding burning. It was a dark, lonely and difficult time for him and Ilse.
Recognition and accolades
When the banning order was finally lifted in 1984, a year short of its term, Beyers immediately set to work again to bring people together and for democratic values.
His work was so recognised by the black community and the liberation movements that when the time came in 1992 for negotiations to end apartheid, the African National Congress (ANC), of which Beyers was not a member, appointed him a members of their negotiating team.
From being an outcast to his own people, Beyers was welcomed back into the fold after the 1994 elections. There are roads and schools now named after him, he has been honoured by the government in many ways.
When Oom Bey turned 80 in 1995 then president Mandela said: “Beyers Naudé became an outcast amongst the Afrikaners, amongst many whites and amongst the church that he loved. Such is the price that prophets are required to pay. Standing in the tradition of great Afrikaners and Patriots like Braam Fischer, Betty Du Toit and others, his life is a shining beacon to all South Africans – both black and white. It demonstrates what it means to rise above race, to be a true South African.”
The last word
On 6 August 2004 the light finally went out, the beacon stopped shining. Oom Bey died at the retirement home in which he lived with Ilse. He was given a hero's funeral attended by many dignitaries, including the then president of South Africa, Mr Thabo Mbeki. He was sent to his final resting place, very fittingly, from the church where he had been formally expelled those many years before, Aasvoëlkop.
In his sermon at the funeral Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu, a close friend of Oom Bey through many dark and difficult years, had this to say about God's sense of humour: “God was looking for a champion, someone who would help give Christianity credibility, especially amongst blacks. God was looking for a champion for non-racial justice and democracy, or caring and compassion. He was looking for someone who would stand up against vicious racist oppression, the evil policy of apartheid; someone who would stand up for the fundamental rights of all God's children. God laid his hand on an unlikely candidate, fro the self-same Afrikaner community that had embraced apartheid as a creed and a way of life. Out of this Saul figure he gave us a remarkable Paul, our own Oom Bey.
God gave us this remarkable man, this great Christian leader, this magnificent Afrikaner, this wonderful African. … Right and wrong do matter. Injustice can never have the last word.”
But Desmond Tutu can!
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010