From Prison to the Presidency


After spending 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994; from prison to the presidency.

With the recent elections in Myanmar, it seems that Aung San Suu Kyi is headed for the same miraculous transition.

After decades of campaigning for democracy and 15 years in prison, Aung San Suu Kyi is poised to take power.


TIME magazine, Jan. 2011

Her party – the National League for Democracy – has won a landslide victory and seems certain to form Myanmar’s next government. Although constitutionally barred from the presidency, she has said she will be “above the president”.

Suu Kyi has faced a similarly daunting persecution and oppression as Mandela did under apartheid as the military junta that has led the country since 1962.

After the assassination of her father, Suu Kyi eventually led her own movement to free her people in an effort to bring democracy to the country. In this fight, Suu Kyi and Mandela share many similarities.

Both were committed to non-violence.

Both were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1991 and 1993).

Both faced authoritarian governments.

Both saw the government violently suppress peaceful protests (the 8.8.88 Uprising in 1988 and the Depayin massacre in 2003; Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and the Soweto Uprising in 1976)

Both led their political parties to victory (the NLD in 2015 and the ANC in 1994).

Both countries have (seemingly) peacefully transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy.

But as incredible as the stories of these two freedom fighters are, they are not alone. Other leaders who won their “fight for democracy” from prison to power include, to name a few:

  • Mahatma Gandhi (India)
  • Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan)
  • Lech Walesa (Poland)

When Nelson Mandela passed away in 2013, a BBC News article asked,

Nelson Mandela was often described as the “world’s elder statesman”, a father figure tackling global problems. His moral authority made him, in some people’s eyes, a successor to Gandhi. Who might play a similar role now?

Simon Marks, global affairs correspondent at Feature Story News, points out that Mandela’s successor might just well be Suu Kyi.

“Could she become that person? Maybe, except we don’t yet know how the political story will turn out,” Marks said. “She has this amazing moral authority because of her experience as a prisoner of conscience…”


Afrikaans being phased out in South Africa

It was announced this week that the bastion of Afrikaner education in South Africa – Stellenbosch University – could possibly drop Afrikaans as the language of instruction and teach in English. The final say lies with the university’s council that will make a decision on November 30th.

This is a trend that is spreading throughout South African universities, as well. The University of the Free State, which currently offers classes taught in both English and Afrikaans, also is currently holding a vote as to whether courses should still be offered in Afrikaans anymore.

At the heart of this debate is how to best prepare students for a globally competitive work environment. With Afrikaans predominantly limited to being spoken in South Africa, and even then only in certain pockets of the country, the question is how much of a disservice are universities doing to these students if they are not taught in English.

“Language should be used in a way that is oriented towards engagement with knowledge in a diverse society and to ensure equitable access to learning and teaching opportunities for all students,” Stellenbosch University management said in a statement. “Since English is the common language in South Africa, all learning should be facilitated in at least English to ensure no exclusion due to language.”

Also, at issue is the cost and resources for universities like the University of the Free State to offer every course twice, once in English and once in Afrikaans.

“We are not against Afrikaans. We accepted it as an indigenous language because it was formed from African languages combined with German, [French] and Dutch,” Sechaba Dan Montsisi pointed out, one of the leaders of the 1976 uprising and an MP for more than 20 years. What students want is to feel welcomed and be able to study at one of the best universities on the continent that is in their country.

A YouTube video that was released in August started this conversation at Stellenbosch and across the nation.  Entitled Luister (Afrikaans for “Listen”), it was a documentary about the lives of students of color who attend Stellenbosch who have experienced numerous incidents of racial prejudice.

The larger question is the history and identity of this language of the role it has played in South Africa’s past. To the country’s Afrikaners, which amount to approximately three million people (5%) in South Africa today out of the total population of over 53 million, this language is more than just a form of communication, it is a cultural identity. To understand this, one has to explore the birth of this language.

Birth of Afrikaans

As early as 1707, ancestors of predominantly Dutch settlers in South Africa began referring to themselves as Afrikaners (the Afrikaans word for Africans), denoting their identification with the continent of Africa as their homeland. This population eventually became a diverse genetic mix of various ethnic groups and backgrounds: 34.8% Dutch, 33.7% German, 13.2% French, 7% people of color (African, Malay, etc.), 5.2% British, 3.5% unknown origin, and 2.6% other Europeans.

As a result, there was a need for a lingua franca within this diverse population. According to Leonard Thompson in A History of South Africa,

Some colonialists were holding to the Dutch of the Netherlands, the official language of the colony. Some indigenous people were still speaking their native languages. A few slaves were able to use their languages of origin, whereas Portuguese Creole had become a common means of communication among the Asian slaves. A simplified form of Dutch…with incorporated loan words from the other languages, however, was becoming the dominant lingua franca.

This was initially referred to as Cape Dutch or Kitchen Dutch, and originated as a medium of oral communication between Boer farmers and slaves. This would evolve into a distinct language – Afrikaans – and would become a touchstone of their identity.

With the arrival of the British in the early 1800s and their enforcement of English as the language of education, commerce, and civil service, many Afrikaners pushed back by entrenching their new language of Afrikaans throughout their communities.

Rev. S.J. du Toit recognized the importance of language as a powerful ethnic and cultural mobilizer. He was the prime mover of the first Afrikaans language movement, founding the first Afrikaans newspaper, Die Afrikaanse Patriot, in 1875.

In the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer War and further British imperialism, with English being enforced as the national language, Afrikaner nationalists pushed for the advancement of the Afrikaans language with a renewed fervor.

Accordingly, the first half of the twentieth century saw efforts to promote Afrikaans as a written language, its use in schools, its use in religious services, and the development of an Afrikaans press.

These movements proved successful as, by 1925, the Bible had been translated into Afrikaans, there was an Afrikaans dictionary, and there was a substantial literature in Afrikaans. That same year, a constitutional amendment replaced Dutch with Afrikaans as an official language in the country, putting Afrikaans on equal footing with English.

The National Party, comprised of Afrikaner nationalists, eventually was victorious in the 1948 election. Afrikaners, skillfully mobilized, had won political control of a country in which they formed no more than 12% of the population. With this election victory, the segregation of the past was formalized and a series of even more oppressive and rigid racial laws aimed at benefiting Afrikaners went into effect.

It was exactly this use of the language which sparked the 1976 student uprisings in Soweto. As part of the 1953 Bantu Education Act, the government announced the compulsory use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction from Grade 7 onwards in Math, Social Sciences, and Biology. Few black teachers knew how to speak Afrikaans, and black students regarded it as the language of the oppressor, and thus this regulation proved to be highly volatile. Thousands of students in Soweto boycotted school as a result of this language policy, leading to the Soweto Uprising in June 1976.

In many ways, it was Afrikaans that spurred the anger of the youth that marked the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa.

But Afrikaans was not just a language used in oppression as there were a number of Afrikaners who used the language to protest the abhorrent apartheid policies. In literature, poetry, journalism, and music, Afrikaners used the Afrikaans language to speak against what the government was doing.

In the 1960s, a group of Afrikaner writers who opposed apartheid came together in the Sestigers, which is an Afrikaans word referring to the decade that they were most influential. This literary movement was critical of apartheid, and they provided an alternative Afrikaans voice to the government to show that not all Afrikaners supported apartheid. These authors and writers included, among others, Ingrid Jonker, André Brink, and Breyten Breytenbach.

In the late 1980s, a number of Afrikaner journalists were frustrated with the media’s lack of the courage to take on the apartheid state. In November 1988, a group of anti-apartheid Afrikaans journalists, led by Max du Preez, started a new national weekly newspaper — Vrye Weekblad (Free Weekly). Their goal was to provide an alternative Afrikaans voice in the media, specifically targeting the Afrikaans-speaking population in the country. They were the only Afrikaans-language paper that exposed the murders, beatings, and corruption of the apartheid government.

The Voëlvry (“outlaw”) movement was a group of Afrikaans alternative rock musicians in the mid-1980s who used their music to rebel against the ruling National Party and traditional, conservative Afrikaner culture. They were a younger generation of Afrikaners who didn’t believe in apartheid and didn’t toe the ruling National Party line. The movement coined the term “Alternative Afrikaner” for themselves. The movement included, among others, Koos Kombuis, Johannes Kerkerroel, and Belmodus Niemand.


In the past, it was the Afrikaaners expressing their desire to free themselves from the domination of British colonization and therefore from being forced to speak English.

How ironic that decades later, the headquarters of Afrikaans – Stellenbosch University – could possibly drop it for English but this time for the greater good of all South Africa’s people.

Dropping Afrikaans means that, psychologically and symbolically, the walls of apartheid are still crumbling 21 years after racial segregation was officially removed from the statute books.  This is a continuing part of the decolonizing of the country that has included renaming cities and roads and taking down colonial statues from British and Afrikaner history.

Afrikaans is still one of the country’s national languages today and it is the language of 13.5% of the South African population today. So while its removal as a medium of instruction at some universities may be symbolic, it will be interesting to watch what the future holds for the world youngest language.

SA languages

Dr. Chitja Twala visits Vermont schools

While serving as a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher in South Africa in 2012, I was hosted by the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. I had the honor to work with a number of professors at the University of the Free State, including Dr. Chitja Twala in the History department. Dr. Twala served as a mentor, advisor, and friend throughout my Fulbright experience in South Africa.

Dr. Twala is currently serving as a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University, and as a result, I was able to arrange for Dr. Twala to visit my high school and the community college I teach at in Vermont to speak to my students.

Dr. Chitja Twala at Bellows Falls Union High School in Vermont

Dr. Chitja Twala at Bellows Falls Union High School in Vermont

On Thursday, Oct. 29, Dr. Twala spent the day at my high school, Bellows Falls Union High School in Bellows Falls, VT. Dr. Twala gave a presentation to over 50 students from various Social Studies classes at the high school: AP Human Geography, AP World History, AP U.S. History, and AP European History. Dr. Twala’s presentation, entitled “South Africa and the U.S.: Black-White Confrontation History,” focused on the culture and history of South Africa and its similarities and differences with the Civil Rights Movement in the US. Dr. Twala started by pointing out the misrepresentations and stereotypes of Africa in the US and in the media and how inaccurate these are about life and culture in Africa. He also spoke about the emergence of apartheid and the resistance against it, told personal stories of his own life under apartheid, and compared the US Civil Rights Movement to the resistance to apartheid in South Africa. This was a great opportunity for the students of my high school to learn about South Africa from someone who lived through both the oppression of apartheid and the new democracy that was ushered in by Nelson Mandela.

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Here are some excerpts from what the students said after listening to Dr. Twala:

  • “Your inspiring, informative presentation on South Africa was a treat of the highest order.” – Zoe
  • “Thank you so much for coming to our school to tell us about your experiences in South Africa! It was amazing to hear about a significant historical event from the point of view of someone who lived it.” – Faith
  • “Your presentation was interesting and exciting, and kept the whole audience intrigued.” – Nina
  • “Thank you for teaching us about South African affairs in a much different perspective than I’ve had before. It was interesting to learn about this issue from somebody who had lived through it.” – Zac
  • “You’re presentation was very inspiring to stand up for issues that you believe in, to try to make a difference. I was very interested to hear about the problems South Africa faced, but more importantly how people worked together to end apartheid. Thanks for inspiring me!” – Lia
  • “You spoke of your own experience which really helped me understand more about Africa and its freedom movements. Your presentation was awesome.” – Bradie

In the evening, Dr. Twala then spoke to the students in my World Regions and Cultures course at the Community College of Vermont (CCV). Dr. Twala’s presentation to the class was entitled “From Apartheid to Democracy.” Dr. Twala specifically spoke to the students about brutality of apartheid and how various forms of resistance were used to resist it, culminating in the election of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994. Dr. Twala shared a number of his personal experiences and stories of life and oppression under apartheid, as well, providing the students with a first-hand account of the realities of life under apartheid.

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Before taking Dr. Twala back to Harvard, I was able to take him to Walden Pond in Massachusetts to see where Henry David Thoreau lived for two years in the 19th century. This was a powerful connection as it was Thoreau’s discourse on civil disobedience that influenced Gandhi, which in turn influenced Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and other leaders in the anti-apartheid resistance in South Africa in the 20th century. As a tactic of resistance in South Africa, its practice dates back to the early 1900s with Mohandas Gandhi, who established his beliefs in passive resistance during his time in South Africa and practiced civil disobedience as a way to protest discriminatory laws in the country. His philosophy greatly influenced other calls for civil disobedience, including the numerous anti-pass campaigns from 1930-1960, the 1946-48 Indian Defiance Campaign, the 1952 Defiance Campaign, and the End Conscription Campaign in the 1980s. Internationally, many anti-apartheid activists also utilized civil disobedience as a way to get their governments to take action against South Africa. College students used this strategy on their campuses, and everyone from U.S. congressmen to entertainers practiced it outside the South African Embassy in Washington, DC in protest of apartheid. It was a great connection to be able to walk around Walden Pond with Dr. Twala discussing the historical parallels of Thoreau and the practices of civil disobedience in South Africa.

Dr. Twala and I with Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond

Dr. Twala and I with Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond

Dr. Twala’s visit was a great opportunity for the students of both my high school and of the Community College of Vermont to learn about South Africa from someone who lived through both the dark days of apartheid and the new democracy that was ushered in by Mandela. It was great to be able to keep this Fulbright connection alive by being able to host Dr. Twala and have him speak to my students. In many ways, it is not just keeping the Fulbright connection alive, but bringing it full circle with me having the opportunity to pay Dr. Twala back for all of the kindness, knowledge, and hospitality that he showed me in South Africa.  Thank you Dr. Twala!

Africa’s Nobel Peace Prize laureates

Last week, Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.  This is a group of four organizations: the Tunisian General Labour Union, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers.  They were recognized for their decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring started in Tunisia in December 2010 with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi.  This led to massive protests to overthrow the corrupt and unpopular regime of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country since 1987. The regime was toppled by the protests, ushering in a democratic government.  The events in Tunisia spread throughout North Africa and into the Middle East in what became known in 2011 as the Arab Spring.


This recognition of these African organizations allows one to reflect on the other 10 individuals from Africa who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their humanitarian efforts:

In is wonderful that the incredible achievements of so many Africans have been recognized by this honor, helping to dispel the stereotypes of a continent plagued with warfare, corruption, and despair.

The fact that South Africa alone has four Nobel Peace Prize laureates – all due to their role in ending apartheid in the country – speaks volumes about how long the resistance and fight against apartheid war and about the numerous and diverse individuals who fought for freedom in the country.  Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and FW de Klerk stand out for their role in bringing apartheid down and in all that is good about the country of South Africa and the continent of Africa.  As Mandela stated in Long Walk to Freedom, “I am simply the sum of all those African patriots who had gone before me.”  In many ways, these four are merely the sum of the achievements of an endless number of South Africans who were fighting alongside them to make South Africa the democratic and free nation it is today.

Nobel Square - Waterfront, Cape Town (2)

Nobel Square – Cape Town, SA (South Africa’s Nobel Peace Prize laureates: Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, FW de Klerk, and Nelson Mandela)

Nobel Square - Waterfront, Cape Town (1)

Nobel Square – Cape Town, SA

Generation Study Abroad

GSA_logo_with_LineI had the pleasure to attend the Institute of International Education’s Summit on Generation Study Abroad on Thursday and Friday in Washington, DC.  This was a gathering of universities, organizations, businesses, and teachers who not only believe strongly in the value of studying abroad, but have committed to doubling the number of US students studying abroad by 2020.

International experience is one of the most important components of a 21st century education, yet less than 10% of U.S. students study abroad.

My role as the Summit was of a Generation Study Abroad Voice, where I was able to share my experiences studying abroad in numerous capacities, how these experiences have shaped my teaching career, and to stress the importance of study abroad experiences at the K-12 level.

Generation Study Abroad Voices at the IIE Summit - Oct. 1, 2015

Generation Study Abroad Voices at the IIE Summit – Oct. 1, 2015

It was an honor to share my experiences of studying abroad as a student and teacher as these have had profound personal and professional influences in my life.  From completing my student teaching in Germany as an undergraduate student at Miami University, to taking a graduate course as a teacher in Kenya, to leading students to China as part of the Governor’s Institute on Asian Cultures, to my experience as a Fulbright teacher in South Africa as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching program — these experiences have made me more open-minded, challenged my worldview, made me more tolerant, allowed me to see the beauty and value in diversity, and have allowed me to opportunity to learn from and appreciate other cultures around the world.  In terms of my teaching, these experiences have allowed me to bring the world to my students, making the world more exciting than simply pictures in a textbook or website, and making the world seem smaller, more accessible, and more of a part of their education and career goals.

As a teacher, I fully believe in Generation Study Abroad and as a result, I have taken the pledge to prepare my students to be global citizens.  I hope you will also take this pledge to encourage those around you – friends, family, and students – to study abroad.

Check out the Generation Study Abroad website for more information.

And to leave you inspired, check out the award-winning video from the Generation Study Abroad video contest from Alejandro Alba and Christine O’Dea:

Liberation Theology: From Pope Francis to the Anti-Apartheid Movement

Pope - liberation theologyWith the visit of Pope Francis to the United States, there has been a lot of discussion over the views of Pope Francis and his connection with liberation theology.  Paul Vallely just recently wrote a fascinating article on this in Al Jazeera. While liberation theology blossomed primarily in Latin America and Africa in the 1960s and ‘70s, it is rare that a pope holds such views, and therefore it is cause to reflect on what liberation theology is and how both the pope and the anti-apartheid movement exemplified it.

Liberation theology calls for the Catholic Church to involve itself in the political and economic as well as spiritual liberation of the poor.

First off, there are two different types of liberation theology.  The liberation theology that influenced the pope is that of South American Catholicism, which is distinct from the American “black liberation theology.” They trace their roots back to two different commonly-cited foundational texts: James H. Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation, and Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation, both written in the early 1970s. The two theologies definitely share some significant similarities, namely a reading of scripture that puts the emphasis of the Christian concern with sin on social problems, rather than individual ones. In other words, Christians adhering to a liberation theology should orient themselves toward action against oppression. More symbolically, liberation theology argues that God identifies with the oppressed, and that Christianity should take upon itself the lens of the poor.

The predominant view of the church at the time opposed this more revolutionary perspective as they saw that they should stay concerned solely with spiritual matters, as opposed to political and economic issues.

helder_camaraThe difference can best been seen in the words of Dom Hélder Câmara, a Catholic archbishop in Brazil from 1964-1985: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Many conservatives in the church feared that getting into political and economic affairs would be too problematic and secular for the church to get involved with. Others, like Dom Helder and Pope Francis, disagreed.

Liberation Theology and the Pope

Francis, who was then the Rev. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, became the leader of the Jesuits in Argentina in 1973 in the middle of this fractious debate.

Mario Aguilar, the editor of “Handbook of Liberation Theologies,” said that in those days, Bergoglio’s care for the poor was “enormous, warm and empathetic” but “his theology was traditional and conservative.” He did not see the poor in the context of a larger, unjust social order. In fact, he barred his priests from working with political organizations, unions, cooperatives and even independent Catholic organizations working in the slums.

Eventually, as an assistant bishop in his hometown, Buenos Aires, he became more forgiving and more open to moves to empower the poor.

He deepened his understanding of poverty. He spent so much time among the poorest of the poor in the shantytowns of Buenos Aires that he became known as the bishop of the slums. He learned about the impact of drugs and prostitution on poor people and eventually began to see them as more than just victims.

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio quadrupled the number of priests serving in the slums. Bergoglio began to see the underlying economic structures — like the corrupt financial systems that keep people poor — as what liberation theology calls structures of sin. He shifted from seeing the world through the lens of charity to one of social justice. He began to adopt the vocabulary of liberation theology.

Just six months after he became pope in 2012, he welcomed the founding father of liberation theology, the Rev. Gustavo Gutiérrez, as a guest at the Vatican. Summing up the change, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the chief doctrinal watchdog in the Catholic Church, announced that liberation theology should “be included among the most important currents in 20th century Catholic theology.”

All this sets the background for the pope’s recent anti-capitalist pronouncements. In his papal manifesto “Evangelii Gaudium,” he wrote that trickle-down economics have done little for the poor and that “worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money.”

In his encyclical on the environment, “Laudato si’,” he specifically criticized rich countries for exploiting the resources of the poor. Global warming is merely a symptom of a deeper malaise, he told his aides the day the document was published, explaining that the rich world’s exploitation of the environment is rooted in the same worldview as its callousness toward the poor. Both, he said, are symptoms of a greater ill: the pursuit of short-term economic profit at the expense of people and the planet. “This economy kills,” “Laudato si’” concluded bluntly.

During a trip to Bolivia this summer, Francis delivered his most ferocious denunciation to date. Behind all the “pain, death and destruction” wrought by unrestrained global capitalism, there lurks “the stench of the dung of the devil,” he said. “Let us not be afraid to say it,” he told a gathering of activists.

On this trip, Bolivian President Evo Morales presented the Pope a crucifix carved into a wooden hammer and sickle.

Bolivian President Evo Morales presented the Pope a crucifix carved into a wooden hammer and sickle.

Bolivian President Evo Morales presented the Pope a crucifix carved into a wooden hammer and sickle.

To read more about Pope Francis and Liberation Theology in the Catholic Church, check out Paul Vallely’s Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism.

Liberation Theology in South Africa

Liberation theology was not only present in Latin America, but also throughout Africa.  But in Africa, so-called “black liberation theology” emanates from Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation.  This not only greatly influenced the Black Power movement in the United States, but also the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

Picture1One of the most outspoken and visible parts of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa were religious leaders. Regardless of denomination, numerous individuals were actively engaged in bringing down apartheid for decades, and they based much of their protest on their religious beliefs and scripture. Religious protest took the form of church sermons, letters, marches, and civil disobedience, amongst others, but what made it unique was that it was consistently at the forefront of the call to abolish apartheid.

From Trevor Huddleston in the 1950s to Beyers Naudé in the 1960s to Allen Boesak, Frank Chikane and Desmond Tutu in the 1980s, religious leaders used their positions as spiritual leaders in their communities to organize and lead protests against apartheid. Their opposition to apartheid was based on their religious beliefs. The South African government, which held ultraconservative religious beliefs and even justified apartheid based on their interpretation of the Bible, greatly feared this religiously-based protest. What also made these religious leaders effective in their protest was that the police did not know how to handle them, not wanting to arrest or imprison them as they would other activists since this would bring heightened levels of international condemnation. It was not just individual religious leaders either, but also entire religious organizations who spoke out, including a number of new religious organizations and movements that were formed during the resistance movement.

Furthermore, there was not merely one faith or denomination which was particularly active in the resistance. Within Christianity, Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals, and even some members of the Dutch Reformed Church all greatly contributed to the struggle and based their abhorrence of apartheid on the Bible, using scripture to argue why apartheid was wrong. Other faiths, including Islam, Judaism, and African Independent Churches, also contributed to the resistance movement, using religious doctrines to condemn apartheid and leading their communities in protest.

While numerous members of the clergy in South Africa were strong opponents of apartheid and its discriminatory policies, two of the most ardent supporters of the tenets of liberation theology were Allan Boesak and Frank Chikane.


Allan Boesak

Allan Boesak was a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), but since he was Coloured, he could not be a part of the main white Church. He was thus part of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church, which was the segregated “non-white” arm of the DRC. Although part of the DRC, the Mission Church was much more critical of apartheid and segregation than other sects. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church first came out publicly in their opposition to apartheid at their General Synod of 1978, rejecting apartheid as being in conflict with the gospel.

Boesak became a leader in the concept of liberation theology, which in Africa was focused on rejecting Western Christianity as a form of colonialism. In Africa, the goal of liberation theology was to “Africanize” Christianity, to relate it to the history of black people and to help people recognize that they were equal in God’s eyes. They viewed Christ as a liberator, focusing on freeing black people from a slave mentality, an inferiority complex, and the continued dependence on others which culminated in self-hate. In essence, liberation theology was the religious form of activist Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness ideas. This theological viewpoint became popular amongst many black Africans as it connected with Christ’s identification with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed. Allan Boesak, Desmond Tutu, and Frank Chikane were all adherents of liberation theology and it greatly influenced their role as leaders in the struggle against apartheid.

Allan Boesak’s anti-apartheid activism took off with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC). The WARC was formed in 1970 as a fellowship of more than 200 Reformed (Calvinist) churches around the world, including the Dutch Reformed Church. At the August 1982 WARC conference in Canada, he put forth a motion to declare apartheid a heresy contrary to both the Gospel and the Reformed tradition. The conference adopted the motion in what became known as the Declaration on Racism, declaring apartheid both a sin and heresy. The Declaration stated, “It is sinful and incompatible with the gospel.” The alliance’s statement reflected many of Boesak’s beliefs, rejecting the use of religion as a cultural or racist ideology. The 1982 WARC conference also voted to suspend South Africa’s white Dutch Reformed Church from the alliance until they opened their doors to black people. The decisions that WARC made at this 1982 conference stripped apartheid of its moral, ethical, religious, and political foundations, rendering it indefensible.

As an outspoken participant at the 1982 WARC conference, Allan Boesak was unanimously elected president of the alliance at the conference. He went on to lead WARC in further repudiations and condemnations of apartheid throughout the 1980s.

It was under Boesak’s leadership that in 1986, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa adopted the Belhar Confession. This declaration stated that the white DRC was guilty of heresy and idolatry because of its theological justification of apartheid, stating that racial and social segregation was a sin.

Boesak’s outspoken condemnation of apartheid, based on scripture, greatly influenced other Dutch Reformed Church leaders to speak out publicly against apartheid, most significantly in 1982. In August of that year, 123 Dutch Reformed Church ministers and theologians signed an open letter in which they repudiated much of earlier apartheid-endorsed church policy and called for fundamental changes. The so-called Open Letter specifically cited laws on mixed marriages, race classification, and the so-called Homelands, saying that these apartheid laws “cannot be defended scripturally” and “cannot be reconciled with biblical demands for justice and human dignity.”

The white Dutch Reformed Church slowly started to make the necessary reforms that Boesak and others had been calling for. In 1983, the white Dutch Reformed Church finally admitted that the ban on mixed marriages was not based on scripture, and finally said that separate development was not based on scripture. This was a massive concession for the Church to make since they had resolutely believed this was the case for decades up to this point. In 1986, further transformation took place when the DRC membership was finally desegregated and opened to all, as well as deciding that apartheid could not be accepted on Christian grounds. This decision was such a shock to many conservative members of the DRC that it led to 20,000 members of the Church to leave the DRC and join a breakaway denomination in protest. However, even with all of these reforms, it was not until 1998, four years after the birth of democracy and the official end of apartheid in South Africa, that the Dutch Reformed Church synod finally accepted that apartheid was a sin, and that its biblical justification constituted heresy.

Allan Boesak also took his opposition to apartheid out of the church and into the street, forming the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983, the largest and most powerful legal opposition force in South Africa at the time. The UDF was an umbrella organization that swiftly became the main anti-apartheid group in South Africa, bringing together over 400 organizations (civic, church, students’, workers’ and other organizations) representing about two million white and black South Africans. Boesak led numerous marches and rallies, preached at funerals and marches, and resisted apartheid at all levels throughout the 1980s as the head of the UDF.


Frank Chikane

In 1980, Frank Chikane was ordained as a preacher in the Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM) church, the oldest and by far the largest Pentecostal church in South Africa.

Due to his outspoken criticism of apartheid and political involvement, the conservative-minded AFM suspended Chikane in 1981. The suspension lasted nine years until his eventual reinstatement in the church in 1990.

After suspension from the AFM, Chikane joined the Institute for Contextual Theology, a Christian think-tank inside of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) which promoted liberation theology. Just like Allan Boesak and others, Chikane became an advocate for liberation theology, focusing on Christ as liberator, seeking to liberate people of color from multiple forms of political, social, economic, and religious subjugation.

Picture3In 1985, Chikane was one of the leading promoters of the Kairos Document, a leading Christian denunciation of apartheid. This was a theological statement issued by a group of black South African theologians. Originally signed by 156 theologians, it rejected the apartheid government’s claim that God was on their side, arguing that God sides with the oppressed. The documents said, “This god [of the State] is…the god of teargas, rubber bullets, sjamboks, prison cells and death sentences.” In other words, “the very opposite of the God of the Bible.” These theologians said that the God that the apartheid government believed was on their side was nothing more than “the devil disguised as Almighty God.”

The Kairos Document also maintained that a tyrannical government, like South Africa, has no moral right to govern, “and the people acquire the right to resist.” In terms of resistance, it argued that the counter-violence of the oppressed could not be condemned in the same way as the violence of the oppressor, thereby calling the armed struggle by groups like Umkhonto weSizwe a “just war.” This document was soon seen as one of the most important theological declarations of its time.

In 1987, Chikane succeeded Beyers Naudé as General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC). He brought a heightened level of social and political activism to the SACC, which continued to play an important role in the anti-apartheid movement up until the end of apartheid. In 1988, the SACC, under Chikane, launched the Standing for Truth Campaign. Church leaders asserted that they were not obliged to obey unjust laws, but in obedience to God were forced to disobey apartheid laws, based in the Biblical scripture that says, “We must obey God, rather than men.” This religiously-based campaign included non-cooperation and non-collaboration with apartheid in social, economic, and political fields, and they supported rent and tax boycotts, boycotts of elections, defied group-area restrictions, and withdrew chaplains from the South African Defense Force. It was one of the most militant decisions that a group of theologians and church leaders had taken during the apartheid era.

By referencing these two adherents to the tenets of liberation theology, I do not mean to limit the role that other religious leaders who played prominent roles in the anti-apartheid movement: Albert Geyser and Beyers Naudé in the Dutch Reformed Church; Denis Hurley and Cosmas Desmond in the Catholic Church; and Trevor Huddleston and Desmond Tutu in the Anglican Church.  Outside of Christianity, other religious leaders also served as a powerful religious voice against the discrimination of apartheid, especially Imam Abdullah Haron of the Islamic faith and Rabbi Louis Isaac Rabinowitz of the Jewish faith.

These religious leaders helped bring down apartheid with their faith and scripture as their weapon.

Flag Controversy in the US and South Africa

Last month, in the state of South Carolina, 21-year-old Dylann Roof sat in on a prayer meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston for an entire hour before he opened fire in the church. When his shooting rampage ended, nine people were left dead in the historic African-American church.

As information about who Dylann Roof is and what his motives might be came out, his racist intentions came out by his affiliation with white supremacist websites and his waving of the Confederate flag. The car he drove bore a vanity plate adorned with the Confederate flag and the words, “Confederate States of America.”  And those who came into contact with him speak of his racist beliefs.

One of his roommates, Dalton Tyler, said of Roof, “He was big into segregation… He said he wanted to start a civil war.”

“He said blacks were taking over the world. Someone needed to do something about it for the white race,” Joey Meek, one of his childhood friends, said. “He said he wanted segregation between whites and blacks.”

Sylvia Johnson, a cousin of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the deceased victims, said that Roof stated to those black victims that he shot, “You’re taking over our country and you have to go.”

Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told AP that Roof appeared to be a “disaffected white supremacist.”

In a statement, Cohen said the mass murder is “an obvious hate crime by someone who feels threatened by our country’s changing demographics and the increasing prominence of African Americans in public life.”

Images of Roof surfaced of him not just showing support for the Confederate flag, but also of him wearing a jacket with two flag patches on it: one of Apartheid-era South Africa, and the other of Rhodesia, a white-dominated country that became majority-black-ruled Zimbabwe.


“I think, in some ways, that those are the symbols and sources of his pride and perhaps his angst,”  Dr. Omar H. Ali from UNC Greensboro said.

“Someone deliberately putting those flags on his jacket, very openly displaying them, that doesn’t happen randomly. It symbolizes intent and ideology,” Mark Pitcavage, the director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, told the Daily News. “(The photo) was the first hint we had that the suspect behind (the shooting) might not have simply been racist, but ideologically racist.”

This supposed interest and support of apartheid connects to Roof’s beliefs in racial segregation and white supremacy, and unfortunately Roof is not alone in using this symbol of apartheid to express their racist beliefs.

TIME Magazine even ran a story under the following headline in the aftermath of the massacre:

UntitledA civil rights group which monitors white supremacist groups says the apartheid-era flag, which South Africa dropped in 1994, has begun showing up in several white supremacist demonstrations in the U.S. and elsewhere over the last several years, often times among protesters who make claims of an alleged white genocide in South Africa targeting white farmers in the country.

Stephen Piggott, a campaign coordinator at the Southern Poverty Law Center, says that the apartheid-era flag has recently appeared at rallies in the U.S. for a nationalist group called the South Africa Project, a group that raises awareness of alleged genocide against white farmers in South Africa.

It has also appeared at what are called “white man marches,” which have recently taken place in the U.K., and are centered around the “white genocide movement,” which attempts to maintain political and cultural white power around the world.

“The flag shows up at protests where there’s talk of white genocide, not just in South Africa,” Piggott says. “The last time we’ve seen the apartheid flag has been around the white genocide movement.”

This draws us back to Dylann Roof and his connection between the belief of what both apartheid-era South African flag and the Confederate flag stood for.

In the weeks after this massacre in South Carolina, a national uproar began around the Confederate flag and its place in American society. One widely circulated photo of the shooter holding a gun and a Confederate flag has stirred intense outrage.

The Confederate flag, which is the battle flag of the Confederate States of America that had seceded from the United States in the 1860s and fought the North in the U.S. Civil War, has been seen by many as a symbol of what the South was fighting for, which was predominantly slavery. Despite the South losing the Civil War, the flag has continued to be used as a symbol by some of Southern pride and heritage, and by others as a symbol of racism, white supremacy, and hatred. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Confederate flag wasn’t as divisive or prevalent then as it is today. It was only in the 1960s during the Civil Rights era that the flag made a resurgence. Sen. Strom Thurmond incorporated the flag into his 1948 segregationist presidential campaign and from that point on, the Confederate flag saw new life. The flag soon morphed into a symbol for opposition to the civil rights movement and desegregation. The flag went up at the South Carolina State House in the 1960s as a symbol to resist the Civil Rights movement.

In the wake of this tragedy, many businesses stopped selling Confederate flags, including Walmart, Amazon, eBay and Sears.

Johnna Hoff, an eBay spokesperson, said that the Confederate flag has “become a contemporary symbol of divisiveness and racism.”

South Carolina’s state legislature and governor even voted in this month to formally take down the Confederate flag that had flown outside its State House for over 50 years.

USA Today - July 10, 2015

USA TODAY – July 10, 2015

“I thought about all of the African-Americans that lost their lives because of the flag, because of the hatred that this flag symbolizes,” said Theresa Burgess, a 48-year-old kindergarten teacher from South Carolina. “I knew that a lot of Americans would have loved to be here today.”

Ms. Burgess said the flag’s removal would bring an end to “decades of racism, decades of what this flag symbolizes.”

This flag controversy in the US does resonant with South Africa, and not just because Dylann Roof had a jacket with a flag patch of apartheid South Africa. South Africa, despite its new flag being introduced in 1994 as part of the country’s new democratic government and signaling the end of apartheid, is also still dealing with these same issues of lingering white supremacy and arguments of the need to preserve the heritage of the old apartheid days.

Seeing the image of Dylann Roof wearing a jacket with a flag patch of apartheid South Africa made me think back to my experience at the Battle of Blood River Heritage Site and Museum in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. At the gift shop of the museum were a number of old apartheid-era memorabilia, including the flag that was the country’s national flag from 1928-1994 – a flag that is synonymous with apartheid.

Old apartheid-era flag for sale at the Blood River Heritage Site and Museum - 2012

Old apartheid-era flag for sale at the Blood River Heritage Site and Museum – 2012

This flag, and the controversy around it, is similar to America’s Confederate flag. I saw this flag numerous times in South Africa in museums, but this was the first time I saw it for sale in a gift shop, and I don’t know why but it shocked me. Obviously there are a number of South Africans who unfortunately look fondly back to the days of apartheid, but to see this flag still being sold in today’s society was as shocking as seeing Confederate flag stickers on people’s cars or Confederate flags flying over state buildings.

While the old apartheid-era flag doesn’t fly over any government buildings today as the Confederate flag does, it is nonetheless controversial as it still flies at people’s homes, on people’s cars and trucks, and it even still sold in gift shops in the country. The old apartheid flag represents the same white supremacy, segregation, and racism that the Confederate flag does, and so the questions begs, when will there be an uproar over this symbol of hatred and racism in South Africa?