RUSTENBURG, SOUTH AFRICA, NOV. 5 -- For the first time in 30 years, representatives from churches that have been at odds over apartheid are meeting to discuss reconciliation and their future role in a changing South Africa.
The five-day conference has brought together 180 representatives from 85 organizations, including the all-white and pro-government Dutch Reformed Church, the anti-apartheid South African Council of Churches and a vast number of apolitical Evangelical and Pentecostal groups. They are debating theological, political and social issues aimed at generating a basis for national reconciliation.
"There can be no question at all that this conference is a miracle," Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu told the opening session today. "The God of surprises played his most extraordinary and incredible card. If anyone had predicted in September 1989 that in November 1990 virtually all the churches in South Africa would be gathered together in a national conference, most of us would have been looking for a good psychiatrist for that madman."
"I expect there will be deep divisions within the conference," said Beyers Naude, who was expelled in 1963 from his ministry in the Dutch Reformed Church because of his strong opposition to apartheid.
The last similar conference was held in December 1960, when far fewer churches met at Cottesloe in Johannesburg, nine months after South African police massacred 69 blacks in Sharpeville. The "Cottesloe Consultation" took issue with apartheid on many issues. The Dutch Reformed Church at first signed the document but later repudiated it under government pressure.
The theme of the current conference, held at this isolated resort 50 miles northwest of Johannesburg, is "Towards a United Christian Witness in a Changing South Africa." But speeches today forecast tough debate as churches, which have long disagreed over whether apartheid was a sin and should be denounced, seek grounds for reconciliation.
At the heart of the controversy is the main religious body of the ruling Afrikaner whites, the Dutch Reformed Church. It left, or was expelled from, virtually all South African and world ecumenical organizations in the early 1960s because of its theological defense of apartheid and open support of government efforts to impose it on the black majority.
Black anti-apartheid churches have been demanding that the Dutch Reformed and other like-minded churches confess guilt for their past stand and condemn apartheid as a sin before they are forgiven and reintegrated into the South African Council of Churches and World Council of Churches.
"Those who have wronged must be ready to say: 'We have hurt you by this injustice, by uprooting you from your homes, by dumping you in poverty-stricken homeland settlement tents. By giving your children inferior education. By denying your humanity and trampling down on your human dignity and denying you fundamental rights. We are sorry; forgive us,' " said Tutu.
Some anti-apartheid bodies also want the white pro-apartheid churches to accept the idea of compensating the black population for their past support of apartheid policies.
"Those who have wronged must be ready to make what amends they can," said Tutu. "They must be ready to make restitution." But he also said it was "a gospel imperative" that "the victims of injustice and oppression must be ever ready to forgive."
Bishop Khoza Mgojo, South African Council of Churches president, warned that there was unlikely to be much forgiveness unless the white government and churches faced up to the issue of restitution of land to the blacks.
"The land must be returned to the people. It cannot be owned by the few and worked by the many," he said in a reference to the fact that 5 million whites occupy 87 percent of the land, while 33 million blacks share the rest.
"The churches too -- I mean us here -- must do something about the vast amount of land we control," Mgojo added, demanding that the conference discuss strategies for the radical redistribution of white wealth to blacks.