RUSTENBERG, SOUTH AFRICA, NOV. 6 -- A senior Dutch Reformed Church theologian caused a sensation at an ecumenical church conference here today by making a public confession of sin and guilt on behalf of his church and the ruling Afrikaner whites in their past support of apartheid.
Conference sources said it was the first time such a confession had been made before a major gathering of South African church leaders.
But they were uncertain whether it would be sufficient to lay the groundwork for the national reconciliation between anti-apartheid and pro-government churches that the conference, the first of its kind in 30 years, is seeking to achieve.
Standing before 230 delegates from 81 churches and 40 other religious organizations, theology Prof. Willie D. Jonkers suddenly departed from his prepared speech to say he wanted to confess "my own sin and guilt and my personal responsibility" for the wrongs inflicted on the black population by the apartheid system of racial separation.
Jonkers, who teaches at the elite Afrikaner Stellenbosch University, then went on to say that he was "vicariously" making a confession as well in the name of his church and "the Afrikaner people as a whole."
He told the stunned audience he "dared" to make a confession on behalf of his Dutch Reformed Church, which has been a pillar of the apartheid system, because this was in keeping with a new policy statement at its latest synod. The synod, held Oct. 16-25 in Blomfontein, had "declared apartheid a sin and confessed its own guilt of negligence in not warning against it and distancing itself from it long ago," Jonkers said.
Later, he explained that the synod, in a long historical discussion of the church's attitude toward apartheid, had described apartheid as "a very grave heresy."
Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was so moved by Jonkers's confession that he stood up to call upon anti-apartheid church delegates to offer their own forgiveness and accept reconciliation with the Dutch Reformed Church.
"When that confession is made, then those of us who have been wronged must say 'We forgive you,' " Tutu said, urging the conference to move on to "the reconstruction of our land." Later, at a press conference, Jonkers said his "confession" had not been discussed beforehand with leaders of the church or its delegates to the conference and that he had made it "firstly in my private capacity."
"There will definitely be many who would not feel that I had the right to speak on their behalf," he said.
But Jonkers said he was also sure that there were many, "I hope the majority," who would agree with him. There was a "general feeling in large portions of the Dutch Reformed Church that we want to get this thing of apartheid over and out of our stomach because we're not happy with it any longer."
"We feel guilt about it and we want to get rid of this feeling of guilt," he added.
Anti-apartheid church leaders, who have been demanding both a confession of sin from the Dutch Reformed Church as well as a commitment to reparations for damages caused by apartheid, seemed reluctant to conclude Jonkers's confession was sufficient to establish a basis for reconciliation among the churches.
Frank Chikane, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, said that such a confession coming from Jonkers could not be taken lightly. But, he added, "confession goes with deeds."
"The expectation from the majority of the people," according to Chikane, "is that there will be a reparation or an effort to undo the damage that has been done by apartheid and a commitment to rebuild society."