RUSTENBERG, SOUTH AFRICA, NOV. 7 -- The head of South Africa's powerful all-white Dutch Reformed Church today affirmed that it has formally confessed apartheid to be a sin, but his statement was rejected a few hours later as "a cheap confession" by the still segregated black and mixed-race Colored branches of the same church.
In a day of high church drama, the confession that was supposed to have laid the basis for a reconciliation between anti- and pro-apartheid churches attending a conference here ended up creating what co-chairman Frank Chikane called a "trauma."
Pieter Potgieter, probably the most influential Afrikaner cleric, rose before the conference to declare "unambiguously" that a confession of guilt and sin made Tuesday by theologian Willie Jonker was now the official position of the Dutch Reformed Church.
Jonker had created a sensation when he departed from the text of his prepared speech to state, "I confess before you and before the Lord, not only my own sin and guilt and my personal responsibility for the political, social, economical and structural wrongs that have been done to many of you and the results of which you and the whole country are still suffering."
Jonker said he believed this was his church's position, too, since it had formally declared apartheid a sin at its synod in Bloemfontein last month.
The unprecedented confessions by leaders of the white Afrikaner establishment church came before 230 delegates representing 81 local and foreign churches and 40 other church-related groups. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was moved to stand and say, "We forgive you," touching off a standing ovation at Tuesday's session.
Potgieter said he hoped the synod's revised position on apartheid would serve as the basis for reconciliation between anti-apartheid churches and those that had provided the theological justification for the government's apartheid policies for decades.
Instead, the confession by the all-white Dutch Reformed Church set off protest from affiliated black and Colored leaders. They told a press conference they had "tremendous problems" with the confession and would not accept it until the all-white mother church opened its door to all races in fact as well as principle.
Colored church leader Nicholas Apollis charged the confession was based on "ambigious interpretations" by Jonker and Potgieter of the synod's statement on apartheid and was still only that of two "individuals" and not a formal church declaration of sin and guilt.
"We believe their confession is not honest and sincere," he said. "They are still asking us, 'What do you mean by apartheid?' "
Apollis said the Colored and black Dutch Reformed Church branches were insisting that the all-white church condemn apartheid as "a heresy" but that it was still avoiding use of that word. The 1982 Ottawa conference of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches "suspended" the all-white Dutch Reformed Church after declaring that apartheid was "a sin" and any theological justification of it "a heresy."
At a press conference today, Potgieter said "we would rather call it 'a fallacy' or 'errancy.' " But he added that he personally had no objection to translating the Afrikaans word used in the Bloemfontein synod's declaration on apartheid as "heresy," except that "a heresy would keep someone out of the kingdom of God."
Apollis, at an earlier press conference, called the statements by Jonker and Potgieter "a cheap confession." He said the black and Colored Dutch Reformed branches were not interested in a "cheap reconciliation" but one that "binds us together in such a way that we can go through water and fire together."
Black Dutch Reformed Church leader Sam Booti agreed, adding that there was still no sign of "repentance" in the statements of the two white church leaders and that this had to be part of any true confession.
Chikane said the conference's steering committee was still "struggling to understand what was happening" and that the confession had created "a trauma" for everybody.
The conference as such was in no position to reject anyone's confession, he said. "The conference viewpoint is, 'You accept confession,' " he said.
But the black and Colored branches of the Dutch Reformed Church "family" were in a better position to judge its merit, "and they are saying no the confession is not genuine, said Chikane.
On this basis, he doubted that the confession by Jonker and Potgieter would provide the basis for the reconciliation the conference was hoping to achieve. But it could provide the start for a process of reconciliation and in that sense was "a constructive event," he added.