The South African Council of Churches was founded in May 1968, during one of the darkest periods of South Africa’s history. At the time, the National Party had been in government for 20 years and its policy of apartheid was severely restricting the rights, associations and movements of the majority of South Africans.
Until the establishment of the SACC, South Africa’s churches had generally made little effort to stand together against the injustices of the apartheid regime. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission noted, “Some of the major Christian churches gave their blessing to the system of apartheid. And many of its early proponents prided themselves in being Christians. Indeed, the system of apartheid was regarded as stemming from the mission of the church.”
Naturally, there were a few notable exceptions to this rule. For instance, in 1949 at an ecumenical conference, Chief Albert Luthuli called for a franchise vote; in 1960, in response to the Sharpeville massacre, the World Council of Churches convened the Cottesloe Consultation in Johannesburg where it challenged its South African member churches to adopt a united stance against apartheid; and in 1963, Beyers Naudé founded the Christian Institute, an ecumenical organisation with the aim of fostering reconciliation through interracial dialogue.
Although ecumenical organisations had been founded prior to May 1968, these were by nature and composition predominately organisations of missionaries and expatriates. What was significant about the SACC is that it came at a time when, all over the world, missionary agencies were handing control of the churches they had founded to indigenous leaders. Therefore, it came as no surprise when in 1972 the SACC was officially declared to be a “Black” organisation by the apartheid government because its executive was composed of more black than white members.
It was often alleged by its opponents that the SACC was under the control of foreign agitators whereas, in fact, the SACC was a legitimate voice of the people of God in South Africa.
The “Message to the people of South Africa” was delivered at the inaugural meeting of the SACC in 1968. It declared that the unity of all people was the will of God and that “separation is the most complete refusal of the truth”.
The message brought the SACC into confrontation with the government and from that time the SACC − along with other organisations that stood against the apartheid regime − suffered harassment, abuse, surveillance and much worse at the hands of government agencies. Although the apartheid government claimed to be a Christian government, it used a variety of means to try and silence the Council’s voice.
In November 1981, the government appointed a judicial Commission of Inquiry, under the chairmanship of Justice CF Eloff, to investigate the activities of the SACC. However, in its report (submitted in February 1984) the Eloff Commission failed to find anything illegal in the activities of the SACC and its leader, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Commission found no evidence to substantiate the government’s contention that the SACC was an instrument of foreign organisations that were trying to foment Communist revolution in South Africa.
These findings were an embarrassment to the State President, PW Botha, and raised serious questions about the strategies his government was using to maintain apartheid.
Download below The Divine Intention: A presentation by Bishop Desmond Tutu, General Secretary of The South African Council of Churches to the Eloff Commission of Enquiry on 1st September 1982.
Source: South African Mirror
The SACC offices were often the target of raids by security police, while many members of staff and people associated with the SACC were detained without trial. Some endured torture, while others died in mysterious circumstances. Then, in 1988, the SACC headquarters at Khotso House in Johannesburg was destroyed by a bomb. When democracy came to South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to allow those who were truly sorry for the atrocities they had committed in the name of apartheid to confess and be granted amnesty. The Commission found that the then State President, PW Botha, had personally ordered the bombing. Adriaan Vlok, former Minister of Law and Order, and several senior policemen applied for and were granted amnesty for the bombing. In 1989, an unsuccessful attempt to murder the Reverend Frank Chikane, who was then the General Secretary of the SACC, was also shown to have been an act of the State.
Throughout its history, the SACC has had three main thrusts to its activities: justice, skills development and community projects and theological reflection. During the apartheid regime, the SACC not only spoke out strongly against matters of injustice and the violation of human rights, it also provided practical assistance to the oppressed. Specifically, the SACC:
– Supported the international Programme to Combat Racism led by the World Council of Churches
– Offered emergency services to victims of apartheid brutalities
– Raised funds for the legal defence of victims of the system
– Cared for families of detainees and political prisoners and on death row
– Offered bursaries to thousands of poor black children
– Funded community development programmes and projects
– Campaigned for comprehensive international sanctions against apartheid
– Facilitated the establishment of development institutions such as the Kagiso Trust
– Engaged in youth and women’s rights and development programmes
– Supported exiles and facilitated their return to South Africa after the unbanning of the liberation movements and release of political prisoners
– Assisted in the transitional process, from the negotiations to peace-making in the midst of intense violence; participated in the drafting of a new constitution for the country; supported the establishment of the TRC; and advocated for a just social and economic order.
The role of the SACC in the fight to bring human rights to South Africa is an honourable one that will always be recorded in South Africa’s history. The organisation rescued those whose houses were petrol bombed, those who were displaced and those who were in hiding and had to be kept in safe houses and fed.
The SACC joined the struggle against apartheid because it believes that all people are equal before God. Following the demise of apartheid, the SACC committed itself to the service of God and to ensuring that South Africans live in a free society where they have the opportunity to achieve their potential and live as people of dignity in one family, under God.
Today, the SACC is in a process of renewal. The 2014 National Conference elected a new National Executive Committee led by the Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church, Bishop Zipho Siwa, with former General Secretary, Reverend Frank Chikane, as Senior Vice President and Father Michael Lapsley, of the Institute for Healing of Memories as Second Vice President. Through a request to the Ethiopian Episcopal Church and its Diocese of Maropeng, the Executive has enlisted the services of Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, in his position of General Secretary, to help drive the renewal of the SACC.
The renewal is a restoration of the sense of ownership and the presence of member churches in the life and ministry of the SACC. It is a re-establishment of the mission of the SACC and its re-anchoring in the homes and communities of poor people in the name of God, to whom they offer up prayers nightly. And it is a vision for the dawn of the fullness of the earthly lives of the poor as citizens of a just and equitable society without poverty, unemployment, inequality and self-serving corruption.