South Africa - (Africa)

Information about South Africa

1219080 square kilometres
Christian 75% (African Independent Churches 26%, Ref 15%, RCath 12%, other Prot and Pent 12%), Muslim (2%), Hindu (60% of Indians),Jewish communities, African traditional religions
Christian (%)
Protestant (%)
Reformed (%)

The Ref tradition came to South Africa with Dutch colonists who settled in the Cape in 1652. Originally the Dutch Reformed Church consisted only of white settlers. But mission work was started, first among slaves and later among the indigenous population. Ultimately, as the hinterland was opened up by explorers, traders, and mission societies, Ref missionaries also moved further and further into the interior, first into what is today the Northern Province of South Africa, and later into neighboring countries such as Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique. In this way the Ref churches of South Africa extended the Ref tradition over much of Southern Africa, creating links which still exist today. The first split in the Dutch Reformed Church, possibly better known by its Afrikaans acronym NGK, occurred about two centuries after its arrival in the Cape. Afrikaners, who had settled in the then Transvaal in the northern interior of South Africa, suspicious of what they considered to be liberal tendencies in the Cape-dominated NGK, and insisting on a rigid policy of “no equality between white and black in church or state,” formed the Nederduitsche Hervormde Kerk (NHK — in English the name also translated to Dutch Reformed Church, cf. no. 2) in 1857. Two years later another split occurred in the Transvaal, when the Gereformeerde Kerk (Reformed Church — the Afrikaans acronym is GKSA, cf. no. 3) was formed. Differing interpretations about the three traditional Ref confessions of faith inherited from the Dutch Reformation (HeidC, BelgC, CDort), as well as the issue of whether only psalms or also other spiritual songs should be sung in church, played an important role in this split. In this way three major white Afrikaans-language Ref churches came into being.
The white Ref churches in South Africa are well known for their policy of instituting racially separated churches for converts from their missionary efforts. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church for “colored” South Africans (DRM, cf. no. 4) was instituted in 1881, to be followed in the 20th century by separate churches for Africans (Dutch Reformed Church in Africa, DRCA, cf. no. 4) and Indians (Reformed Church in Africa, RCA, cf. no. 5).
In the meantime English-speaking Presb Christians and missionaries had settled in the Eastern Cape. From this work grew four separate Presb Churches in Southern Africa (cf. below nos. 8-11). In the course of the last decades several attempts have been made to bring these, or at least some of these churches, closer to one another. In recent years, the Reformed Presbyterian Church in South Africa (cf. no. 10) has made another attempt by proposing negotiations for unity with the Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa (cf. no. 8).
Another branch of Ref Christianity can be found in the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (cf. no. 12), mainly the fruit of the work of the LMS. The Church of England in South Africa (CESA) came into being in 1865 after the split between Bishop Colenso and the Anglican Church of England. Today this church considers itself to belong to the Ref tradition.
South African churches have been active in mission work. Efforts by the Dutch Reformed Church gained momentum in the 18th century, especially as a result of the work of two ministers, H. R. van Lier and M. C. Vos. The first LMS missionary to arrive in Cape Town, John Philip, was, together with M.C.Vos, responsible for the founding of the South African Mission Society (1799). This society was widely supported by DRC members in its mission work throughout the Cape colony. In 1824 the first Cape Synod of the DRC decided to commence church-related mission work; it was one of the first, if not the first, Ref synods to make such a decision. Another branch of the Ref family to take up mission work in South Africa was the (Congreg) American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM), which started work in Natal in 1835. Scottish Presb were active in the Eastern Cape. The South African General Mission, an “undenominational” mission, strongly supported by DRC members such as Andrew Murray, was formed in 1889 and started mission work in Swaziland, which was later extended to Natal and also to Malawi and Zambia.
Much of the 20th-century history of the Ref tradition in South(ern) Africa centers around the official policy of racial separation existing in most of these churches. The problem became especially acute after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. The WCC called the Cottesloe Consultation of all its member churches in South Africa. The NHK, as well as the Cape and Transvaal synods of the NGK, withdrew from membership in the WCC. The Cottesloe Consultation led to a lasting break in relationships between the white Ref churches and most other South African denominations. The NGK and the NHK remained members of the WARC. In 1982, however, the WARC General Council in Ottawa declared apartheid a sin and its theological justification a heresy and suspended both churches from the exercise of their membership rights. This motion of censure by the worldwide Ref family had a strong influence in both the ecclesiastical and the socio-political history of Southern Africa. One of these was the adoption by the DRMC in 1986 of the Belhar Confession of Faith as the fourth standard of faith for the church. After the synod meeting the DRCM and DRCA set in motion a process of negotiation to unite the racially separated Dutch Ref churches. The process culminated in 1994 in the formation of the Uniting Reformed Church. The NGK and the RCA so far have not joined the movement of union negotiations.
The broken ecumenical relationships are slowly on the mend. The black Ref churches, the UCCSA (cf. no. 12), and the various Presb churches have been members of the South African Council of Churches for a long time. Subsequent to the political liberalization announced by President de Klerk in 1990, the NGK joined the Council, first as an observer and later as a member. The WARC General Council in Debrecen (1997) decided to restore the NGK to full membership on the condition that its General Synod will unanimously rejected apartheid as sin and heresy. It seems clear that problems will continue to exist until the painful history of racial separation between white and black Ref Christians has been confronted and rectified by a process of restitution and reconciliation.




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