May 30, 2020

Thoughts on Southern Africa

SouthernAfricaWith the passing of Nelson Mandela yesterday, the world lost a great statesman. Through his words of reconciliation South Africa was able to transition out of Apartheid without the bloodshed that characterized so many of the independence movements of the region.

While I am known as the Canadian voice on Internet Monk, my family had roots in Africa going back to 1905. My great-grandfather was an American of German Mennonite heritage who was a pioneering missionary in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe.) Many of my family members were born in Rhodesia or South Africa, which resulted in me living as a teenager in Rhodesia, just north of South Africa, during the height of Apartheid. Rhodesia was going through a civil war at the time. While I escaped the direct results of the war, I was certainly impacted. The department store that my Mother shopped at was bombed. When we traveled out of town, as a 15 year old my job was to hold the shotgun out the rear window of the car to discourage attacks. Once, while travelling down to South Africa to a youth camp the bus immediately behind us was ambushed. Whites were conscripted into the army, and my Father was away for months at a time. (He had volunteered to fix radios before he was conscripted in order to avoid being in armed conflict.) There were other incidents: The ferry that we had taken in an overnight trip along Lake Kariba was attacked one month later. The small lake where we liked to swim and camp experienced a sniper attack. A couple of times when visiting my Uncle’s farm we had to arm ourselves against the potential of imminent attack. He was of retirement age and had offered the farm to my Father, but for various reasons we chose to come to Canada. A year later a mortar was shot into my Uncle’s garage and killed his foreman.

Why do I mention this? Having gone through this war, and knowing what horrible things war brings, my hopes and prayers in the eighties and early nineties were that South Africa could avoid this fate. In 1989, during my University days in Canada I went to see the South African band Savuka. Along with their predecessor Juluka, they were my favorite band. During the concert Johnny Clegg, the leader of the band, started speaking: “The time for negotiations is past. It is time to rise up and overthrow the oppressors. Blood needs to flow in South Africa.” I got so angry I nearly rushed the stage. (My friend who I was with was certainly glad that I didn’t.) I was very much afraid that this kind of rhetoric would kindle a civil war.

I had started to see the seeds of change in South Africa. The Afrikaner National Party and the Dutch Reformed Church were very much intertwined. In 1985, 92% of Afrikaaners belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church. Government leaders were Sunday School teachers, and elders in their respective churches. The Dutch Reformed Church was described as the National Party at prayer. Apartheid at its heart had a theological foundation. The Calvinistic Afrikaner saw themselves as the “elect” who were to be separated from the world. Apartheid literally means apart-ness. The church had not only tolerated Apartheid, but had been at the forefront of implementing it and encouraging it. In October of 1986 the first ray of hope came from the church. It declared that “South Africa’s system of racial separation and minority white rule is morally wrong and has done the country and its people grievous harm.”

This was I believe the key moment in South African history. Although Savuka was blind to this, the government could not be out of step with its church for long. When F.W. de Klerk became President in 1989 he immediately signaled the start of negotiations with Mandela’s ANC. Mandela being released from prison in 1990, and a few short months later the church declared Apartheid to be a sin. It was not surprising then that a white’s only referendum in 1992 overwhelmingly supported the continuation of negotiations. In 1993 de Klerk and Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 1994 Mandela became President of the country.

As we mourn Mandela’s passing, let us be in prayer for the country of South Africa. There is a sustained level of violence in many parts of the country. HIV/AIDS is endemic. 5.7 million South Africans are HIV positive, 18% of the adult population. Life expectancy at birth has shrunk to 41 years for men and 46 years for women. There is a horrible myth circulating in the country that raping a virgin will cure AIDS. It has the highest incidence of rape in the world, with an estimated 500,000 rapes happening each year. 41% of these attacks are on those under the age of 18. Youth leaders in the ANC appear to be becoming increasingly radicalized, and I believe that the country faces a very real risk of sliding into increasing levels of violence and poverty. Please, please, pray.


  1. Thank you for sharing your story and insights about a part of the world that many people in North America know only in sound bites and slogans. It does disturb me that a once thriving country is now rapidly sliding into a third world status through violence, ignorance, and poor management of resources. I view Mr. Mandela as an idol with some seriously clay feet, although like most major public figures, he is larger in his recent death than he was in life.

    I often wonder why so much of Africa has not progressed, especially during the 20th and early 21st centuries. It is a question that I do not know the answer to.

    • Once thriving? What do you mean by that? South Africa has always been a poor country with many problems. It’s just that now these things have fully surfaced, whereas before, they were repressed by the nation’s racist authoritarian government.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Africa’s always been Earth’s hard-luck continent. The deadliest diseases, the deadliest wildlife, no native riding animal or heavy draft animal, massive mineral wealth that REQUIRES high-tech to extract it — no way to bootstrap your civilization on low-tech-accessible resources. Civilizations only rarely rising above simple tribal level, and those didn’t last long.

        And those mineral resources attracted first Arab then European colonizers with the tech to extract the riches. Source of slaves, source of wealth, just one huge resource to be exploited. (What the Belgians did to the Congo — almost depopulating the entire Congo river basin in the name of Ivory and Rubber — can only be compared to a giant Auschwitz the size of Australia.)

        And then the locals rebelled into independence movements during the Cold War, where “Us vs Them” and “enemy of my enemy is my friend” geopolitics entered the scene; USA vs USSR with the Third World caught in the middle). Plus the newly-independent African nations trying to be as “Un-European” as possible and throwing away the good along with the bad leaving only the ugly (a dynamic you also found among the barbarians who inherited the Western Roman Empire, ushering in the Dark Ages; hard to maintain a civilization with a “My Tribe Alone” raid-and-pillage economy).

  2. Thanks for your post, Michael. That is so horrible about the amount of rapes going on and the life expectancy being in the 40s. They surely do need prayers and help.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Especially with the myth that “sex with a virgin will cure AIDS”. The Victorian version of that — “Sex with a virgin will cure syphilis” — was one of the main draws of Victorian-era child prostitution. Because a pre-pubescent little girl is almost certainly a virgin. I leave you to figure out where that leads.

  3. Or a question to which many do not want an answer since some answers have been offered.

    Thank you to the author for this honest appraisal. Things have gotten worse, not better, overall.

  4. Klasie Kraalogies says

    Well, I guess this is one topic I could write about myself. But I was thinking of this last night – as I contemplated the death of Madiba. You know where his real greatness lay? It is relatively easy to be a revolutionary. To be a freedom fighter. Being a peacemaker and conciliator is much more difficult. But to almost seamlessly make the transition from the former to the latter, and become beloved by your enemy -because you obviously love them in return – that, is the sign of a really great and extraordinary man.

    In 1995, Mandela went to Orania, a private, whites-only enclave, to visit Betsie Verwoerd, widow of the erstwhile prime Minister and architect of apartheid, Dr Verwoerd. There is a lovely photo of them: The tall, 77-year old Mandela with his arm around the shoulders of the diminutive and frail 93-year old widow. (see the second photo on this page:

    Here was a man, which we can only hope to emulate in his expressions of love, care and forgivness.

  5. David Cornwell says

    “The Dutch Reformed Church was described as the National Party at prayer. Apartheid at its heart had a theological foundation. The Calvinistic Afrikaner saw themselves as the “elect” who were to be separated from the world.”

    It is sad that this church saw itself as being the enforcer of the status-quo. In reality it was an agent of the state. It seems to me that it had no clue as to the message of Jesus. Karl Barth, instrumental in the “Theological Declaration of Barmen” wrote the following:

    “8.23 We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commision, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church’s vocation as well.
    8.24 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.”

    Since Constantine, the Church has always been prone the temptation offered by worldly power. This most definitely includes the United States.

    • Klasie Kraalogies says

      Yes David, I have often remarked that the Christian Right in the US reminds me so much of the Church, especially the Dutch Reformed Church, but also many other evangelicals, in the South Africa of my youth.

    • Klasie Kraalogies says

      BTW, their are 3 main Dutch Reformed Churches: The Nederduits Gereformeerd Kerk, or NG Church, is the biggest one, and had the biggest influence. Of the 2 smaller ones, the Gereformeerde Kerk is theologically very conservative, whereas the Nederduits Hervormde Kerk is politically more conservative. After the 1986 declaration, politcal conservatives split from the NG Church and formed the APK – Arikaanse Protestants Kerk. But they have since dwindled.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        How well do these three get along? I suspect the APK (coming from a church split) doesn’t get along with the others at all. (In a similar “matter of Black and White”, the Southern Baptists originally split off from the other Baptists in the USA during the runup to the American Civil War; a major reason for doing so was to defend Southern Slavery against the Godless Abolitionists. Such splits usually end up “Us vs Them”.)

        • Klasie Kraalogies says

          Well, I have been out of circulation for a while, but there are inter-church communication. Generally it is an agree-to-disagree attitude, but I think it was less so in the distant past.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “The Dutch Reformed Church was described as the National Party at prayer. Apartheid at its heart had a theological foundation. The Calvinistic Afrikaner saw themselves as the “elect” who were to be separated from the world.”

      I remember hearing about a South African National Party interview where the Afrikaaner party spokesman said flat-out “God created the Black Man to SERVE the White Man.” Very much like the Scientific Racism attitude of the Victorians, where White Supremacy was believed to be as fundamental a law of nature as Gravity.

      And beyond the National Party was the Broederbond, a secret society best described as “a South African Ku Klux Klan” (except dressing in black robes & hoods instead of white). And beyond the Broederbond was the AWB, literally the South African Nazi Party (with a three-armed triskelion instead of a four-armed swastika — Apartheid didn’t go far enough for these AWB fringies).

      Factor in hardening of the attitudes and the oppressed getting revenge on their former oppressors (like the “We’s de Winnin Culluh Now!” attitude of black Federal troops during the post-American Civil War Reconstruction period), and it’s almost a miracle that South Africa didn’t go the way of Uganda or Zimbabwe or the Congo or Central African Republic/Empire/whatever.

      Friend of mine told me there was one black mark on Mandella’s record as President of the RSA, though. South Africa went from a budget surplus to near-bankruptcy under his tenure, from prosperous to making-ends-meet. Much like President Grant, President Mandella had trusted the wrong people (family relations and ANC comrades) when he staffed his cabinet and administration and they cleaned out the treasury behind his back. Mandella fired them when he found out, but by then the damage had been done.

      • Klasie Kraalogies says

        One correction. The Broederbond was behind the National Party, sure. But the AWB were against the NP – they thought they were sell outs, and hated them. While the Broederbond was a secretive organisation of nationalist (and racist) intelligentsia, the AWB appealed to Joe sixpack. The Broederbond changed when the Nats changed – under De Klerk. The AWB just became an irrelevant fringe group.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Okay. So the Broederbond was an equivalent of the Second Klan of the Roaring Twenties, emphasizing the Pillars of the Community, movers, and shakers like some sort of robed and hooded Freemasons while the AWB was more like today’s Skinheads, appealing to losers with promises of “Then YOU’LL be the ones On Top.” The first infiltrating the Establishment to become the Power Behind the Throne from within, the second taking to the streets to overthrow the Establishment and take Power from without.

          • Klasie Kraalogies says

            Not quite. AWB was between the skinheads and the Clansmen, but emphasized traditional culture somewhat.

            The Broederbond was more like the fabled Illuminati than Free masons / klansmen, on a small scale. Of course, I should say, as people believed/believes the “Illuminati” to be.

  6. David Cornwell says

    How did the positions of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa influence events? And especially the work of Archbishop Tutu? We need to understand the history of all these events, for our own sakes. Sometimes it seems that we in America live in our own isolated, walled off life, with so little interest in the history of the remainder of the world.

    • Klasie Kraalogies says

      David, the Anglican church was, if any, the church that most often criticized the government. They picked Tutu as Archbishop after all.

  7. Mike, thanks for this post. It’s very consistent with what I had learned years ago from a close friend who served as a Mennonite missionary (MCC) to South Africa in the 1980s. He was in the Transkei homeland, training pastors. Some of his letters then, and stories later while he worked with me lobstering, tell some tales very much like KKK or Nazi Germany, as HUG and Klasie are discussing. In fact, he was thrown in jail for a while as result of a roundup of suspected ANC personnel in his office (he has the honor of being in prison at the same time as Mandela).

    He had to take a leave for a year, partly because of his imprisonment, came back to Maine and fished with me in 1987, then went back to S. Africa in 1988 but it was difficult for him to remain there. Fished with me again in ’89 and watched the dismantling of the apartheid system from my television, coaching me through it.

    He had a career change and became a nurse practitioner, then served on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, where he was reminded greatly of the homeland system in South Africa, the concept of which he claims was borrowed from our reservation system. I think the white South African government perfected it though, with their legal fiction assigning the blacks to “autonomous” homelands, which allowed for their deprivation of rights and economic exploitation within the “white” areas where they were considered foreign migrant workers.

    I’m crushed to hear that Johnny Clegg got radical in a violent way. My friend gave me some Juluka cassettes, and I’ve since bought one in CD to replace it. The African Litany CD has some of the best rock/folk I’ve ever heard, and I listen to it often on the boat or while driving. Although it’s not too political (in the English parts; I have no idea what they’re saying in Zulu or Xhosa), an interesting line in “Heart of the Dancer” goes,

    “Oh the dancing bear can’t bear to dance much longer,
    Soon the puppet will be the dancer’s master.
    Soon the puppet will be the dancer’s master.”

    So that ruined my day, hearing about Johnny Clegg, and I don’t think my friend was aware of that either, as he’s more than merely a pacifist. Incidentally, yesterday on his facebook page his profile picture went dark—nothing but a black square in honor of Mandela.

    Prayers indeed. Thanks again.

  8. Some time back I was watching a National Geographic special concerning the Genographic Project. I found it interesting the they have determined that genetic Adam and Eve were Africans from the region of south-east Africa. That really struck me in light of the institutional and church backed racism that dominated this part of the world for so long. Little did these Christians realize that Adam and Eve, the perfect humans, were black Africans. But we can be grateful that these Christians eventually repented of their ways and even went so far as to call it “sin.”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      As far as anyone can tell from genetic drift analysis, the Khoi-San people of SE Africa — short and slim, with medium-brown skin and Africanized features, speaking Click-heavy languages — were the original modern humans. They’re divided into two peoples today, the nomadic herdsmen Khoi (once called “Hottentots” in Victorian times) and the hunter-gatherer-forager San (once called “Kalahari Bushmen”).

      • Klasie Kraalogies says

        I am 2% Khoisan, as per recent DNA analysis. Does that mean I’m the senior guy around here? 🙂

  9. Brianthedad says

    Sorry to get off subject, but the imagery of the teenaged Mike riding shotgun on a missionary trip piqued my interest. I understood the Mennonites to be pacifist in nature, so that at took me a bit by surprise. Both the Schleitheim and Dordrecht confessions urged peace and non-violence, right? Not that I fault anybody for defending themselves. I don’t know that I would have done differently, had I the courage and conviction to live and minister in a war-torn Africa to begin with! How was that viewed in the mission field? Again, great to see non-US perspectives on world issues. Thanks Mike and imonk!

    • My great-grandfather was Brethren in Christ (a type of Mennonite). My grandmother was excommunicated when she married my grandfather who was Plymouth Brethren. Though my great-grandparents and grandparents were missionaries, this was on my mothers side of the family. My father moved to South Africa from Northern Ireland when he was eight. (His Father was from Ireland and his mother from Barbados). My father was the first Christian in his family. My immediate family were not missionaries. My dad started in mining and ended up working for the railways. My grandfather on my father’s side was a career navy man. So, although I have great respect for pacifists, there was not any in my immediate family.

  10. Michael, I suspect that our great-grandfathers knew each other. Mine, Fred Bunker, was given land by Cecil Rhodes to found what became the Mount Selinda Mission Station — which last I heard was still operating. He also started Amanzemtoti (sp?) mission in Natal, which is where my grandmother and her four brothers were born. And I lived in Johannesburg in the early 70s, during the extreme of apartheid. Everything you report seems true to me, from what I know. Life is desperately complex, and nowhere more than in Africa, which I love enough to break my heart over.

    • Damaris, were any of your ancestors here in Maine? I have Bunker blood too, but then just about everybody here on the coast or islands does. ‘Cept my wife. She’s from away.

  11. My earliest ancestor to arrive in North America was Richard Bunker in 1631. He landed in “Maine,” although I’m not sure if where he landed would be within the bounds of the current state. Possibly, though, he was around Mt. Desert. So we’re probably related a little more recently that Eve!

    • He wouldn’t have been in this area until the 1760s, after the English got the French sorted out. The current Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1820. But there’s no doubt we’re cousins.

      I knew this was a good blog.