Towards understanding South Africa

Nov 29, 2018 by

by Chris Sugden and Gavin Mitchell, Evangelicals Now:

The irony is that this ‘rainbow nation’ of many different languages, races and cultures did not start off as nation at all. Cape Town was only intended from the 16th to the 19th centuries to be a refuelling port for food and water for sailing ships of the merchant companies of Portugal, Holland, France and, finally, England en route to their trading empires in the East Indies and India.

Protestant wine makers

As a ‘refuelling’ station it needed to grow the vegetables and fruit which the ships needed. One thing the Dutch settlers found was that they could not make good wine from the grapevines which easily grew in the area.

When the Edict of Nantes (which, in 1598, had given limited civic freedom to Protestants in France) was revoked in 1685, open persecution of French Protestants led to many fleeing the country. The Cape Dutch recruited these Protestant French farmers who knew how to make wine to come to the Cape and gave them lands at the far end of the settlement up against the mountains. So refugees from France built a very successful viniculture in the Cape.

The economic success of the area attracted peoples from elsewhere. The concern to prevent the French depriving Great Britain of the Cape led to a British takeover and the migration of the Dutch to found their Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. But the discovery of gold and diamonds prompted the British to follow them and eventually after two Boer Wars to absorb them in the Union of South Africa.

In the 1950s the Nationalist Government introduced legal segregation along racial lines, a deep wound in the society which was only lanced in 1991 with the release of Nelson Mandela.


The whole nation is deeply aware that Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary generosity to his former gaolers and the prison guards of his people saved the country from a bloody revolution and a bloodbath of revenge. He was, among other things, shaped by the Methodist mission in the country. Another key factor was that faith lines crossed racial divisions.

Many marks of Christian mission, which started in earnest in the early 19th century, are present. Scottish Presbyterian ministers were invited by the Dutch Calvinists to assist their churches; hence the legacy of Andrew Murray who made the South African church a mission church to reach the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

Churches are well attended. Sunday is observed, with many shops and businesses closed. Its faculties of theology can still be specifically Christian and focused on the well-being of the church, although the church was deeply divided in the apartheid years.

Yet after visiting two lively and full services of black and coloured Anglicans, many but not all women, one has the sense of a church being betrayed by some of its leaders. The people value family, marriage and children very highly. The faith shared as a community is a rock in the midst of a sea of troubles. They trust in God implicitly. Yet some leaders of the church want to undermine these certainties and securities which hold them together in their very fragile world.


The country has many challenges – corruption at the highest levels of government, a high level of HIV/Aids, and inter-gang warfare and murders in the townships.

South Africa is a product of much mission activity, the skills of the victims of religious persecution, and of a long struggle to find a way of different races living together with competing claims of entitlement. What it has achieved is remarkable. It is a rich resource for studying how Christian mission and faith, traditional religiosity, and modern views of society can move through confrontation to enjoy some degree of harmony.

Siren calls

Europe came to the Cape and fought its wars here. As Europe turns its back on the Christian faith, it has much to learn from the fruit of what its forbears planted. Orthodox Evangelical Anglicans need to realise, as this history testifies, that the West will continue to export its disputes to Africa. Southern African Anglicans are increasingly subject to the siren calls of inclusive, diverse, progressive versions of non-biblical Anglicanism. They need the understanding, prayer, support and fellowship of their non-African brothers and sisters.

The Revd Gavin Mitchell is a Southern Africa member of the Council of the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion (EFAC).

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