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Charismatics and Change in South Africa

by Irving Hexham and Karla Powe-Hexham

Dr. Hexham is an associate professor of religious studies and Dr. Poewe-Hexham is professor of anthropology at the University of Calgary, Alberta. This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 17-24, 1988, p. 739. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Imagine 5,000 young South Africans of all races living together for a week as part of a multiracial mission festival. They share accommodations in hotels and holiday apartments and eat their meals at festival gatherings. The speakers are drawn from all racial groups. Following one black evangelist’s powerful gospel message, the whole assembly breaks out in spontaneous dancing. Black, white, "coloured" and Asian people link arms and dance joyfully in large circles. Others simply take the hand of their neighbor. regardless of color, and jump for joy. This seemingly fantastic scene has already happened. In June 1987 a multiracial group of 5,000 young South Africans met in Durban to celebrate "GO-FEST," organized by Youth with a Mission (YWAM) , a charismatic movement. Without any hoopla or extensive publicity, the organization held a press conference, but no members of the secular press attended. And yet YWAM pulled off an amazing feat by conducting a multiracial conference where delegates actually lived together in racially mixed housing.

The scene was electric. During one evening meeting, black evangelist Michael Kolisang preached, making the usual evangelistic appeal after his sermon and leading a healing service. When everything seemed to be over, the dancing began. To the chorus "What a Great God We Have," the audience began to celebrate their love for God and each other. Then they called upon the band to play the song "Jabulani," which was recorded by the South African charismatic pop music group Friends First. More than any other music, . ‘Jabulani" seemed to express the mood of the crowd. One participant claimed that collectively the group ‘saw a new Africa.’

Cynics might be tempted to dismiss such enthusiasm as an emotional release in a tense situation. It undoubtedly had elements of that, but it was far more. Since 1979, hundreds of new, independent charismatic churches have formed throughout South Africa. They bridge racial barriers as no other groups do. For years mainline churches like the Anglicans, Lutherans and Roman Catholics have talked about reconciliation and multiracialism. but their weekly services have achieved only tokenism. The new charismatics are different.

For four months in 1987 we researched the growth of these new churches. We encountered much resistance to this study from members of established churches. reminding us that during the early 1970s studies of Afrikaners were unpopular and discouraged. Since then much has changed, as a result of the publication of T. Dunbar Moodie’s The Rise of Afrikanerdom: Power, Apartheid and the Afrikaner Civil Religion (University of California Press, 1975) The odium once bestowed on Afrikaners has been shifted to charismatics. This switch may be partly due to the apparent crisis and decline that Afrikaner nationalism was experiencing by 1975. Today many observers believe that charismatics are on the rise and therefore to be feared as constituting a new form of reaction.

The new charismatics’ numbers are significant. We estimate that between 5 and 10 per cent of white South Africans belong to independent charismatic churches. If one includes traditional pentecostals and the charismatic black independent churches, the total portion of South Africans involved in some form of the charismatic movement could well be as large as 35 per cent. Historically, members of the black independent churches avoided contact with white Christians. Today leaders and, to a lesser extent, followers of black and white independent charismatic churches enjoy more frequent contact. Despite repeated attempts, mainline denominations and groups like the South African Council of Churches and the now banned Christian Institute have failed to establish strong contacts with the black independent churches. This failure is perhaps due to the cultural distance between the English-dominated mainline churches and working-class blacks -- many of whom also find the charismatics’ conservative theology more appealing.

The growth of independent churches is noteworthy because they reject sanctions and violence as a means to change South Africa. By contrast, the South African Council of Churches (SACC) which represents approximately 22.5 per cent of all South Africans, and the Roman Catholic Church, which claims 9.5 per cent of the population, have recently endorsed the use of violence as a "necessary evil" to "free" black South Africans. And their spokespersons are well known to advocate economic sanctions. On the other hand, both black and white charismatics seek change but reject violence.

These differences seem to mirror current opinion polls. Approximately one-third of all South Africans claim to support nonviolent change, another one-third admit to being confused, while the remaining one-third support the use of violence. Black support for violence accompanies a call for economic sanctions and a desire to overthrow the existing power structure. White supremacists want to "solve the kaffir problems once and for all" by preserving apartheid with a vengeance and instigating a repressive regime which would make P. W. Botha’s government look as passive and non-threatening as a group of left-wing Sunday school teachers.

The future of South Africa clearly lies with the undecided. This is a battle for minds and souls, and the charismatics are determined to do their part. They are not simply calling for a religious revival but are also very actively carrying out programs to help blacks and initiate meaningful change.

Though living conditions for blacks and the vestiges of apartheid are still appalling, conditions have vastly improved at an ever-increasing rate over the past 20 years. Today, the Group Areas Act, which regulates where people of different races may live, is apartheid’s last remaining cornerstone. But it is rapidly being eroded. Some areas, like the Johannesburg suburb of Hillbrow, are already integrated, and similar "gray" areas are quickly developing throughout the country. Of course, there are local setbacks, but the general trend away from apartheid is evident.

The most impressive progress is taking place among young people. One church, whose members are all under 35, meets alternately in a school hall in Johannesburg and a school hall in Soweto. Thus, 250 young South Africans cross racial and geographic barriers to witness to the love of Christ. This group, the Vineyard Fellowship, is led jointly by a white and a black pastor. It also operates a communal farm known as the Joweto Project.

Other churches, each in its own way, also reach out to embrace people of all races. Of the 2,000 members of the Durban Christian Centre, led by Fred and Nellie Roberts, 60 per cent are black. In Pretoria. Ed Roebert heads the 3,000-strong Hatfield Community Church. Although predominantly white, it has managed to bridge the chasm between Afrikaner and English-speaking South Africans. This is a rare achievement. especially since 80 per cent of the congregation speak Afrikaans at home but attend English-language services.

As Afrikaner-English tensions disappear, people question other old prejudices. One Hatfield pastor told us how he grew up to "hate the English." Following his conversion, however, he realized that if he could love the English he could also love blacks. As a result, the church, as a body, reaches out to blacks.

Most impressive of all is Ray Macaulay’s Rhema Church in Randbury with its 12,000 members, of whom some 25 per cent are black. Black radicals scorn Rhema and claim that only upwardly mobile, middle-class blacks attend. Though that may be true, the interracial contacts are impressive.

The New Covenant Church in Randburg takes a different approach. Here the emphasis is more on community and direct political involvement. Already the New Covenant Churches have produced some damning "prophecies" and booklets condemning apartheid as evil and calling for rapid social change. They appear to be in the forefront of the South African charismatic movement.

South Africa’s charismatic churches are loosely linked by three umbrella organizations. The least structured is the Fellowship of Christian Churches, which is led primarily by Fred Roberts. The Relating Churches of the New Covenant look to Dudley Daniels, who is seen as having a prophetic or apostolic role. A third group is the newly formed International Fellowship of Christian Churches, led by Ed Roebert, Ray Macaulay, Tim Salmon and the Afrikaans evangelist Nikki van der Westhuizen.

Together, these organizations represent at least as many whites as does SACC. Joined with other charismatic Black Independent Churches, they constitute a sizable proportion of the entire South African population. They are building interracial bridges by organizing significant evangelistic, social and educational projects for black areas. Simply entering black areas and seeing how the people have been forced to live is such a revelation to most South African whites that it inevitably changes their outlook on political issues.

The sociological evidence from which Morran and Schlemmer draw generalizations is questionable. Their study sampled a mere 80 people, only 30 of whom were members of the new charismatic churches. The others represented a control group. The sample was far too small to allow statistically valid inferences. Yet many South African mainline Christians accept Faith for the Fearful as proof that the new charismatic churches are reactionary.

Mainliners may be predisposed to this opinion because of theological and political differences between the two groups. First, charismatics espouse a conservative morality that, reflected in their traditional interpretation of Romans 13, seems to offer uncritical support to the government. However, some charismatics have published books that denounce the government’s racist policies. Perhaps mainliners have paid little attention to these works because they embarrassingly reify evil spirits and demons -- though their diagnosis of Botha as being "oppressed by the demon of apartheid" is not dissimilar to mainliners’ more sophisticated condemnation of the "evil structures of South African society."

Mainliners, especially those from other countries, also suspect charismatics’ politics because the latter don’t demand an unrealistic amount of radicalism from those who must live and work in South Africa. Actively opposing the governmental and societal systems of one’s own nation requires great risk, something that few who live outside the system can appreciate.

These prejudices against charismatics could lead mainline sociologists like Morran and Schlemmer to express a bias in their studies of charismatics. But most of our data contradict their conclusions, including their suggestion that the new charismatics are predominantly white. Though political equality and complete justice for blacks is still a long way off, it is no longer out of sight. Internal cultural change is providing hope. In the forefront are the charismatics, who are offering blacks and whites alike a new vision of the future. This hopeful vision of a land where all South Africans live together under the Lordship of Christ is the charismatics’ greatest contribution to the nation’s gloom and increasing political violence.

Theologians from mainline churches protest against what they see as undue praise for charismatics, and claim that their own churches have made similar attempts at integration for years. It is true that many white South Africans have firmly opposed apartheid and through church organizations like SACC have attempted to reach blacks. Such efforts cannot be underestimated and deserve our admiration.

However, most of these efforts lacked wholehearted involvement by entire congregations. Individuals and church leaders have made strenuous efforts to overcome apartheid, but rank-and-file members of mainline churches have not really resisted apartheid. Many of these churches’ self-conscious attempts at integration through organized celebrations and other meetings have failed. By contrast, charismatics are changing themselves, their attitudes and their interracial activities at the grass-roots level.

Another source of hope lies in the disintegration of the myth upholding apartheid. It had always contained Calvinist and nationalist elements. To Calvinists, the myth of apartheid had a powerful appeal in that it served to justify nationalism. But nationalists considered the Calvinist element in the mythology as simply a characteristic of being an Afrikaner. The myth of apartheid bore within itself the seed of the destruction of that nationalism. Afrikaner nationalists recognized this fact and replaced the Calvinist elements with a vague civil religion. On the other hand, Botha is attempting to rule South Africa and introduce meaningful change with pragmatic judgments devoid of mythological legitimations. But in the charismatic movement we see the growth of a new mythology that originated in Afrikaner circles yet offers all South Africans a vision of a new Africa.

We do not claim that South Africa is changing for the better. However, the potential for significant change exists and should be encouraged -- even though equally powerful forces threaten to create an increasingly repressive society. We are not alone in seeing some positive signs. The South African Institute of Race Relations, the oldest antiapartheid body in South Africa, is also cautiously optimistic about the possibility of reforming South African society without a violent revolution. Neither we nor the Institute of Race Relations are talking about the reform of apartheid; we foresee significant social change that will lead to the complete destruction of apartheid, and the creation of a multiracial, democratic society.

An American black once remarked to us that "feeling is the heart of black religion, and black religion is the heart of black politics. If black and white South Africans learn to dance together, then they are doing far more than simply learning that apartheid is wrong. It’s easy to condemn apartheid intellectually. But to feel it’s wrong -- that’s different."


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