8 September 2004
Afrikaner cleric Beyers Naude went against his entire upbringing, community, and the government of the day to campaign against apartheid. His contribution to the fight against oppression in SA, and his challenge to the establishment from which he came, makes him one of the country’s most courageous heroes.
Naude passed away at the Elim retirement village in Northcliff, Johannesburg on 7 September 2004. He was 89. His wife, Ilse, aged 92, was by his side.
Former president Nelson Mandela, paying tribute to his old friend, said Naude had “stood up against apartheid at a time when it was an unpopular thing for white people to do, and he did so at the expense of his family and his freedom”.
Fellow church leader Desmond Tutu, also a close friend, said Naude’s integrity had led him to obey his conscience whatever the cost.
“Although he continued to love his community, he did not allow this to deflect him from the truth as he saw it”, Tutu said. “While his community rejected him, he was embraced with great affection and admiration by the black community.
“Beyers helped black people to not hate white people by showing them that not all white people are bad.”
Raised in the heart of Afrikanerdom
Christiaan Frederik Beyers Naude was born in Roodepoort, west of Johannesburg, on 10 May 1915. In 1921, his family moved to the Cape. He completed an MA in languages at the University of Stellenbosch, and later obtained another qualification in theology.
Naude was raised in the heart of Afrikanerdom, the son of a founding member of the Broederbond, a secretive, elitist, highly influential club dedicated to promoting the interests of Afrikaners by preserving apartheid.
In 1940 he was appointed assistant minister at the Dutch Reformed Church in Wellington, Cape Town. In the same year he married Ilse Weder, the daughter of a Moravian missionary. He also joined the Broederbond as its youngest member, aged 25.
But as Cedric Mason puts it in an obituary published by Business Day, while Naude’s star seemed firmly on the rise, “inside he was hearing a different story.
“He began to examine his Bible and theology more critically”, Mason writes, “and reluctantly admitted to himself that apartheid was not scriptural, that its effects were unacceptable, that Christians were one people throughout the world …
“Such suspicions threatened the truth he had been brought up to revere and the prominence he was attaining.”
Still Naude said nothing, and accepted a call to the prestigious Aasvoelkop congregation in Johannesburg.
The 1960 Sharpeville massacre, in which 69 anti-apartheid demonstrators were shot dead by the police, was Naude’s turning point.
He resigned from the Broederbond after 22 years of membership, and while attending an ecumenical conference at Cottesloe the following year, formed the idea of an interdenominational, inter-racial Christian Institute.
In 1963, the Dutch Reformed Church insisted that Naude choose between it and the Christian Institute. On a Sunday in September of that year, he made his decision known to his Aasvoelkop congregation.
Mason writes: “It was, he said, a choice between obedience in faith and subjection to the authority of the church. He must obey God rather than man. He hung his gown on the pulpit and walked out, a reluctant rebel, 48 years old.”
Naude and his family, ostracised by their fellow Afrikaners, were embraced by the black community, and joined a Dutch Reformed congregation led by Reverend Sam Buti in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township.
This marked the beginning of years of support for the fight against oppression in South Africa. In 1968, the Christian Institute was a partner in the Message to the People of SA, which denounced apartheid as false gospel.
In 1977, Naude and his Christian Institute were banned. This did not stop him, however, from clandestinely supporting those involved in the struggle in every way he could – most importantly, by giving them counsel.
“A constant stream of visitors came to Naude for counsel, friendship and support”, Mason writes. “Many now in high places recall those discussions by the fruit trees in his garden. It was there one day that he showed me a scrap of paper brought by a traveller in the bottom of a cigarette packet, which read: ‘Thank you for all you are doing.’ It was signed by Oliver Tambo.”
In 1984, after seven years, Naude’s banning order was lifted. According to SA History Online, he immediately threw himself back into the struggle against apartheid, succeeding Archbishop Tutu as the secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches in 1985, and in 1987 forming part of the Afrikaner group that met with ANC representatives in Senegal.
The demise of apartheid and the move to democracy in South Africa turned Naude from pariah to hero. President Nelson Mandela, speaking at Naude’s 80th birthday, said: “His life … demonstrates what it means to rise above race, to be a true South African.”
“Oom Bey and Tannie Ilse paved the way during difficult years”, Mandela said, “and they remain in the company of our lodestars. Their force of example and message are simple: We must build one another and build together.”
In June 1999, despite failing health, Naude opened the inauguration ceremony for President Thabo Mbeki. By the end of the same year he had returned to his old congregation of Aasvoelkop as worshipper.
He is survived by his wife, four children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.