Beyers Naudé: ‘Who defines the concept, Afrikaner?’

Twenty-seven years ago Jani Allan interviewed the Rev Beyers Naudé at his modest home in Greenside, Johannesburg. His endless soul-searching in defining the concept of an Afrikaner   continues in Afrikaners’ ongoing existential quest for belonging.

Christi van der Westhuizen, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Pretoria, advances  andersdenkendheid – a condition of thinking differently – as the democratic duty of Afrikaners. Andersdenkendheid lies in direct opposition to eendersdenkendheid – a condition derived from the doctrinaire advances of JG Strijdom. The Afrikaans word refers to a condition of thinking the same. In 1948 Strijdom claimed that opposition to apartheid was as treasonable as refusing to defend one’s own country during an outbreak of war.

The Rev Beyers Naudé (1915-2004).

The Rev Beyers Naudé (1915-2004).

The hallmarks of andersdenkendheid – dogged questioning and critical thinking – break with the conformist strain of  Afrikaner civil society. Oom Bey, a fierce critic of the state’s moral turpitude was portrayed as a verraier for sharing his enlightenment. The government would implicate Naudé in their rooi gevaar narrative by deliberately misconstruing his support of gelykstelling as communism.

The toxic foundations of the state were underpinned by its strategic position in the global political system of the Cold War. Anti-communism was relied upon as the justification for a grisly catalogue of horrors committed against the black populace and dissidents.

The Rev and contemporaries such as André Brink and Breyten Breytenbach continue to act as guides for a volk exhibiting signs of existential angst as the role and legitimacy of the taal and Afrikaans kultuur dominate the national conversation. Their example should continue to be upheld in this fractious epoch where a retreat into the laager threatens the existence of democratic Afrikanerdom. – Ed.



SOME see him as a latter-day Thomas Moore, a martyr torn between divine and civil disobedience. Others despise him: he’s the broeder who betrayed both bond and bloodline, the ultimate verraaier.

In 1963 Christiaan Frederick Beyers Naudé, dissident theologian, was defrocked, ostracised by the Afrikaner-volk, sent to trial and banned for seven years under the Suppression of Communism Act.

But this man for all seasons has weathered the ravaging storms.

He’s become an international figure whose opinions and counsel about South African affairs are constantly sought by the world’s opinion makers, movers, givers and shakers. JANI ALLAN spoke to Dr Beyers Naudé FACE TO FACE.

NEXT month, Dr Beyers Naudé has been invited to Washington for possible talks with President Bush and the American Forum on Africa. To discuss what can be done to encourage the process of negotiating with the ANC.

‘Eventually, it is these two forms of nationalism – Afrikaner and African – that must be addressed.’

Fellow travellers, I’ll wager, will be able to pick out Oom Naudé’s luggage easily. The cardboard job with the ‘I love Soweto’ and ‘Free Mandela’ stickers.

People and principles, not possessions govern Oom Bey’s life.

The cramped study in his home in Hoylake Road, Greenside, Johannesburg, is his womb, unchanged for a quarter of a century. Tired Venetian blinds, maroon and grey telephone, well-worn swivel chair … and hundreds of books, the testimony of a life spent searching and researching, a cry for reason: ‘Cry Amandla’, ‘Move Your Shadow’ , ‘Black Power in Africa’

Nothing Oom Bey likes more than spending time with Brahms and a book. Nothing too taxing, you understand. Maybe an in-depth study on social justice in Germany.

The history of the Afrikaner nation, it is said, can not be written without the history of the Afrikaans churches. And since the history of the Afrikaans Church is inextricably bound up with the history of the Broederbond, Beyers Naudé’s ‘twin-treachery’ when he denounced both in 1963 has been recorded as the most traumatic event in the histories of both organs.

‘Sfunny. For a ‘traitor’ he’s received countless accolades, honorary doctorates and awards. He’s even preached at Westminster Abbey – the first Afrikaans theologian so honoured.

Born in Roodeport, he was one of eight children living in a manse of the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk. His father, a founder member of the Broederbond and a minister of the DRC, fought in the DRC, fought in the South African War. You can’t get much closer to the pulsing aorta of the laager than that.

HE completed his theological studies (with an MA degree in languages) at Stellenbosch and in 1939 became assistant minister at Wellington.

By 1940, he became the youngest member of the Broederbond.

All the right moves.

Everything pointed to his becoming moderator of the white DRC, a stepping-stone to Prime Minister …

The Upheaval, the Sea Change, came when he began to question the biblical justification of apartheid by the DRC.

‘I made an intensive study of the Bible to prove that those justifications were not valid. I concluded that the passages that were being used by the white DRC to justify apartheid were unfounded. In some cases, there was a DELIBERATE distortion in order to prove the unprovable!

‘It was a terrible shock, the teachings of my church were no longer my Christian beliefs!’

Conscience was his only compass in sailing this unknown ocean.

‘The moral foundation on which I based my life and my assumptions was gone. I was facing a choice between religious conviction and submission to ecclesiastical authority. By obeying the latter I would save face but lose my soul ..’

Lenny Bruce once said: ‘Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.’

He was afraid, ‘I hoped the problem would solve itself. But those kinds of problems never solve themselves …’

Oom Bey’s Dead Sea Scroll parchment face crack-lines as he laughs ruefully. He crosses his legs. His polyester safari suit squeaks sympathetically.

‘I don’t want to be the first to take the leap into the abyss.’

But being a remarkable man of extraordinary conviction (and possessing a great measure of ‘typical Afrikaner obstinacy’) he did. He shared his revelations with leading members of the Broederbond.

‘I hoped we could set in motion a process of slow education, of RE-educating, theologically and politically, our Afrikaner people.’

They said: ‘Beyers, you’re playing with fire.’

Betraying the volk is equivalent to a betrayal of God. But betrayal of the Broederbond? That’s an even more serious sin, in the eyes of many Afrikaners, than betrayal of the Supreme.

Oom Bey will be 74 on May 10. A benign man with horn-rim specs, liver-spotted hands, a courteous manner and a ready laugh, he is totally without regrets, without a trace of bitterness.

Some people believe he’s a communist.

‘It’s the result of a campaign of misinformation and deliberately created by a very sophisticated way of handling the media. There’s a lot we can learn from the whole Marxist interpretation of society. But if that makes me a communist so be it … I have an inner peace because I know the truth.

Though banned from the laager, culturally and emotionally he still sees himself as ‘n ware Afrikaner.

‘I’ve never rejected the Afrikaner people.

‘Who defines the concept, Afrikaner? Are André Brink, Van Zyl Slabbert, Breyten Breytenbach Afrikaners? I had an interesting discussion with Breytie once. He said ‘I suppose I’m a verdwaalde Afrikaner.’

Since his retirement as general secretary of the SACC in 1977 – ‘I thought it was important that leadership should be in black hands’ – he runs a small bureau for ecumenical and pastoral concerns. In exile, but at ease with his conscience.

The tide is turnings and it’s going to be stormy, predicts Oom Bey. But ‘We have to help the white community not to see it as a disaster, but as an opportunity.’

Some say that Beyers Naudé the man in the dock, has become the prosecutor, that the South African government has been put on trial before the court of humanity and history and found guilty by its own testimony.

Eventually, it is history which confirms the truthfulness of who you are and what your beliefs are. 

This column was originally published by the Sunday Times on 23 April 1989.