Three Questions to Dr. Anne Heffernan

Professor in Southern African History, Durham University

What was the role of Christian student associations in anti-apartheid activism?

Christian student organizations played a number of roles in the anti-apartheid struggle, and these differed somewhat over time. In the period I discussed in my talk – the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s – these associations were one of the principal ways that students on black campuses were permitted to organise themselves when other types of student associations (especially overtly political ones) were banned. As a result, some of these groups came to take on more and more political activism. This was not seen as a conflict with their religious identity – to the contrary, for many students their identity as Christians carried with it an imperative to seek social justice. In the context of apartheid South Africa that meant challenging the politics of the state.

Can you tell us more about the emergence of Black theology (or Black Consciousness) at the University of the North (South Africa)?

Black Theology emerged first as a project of the University Christian Movement (UCM), which was formed in 1967 and had a presence on both black and white university campuses. Although UCM was founded at Rhodes University, a white campus, it quickly became more prominent on black campuses around the country, like the University of the North. I would argue that this was because student associations and organizations were more restricted on black campuses; for instance, the National Union of South African Students (the biggest student organization in the country) had been banned from forming a branch on the campus of the University of the North. As a result, religious organizations like UCM took a more prominent role in campus life, and especially in campus politics.

UCM was very concerned to join their religious convictions with their political ones; this was an ecumenical Christian organization, and, as I mentioned above, it was deeply committed to the cause of social justice and opposing the oppression of the apartheid state. Black Theology was the project that embodied bringing those aims and influences (religious and political) together. Black Theology drew heavily on the ideas of liberation theology, which came out of South American Catholicism, and its most prominent proponent was James Cone, a black American theologian. It emphasizes the idea that traditions of biblical exegesis and interpretation have been shaped by white supremacy, and argues that only by returning to the radical pro-poor, anti-exclusionary teachings of Jesus in the gospels could Christianity become relevant to black people. Cone argued this for black Americans, and student activists in South Africa adopted his ideas for their own context. Black Theology demanded an active form of Christianity – it called on adherents to challenge injustices like apartheid, and to seek liberation in this world, not just ultimate salvation after death.

These messages were especially compelling on campuses like the University of the North, where black students experienced many of apartheid’s exclusions and indignities on a daily basis. Christianity was also the dominant religion on campus, and there were more Christian student groups than any other, so for many students this connection of their faith to their experience of politics was very generative and exciting. It is one of the reasons UCM was so prominent on campus in the late 1960s.

In your presentation, you said that the University Christian Movement is becoming a secular space (what is how she framed it? Or secular theology?). What do you mean by that?

Over the five years of its existence (1967-1972) I think it’s fair to say that UCM became increasingly more secular – or at least less bound by any traditional frameworks of Christianity. It was founded as an ecumenical organization with support from five churches (Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalis). But by the early 1970s they were disengaging from using language about God or recognizing Christ as divine. Generally this was an effort to be more and more inclusive of the range of beliefs (and explorations) of its members. Many became disaffected with formal church structures during this period; in some cases this was because of churches’ conciliatory politics with the state, but also because of what were considered outdated social and sexual codes of ethics imposed by churches. UCM was very much a product of its time – a student organization of the late 1960s – and it became deeply involved in countercultural politics. But nonetheless UCM – and, importantly, the South African Students Organisation, which was formed after UCM and was even more prominent on black campuses – maintained much of the spirituality that characterized it earlier. Many members still identified as Christian, even though some were disaffected with their churches, and they used religious language and imagery to describe their work: SASO spoke of its movement having ‘bishops’, ‘prophets’ and ‘martyrs’. Dan Magaziner describes this approach as a kind of ‘secular theology’ (Magaziner, The Law and the Prophets, p. 77) and I think he is right to point to the fact that explicitly political organizations like SASO retained religious imagery and idioms even as explicitly religious organizations like UCM became less bound by strictures of organized religion. I do not think this ‘secularization’ represents a disaffection with spirituality – even as some students broke with religious organizations like churches, most maintained aspects of belief in God. And it is important to note that this spread of ‘secular theology’ was relatively contained to the most radical students on campuses. Many students who were practicing Christians were dismayed by the UCM’s break with more formal church-based theology. After UCM dissolved itself, the most prominent religious group to emerge as a political force on the campus of the University of the North – the Students’ Christian Movement – took a much more conventionally Christian approach to theology, and did not overtly challenge the religious teachings of the churches its members came from (although it did sometimes challenge the political positions of those churches).

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