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02 November 2006

BEYERS NAUDE was a man born to be king. By tribe and upbringing, he should have been one of the high priests of white society in South Africa after the Second World War. But when he died at his retirement home outside Johannesburg last week, aged 89, he was a man adored, not by the white right-wingers he was born to lead, but rather by the blacks who were enslaved under apartheid.

“If someone asks me what kind of person a new South African should be,” said the greatest South African of them all, Nelson Mandela, “I would say ‘Take a look at Beyers Naudé and his wife, Ilse.’ His life was a shining beacon to all South Africans. His life shows what it means to rise above race and to be a true son of South Africa.”

Even the South African Communist Party (SACP) declared: “It is the efforts, actions and commitment of Oom [Uncle] Bey and many other leaders who took apartheid down to where it belongs.”

The Congress of South African Trade Unionists said: “He, more than anyone else, persuaded liberation fighters to reject a narrow, anti-white form of nationalism and to support non-racialism. He embodied the belief that humankind can build a society that knows no colour of race.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said of him: “He did not allow his suffering to embitter him, and he grew enormously in moral stature. He was truly an agent of reconciliation between black and white, because he showed that not all white people were the same.”

Christiaan Frederick Beyers Naudé was born at Rooderpoort, deep in the heart of the Transvaal, which is the homeland of the Afrikaners. His father was a Dutch Reformed minister and nationalist, and the son was named after C. F. Beyers, one of the fiercest warriors of the Boer Republic during its drawn-out battle against British imperialism at the start of the 20th century.

During his time as a student at Stellenbosch University, where he met and married his wife (who was not an Afrikaner), his racial views were refined by scripture, as seen through the eyes of Calvinist intellectuals. They said that the Holy Book demanded that some ruled the world in God’s name, while others were there to serve the élite. As a Moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Transvaal, Naudé preached in a church in Pretoria where half the congregation was made up of cabinet ministers.

At 25, Beyers Naudé was enlisted into the ranks of the Broederbond, which after the Second World War was dominated by men who went to prison rather than take up arms against Hitler’s Germany.

Destined for the very top of an all-white Church, Naudé was shaken to the core of his very being in 1960, when nervous South African policemen opened fire on a huge crowd of blacks protesting against the country’s draconian pass laws at a place called Sharpeville. After a massacre that shook the world, Naudé said: “I had to decide. Would I submit to the political pressures or would I stand by my convictions?” Convictions won the day.

Unlike many white liberals who condemned apartheid in public, but who lived comfortably alongside it in private, Beyers Naudé put him-self in opposition to the Church he had seemed destined to lead. When the World Council of Churches called the Cottesloe Consultation at the instigation of Archbishop Joost de Blank, Naudé was a delegate, and supported its calls for reform. The Cottesloe resolutions were condemned by the South African government, and repudiated by the Dutch Reformed Church, which withdrew from the WCC; but Naudé refused to recant.

In 1963, he became Director of the Christian Institute of Southern Africa, an ecumenical organisation he had helped to found, and lashed apartheid with his tongue. Before he was unfrocked, he told his congregation that the Afrikaners had betrayed their God in favour of a working relationship with capitalism.

A friend said at the time that he meant that the Church had given theological credence to apartheid, which was used by people like Harry Oppenheimer to pay blacks a pittance, as they risked their lives working underground as miners and skivvies for Anglo-American and other giant mining conglomerates.

Somehow Naudé survived the wave of white-on-black anger that swept South Africa after the Soweto uprising in 1976, but the following year he and the Christian Institute were banned. His passport had been withdrawn, and for a while he was put under house arrest.

People who met Beyers Naudé enjoyed only a single hour with the great man, who, at first meeting, looked more like a steel-eyed bank manager than a revolutionary.

In 1984, the whole world changed, and during the final days of Soviet Communism — when the Kremlin leadership promised the American and British governments that their support for African National Congress (ANC) violence was over — Beyers Naudé travelled to Europe to meet Thabo Mbeki and other ANC leaders. Naudé went with the blessing of the South African government.

He went from total zero to local hero almost overnight. After his banning order was lifted, he became Secretary General of the South African Council of Churches in succession to Bishop Desmond Tutu. After the release of Mandela in 1990, and the unbanning of the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress and the SACP, Beyers Naudé became a national hero.

Praised by Mandela, respected by young blacks, and diplomatically saluted by whites, Beyers Naudé told South Africans to be patient. It would, he said, take 15 to 20 years to overcome the record of apartheid.

Statues will soon be put up to commemorate the life of this great man. But his true memorial is the official non-racism of the new South African Government.

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