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Ideals and apartheid

02 August 2013

A microcosm of the

South African tragedy,

says John Davies


A Christian Community in South Africa, 1838-2008
Fiona Vernal
OUP £45 (978-0-19-984340-4)
Church Times Bookshop £40.50  (Use code CT635 )

AT FIRST sight, this might appear to be a book with a very limited appeal. Its author is an American academic historian, who has recorded the history of a small Methodist mission in the Xhosa-speaking Eastern Cape of South Africa. She concentrates on this one place, with little reference to the wider environment.

In nearly 300 well-filled pages of text, she explores Xhosa people's understanding of relationships, of health, and of knowledge, and their skills in moulding Christianity to meet their own reality; but, with one great exception, there is hardly any sense that the national issues of apartheid and white supremacy made an impact on the community. And there are few references to other Christian enterprises in the country.

But there there are unique features in the Farmerfield Mission, which justify this exclusive study. It came into being in the first place, not through the enterprise of missionaries, but at the request of African Christians themselves; their energies kept it going, even when, at times, the Methodist leadership would have been happy to see it fade away. It was envisaged as being a kind of élite Christian village, with higher than normal standards of behaviour and commitment. And, most significantly, it was formed and developed in an area claimed by white colonials as their land, not on "reserves" set aside for Africans.

It was this last factor that made it a target for the apartheid regime's policy of mass removals of "black spots". At this point, the author engages in detail with the national issues concerned, with the oppressive intricacies of the South African laws and customs regarding land-tenure. She makes it clear that the displacing of Africans by the theft of their lands was going on long before it was hardened into national policy by the apartheid regime. Deeper than their protest against Bantu Education, Job Reservation, the Immorality Act, or their exclusion from the franchise, it was the sense that they had been cheated out of their land that stirred the most painful anger in African people - and still does.

This book offers a microcosm of the South African tragedy at this level, and as such is a valuable window into 200 years of oppression. Successive British governments enabled and permitted this oppression, which is deep in our culture. Our treatment of land as a commodity and our notion of outright ownership amount to theft from our Creator as well as from our neighbour; for "the earth is the Lord's."

The Rt Revd John Davies is a former Bishop of Shrewsbury; for 15 years he was a mission priest and university chaplain in South Africa.

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