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Footprints in the African Sand: My life and times, by Michael Cassidy

05 July 2019

John D. Davies looks back with an Evangelical insider at the anti-apartheid struggle

THIS is the autobiography of a rare type of Christian, an Evangelical of personal Calvinist piety, who is also deeply committed to the struggle against racial injustice.

Michael Cassidy, born in 1936, was brought up in Lesotho and educated at a prestigious Anglican boarding school in South Africa. In his teens, his vision was inspired by veteran white liberals such as Patrick Duncan and Alan Paton; Gandhiism became part of his DNA. At Cambridge, he experienced powerful conversion through the Christian Union. At the same time, inspired by Fr Trevor Huddleston CR, he joined other South African undergraduates in writing to The Times to warn that white South Africans were engaged in massive self-deception. He went on to study in the United States, where his commitments were finally formed. For the rest of his life, his two heroes would be Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr.

There are three main strands in the book from this point. The first is Cassidy’s vocation to found a movement, African Enterprise, with the objective of conducting evangelistic missions in every main city in Africa. He and his team have taken their programme all over the continent, sometimes, most particularly in Rwanda, in places of extreme difficulty and conflict.

The second strand is the author’s continual closeness to, and conversation with, God. His story testifies to God’s presence with him in many trials and anxieties, as well as many blessings, including his marriage and family life; his sense of God’s faith-fulness is constant and joyful.

The third strand, which dominates the latter half of the book, concerns the struggles against racism in South Africa. Cassidy’s attempts to form gatherings of black and white people together were constantly obstructed by the apartheid system. But, after one dismal attempt at compromise, he stuck to the principle that African Enterprise’s work would be racially inclusive.

At this point, he found allies among ecumenical colleagues. He came to recognise that Christians in the “liberal” anti-apartheid stance were deeply grounded in biblical and theological commitment. And ecumenical allies could see in Cassidy that Evangelicalism was more than an other-worldly individualistic piety. In league with the South African Council of Churches, Cassidy’s team was involved in a series of significant gatherings that enabled a growing commitment to the overthrow of apartheid.

This book is essentially an auto­biography; so it tells the story from the author’s point of view. He introduces a few of the ecumenical colleagues with whom he worked, but he says little about the organisations in which they served. He mentions Beyers Naudé simply as “a courageous Afrikaner”, without reference to the unique witness given by Naudé and other dissenting Afrikaners through the Christian Institute. Cassidy records his several meetings with state presidents, along with his own part in the struggle to persuade Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the Inkatha Freedom Party to take part in the 1994 elec­tion; but he sees this as primarily a traditional inter-tribal conflict, not recognising the way in which the Zulu opposition to the African National Congress (and, incident­ally, to Archbishop Desmond Tutu) had been energised by leverages from Britain.

So it is a good story, well told to the praise of the Lord; it is a personal window into the wider story.

The book is a credit to its publishers, but is let down by the inclusion of too many unnecessary and badly reproduced photographs.

The Rt Revd John D. Davies, a mission priest and university chaplain in South Africa from 1956 to 1970, served in the Christian Institute of Southern Africa, and in the South African Council of Churches.

Footprints in the African Sand: My life and times
Michael Cassidy
SPCK £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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