Emma Morehart | Staff Writer
The Rev. Frank Chikane has been tortured, detained, put under house arrest, suspended from his ministry, criticized and nearly killed because of his fight for equality in South Africa. But he doesn’t name any of those when speaking about the biggest challenge he has faced so far.
“The challenge was I had to accept that Christians can do horrible things,” Chikane. “That’s why you will hear me talking about it (in the lecture), that I’m scared of religion. I’m scared of it. Because people can kill you in the name of God and believe in it.”
This is the perspective from which Chikane began his activism. And though his political activism put him at risk and his own religion betrayed him, it is his faith that inspired his work.
“So I had to answer to that, and then conclude that evil forces are able to use religion against people, and my response to it from high school … was that the people who oppress, the very people you are preaching to, are Christians,” Chikane said. “So we had to begin to think about rereading the Bible, reinterpreting the scriptures and ended up talking about liberating the Bible from the oppressor … and ultimately it ends up liberating your oppressor.”
Chikane learned this mutual liberation concept from his friend, mentor and fellow activist Beyers Naudé. Chikane met Naudé in college in the early 1970s, after Naudé broke away from the powerful South African brotherhood, Broederbond, and risked his life to advocate against it.
“His main argument was that you can’t save yourself by oppressing others,” Chikane said. “You can’t secure yourself by making other people insecure. You can’t have your future guaranteed as long as others are still oppressed. … That was his message to them. But at that time, he failed. They persecuted him.”
Chikane and Naudé’s first meeting marked the beginning of years of teamwork. When Nelson Mandela clashed with South African State President F. W. de Klerk over the transfer of power to Mandela, Mandela called Chikane and Naudé to intervene and resolve the standstill. When the church got involved in the anti-apartheid efforts, Chikane called Naudé for guidance.
So when Chikane was asked to speak about “spies for God,” Naudé became his lecture topic. Chikane will speak at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy about Naudé’s courage in his lecture “Daring Death to Save a Nation.”
“For us, who were black and victims of this white establishment … the risk was that we would then hate all whites as the oppressors,” Chikane said. “And the heroic stance of Beyers Naudé, in my view, helped to humanize us in the sense that we couldn’t say all whites are like that. You needed a Beyers Naudé to take a stand, and he’s with you in that fight and faces the might of the state with you, and he is ready to die for it.”
Naudé helped many Africans be human, Chikane said, because he helped them recognize the difference between the system and the people.
“He helped us to think about life differently. … He did not win many whites to his side, but he remained a witness to many whites in the community,” Chikane said. “He was like a prophet, rejected amongst his own people.”
The parallels between Naudé’s and Chikane’s lives reflect Chikane’s courage as well. Both were tortured and rejected for their activism, and both fought for justice, even when it meant rejecting the beliefs of their own institutions. Chikane said that he and Naudé were window reflections of each other. Their main difference, though, was their race.
Chikane said he grew up in a very conservative white church and fought racism and division within his own environment. Naudé fought these same struggles, and consequences, from a white perspective.
Although Chikane received criticism for his political involvement, he said it never interfered with his work as a pastor. Before 1994, when apartheid ended in South Africa, Chikane’s faith called him to work for justice and equality. In 1995, Chikane began a 14-year career working for the government under former Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe and serving as a member of the African National Congress.
But Chikane never left his church, and he said his congregation welcomed him despite his political work.
“There was not tension in terms of time, because the people I ministered to were victims of the same system,” Chikane said. “So there was, I call it, continuity. It was a holistic faith. So I continued to be a pastor, and the congregation said, ‘It doesn’t matter where you go. When you come back, you are our pastor.’”
Now, Chikane dedicates the majority of his work to the church but still advocates for the liberation of society in a permanent way. The consequences of years of racism and injustice cannot simply disappear with the abolishment of laws, he said.
“What scares me most is that our generation is capable of doing exactly the same (as past generations), and we do the same in a different way that is more sophisticated,” Chikane said. “Human beings are children of their time. They repeat what those who came before them have done in a different way. … We commit the same atrocities. Because it’s sophisticated, we can’t see it.”