The Republic of South Africa is affectionately known as the ‘rainbow nation’ after Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke of the “…rainbow people of God” in celebration of different people coming together in hope and unity, and Nelson Mandela described a“…rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world…” following the end of apartheid. The country is comparative in size to France, Portugal and Spain combined, and has a population of 57 million. There are 11 official languages, with English being the fourth most-common first language. Most South Africans are fluent in more than one language.
The Shadow of Apartheid
The recent history of South Africa is dominated by the apartheid system, of institutionalised racial segregation and discrimination, that existed between 1948 and 1991. It was based on white supremacy and the repression of the black majority and those of Indian origin, for the benefit of the politically dominant group.
Broadly speaking, apartheid was delineated into ‘petty apartheid’, which entailed the segregation of public facilities and social events, and ‘grand apartheid’, which dictated housing and employment opportunities by race. The first apartheid law was the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act in 1949, which made it illegal for South African citizens to marry across racial lines. The Population Registration Act of 1950 classified people into one of four racial groups, namely: black, white, coloured and Indian. From 1960 to 1983, over 3.5 million non-white South Africans were removed from their homes and forced into segregated neighbourhoods. These removals were intended to restrict the black population to ten designated ‘tribal homelands’, four of which became nominally independent states. Relocated persons lost their South African citizenship as they were absorbed into these homelands.
Apartheid sparked significant international and domestic opposition, which brought about an extensive arms and trade embargo on South Africa. During the 1970s and 1980s, internal resistance to apartheid became increasingly militant, prompting brutal crackdowns by the National Party and protracted sectarian violence that left thousands dead or in detention. Some reforms were undertaken, but these measures failed to appease most activist groups.
Between 1987 and 1993, the National Party entered bilateral negotiations with the African National Congress (ANC), the leading anti-apartheid political movement, to end segregation and introduce majority rule. In 1990 prominent ANC leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, were released from detention. Apartheid legislation was abolished in 1991, pending multiracial elections in April 1994. Today, many have a great respect for Nelson Mandela and what he achieved for South Africa.
Evangelical mission work in South Africa goes back to 1737, when George Schmidt, a Moravian missionary, settled in a town now known as Genadendal in the Western Cape. Eventually Schmidt had to leave, due to opposition sparked when he started baptising believers from the indigenous population. It caused an upheaval among the colonialists in the Cape, as politically it was unclear whether indigenous converts to Christianity should be accorded the same civil and political rights as the colonists. The Council of Policy forbade such baptisms, citing the excuse that Schmidt was not an ordained minister. In 1744, Schmidt returned to Holland to be ordained but he never returned to South Africa’s shores.
Assembly work commenced around 1850, first by Brethren believers in business and later by full-time mission workers. Over the years the work has extended to many parts of the country, but there are still vast unreached areas. Assemblies vary greatly in size, so larger assemblies in the Western Cape encourage brothers to go into rural districts each weekend to support smaller groups.
Over the years the work has extended to many parts of the country, but there are still vast unreached areas.
Emmaus Correspondence International has an office in South Africa and works in four languages: Afrikaans, English, Xhosa and Zulu. At present, there are about 18,400 students registered, but only 72% of these are active.
Quite a number of religions are represented within the country and generally speaking, there is religious tolerance in South Africa. In a 2015 census, 86% of the population claimed to be ‘Christian’. There is relative freedom to evangelise in prisons, schools, care institutions, public halls and some work places. There are also a few Christian radio stations, bookshops, organisations and publishers producing evangelistic literature in many languages. Open-air preaching is carried out in communities and often people are willing to listen to the messages, and receive literature. Sometimes believers visit the surrounding homes afterwards and they are able to arrange ‘cottage meetings’.
Due to unstable political situations in other African countries, refugees have flooded into South Africa. They have not always found the better life they were searching for. Many South Africans blame foreigners for taking local houses and jobs and have made them unwelcome. However, Christians have taken the opportunity to befriend migrants who are often responsive and willing to accept literature in their home languages.
As in other parts of the world, alcohol and substance abuse are a major problem in South Africa. In many township areas, gangs operate openly and this often leads to indiscriminate injury and death. High crime rates are reflected in the police statistics for 2016/17, when there were over 50 murders per a day. Sexual immorality and parental neglect and abuse have led to the disintegration of the family unit and much heartache.
The unemployment rate stands at 26%. A quarter of the population live on a monthly income of below 441 Rand (£24). Adults and children are seen living on the streets of every city, many begging at traffic lights or at people’s homes for food and money.
The authorities are unsympathetic to such behaviour and discourage handouts, advocating responsible giving to NGOs and other charitable organisations.
Many South Africans have grown up with some knowledge of the gospel. Sadly, some with this knowledge have professed faith in Christ, but have not continued in the faith, calling themselves ‘backsliders’. This is due in part to some preachers pressurising people to make a profession.
Yet, it is good to remember that evangelical believers have the answer to this crisis in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Many have heard the gospel through evangelistic outreaches and it is encouraging to see the power of the gospel in transformed lives.
‘Most of my childhood years were not easy, because my family used alcohol and drugs and were often violent. I started drinking at the age of 13 and hung out with people who smoked cigarettes and marijuana. I was given no guidance about life. I started smoking to fit in with my friends and I didn’t care about myself or my future, so my schooling was negatively affected. Because of my drunkenness, I became careless and behaved rudely towards my parents who would beat me or chase me out of the house. I slept outside or in other people’s homes, even if they were strangers. At the age of 16, I met a boyfriend who was using crystal meth and mandrax. Our relationship was based on drinking and parties and we were always in trouble. However, I did not use drugs because I saw what it did to the people around us.’
‘Then my boyfriend decided that he wanted help and went to a Christian restoration centre for six months. While he was there I decided to stop drinking and hanging out with bad friends because I wanted to change. My boyfriend received the Lord Jesus Christ as his Saviour. He told me to read the Bible, but I wasn’t interested. The church I grew up in did not believe in being born again or being baptised. One day, a Christian held a Bible study at my boyfriend’s house while I was there. The Christian explained the gospel and I decided that I wanted to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as my Saviour. Before I was lost but now I am saved, not of my own works or myself, but by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.’
New believers have come into fellowship and participate intelligently. It is wonderful to hear young converts clearly relating how much God has changed their lives for the better and to see these believers so enthusiastic in their service for the Lord. As we think of the future, we are reminded that we must use the opportunities available to us, so that we, with many others, will be ready to meet Him when He comes again.
The Word of God gave me new hope and an understanding of myself, the world and the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus
‘My parents taught me to be a good person. I went to church every Sunday, so I knew the Bible stories and believed that if I was not obedient to God’s law I would go to Hell. My parents did their best to keep me from the bad things of the world, but most of my extended family partied every chance they got. I started drinking and smoking at the age of 17. By the time I finished school, I was drinking heavily and smoking marijuana, and I began using crystal meth in college. Nevertheless, I had two sons I was responsible for so I studied hard and got a job as an artisan. But my addiction got so out of control that I was dismissed from my work. I stole from my parents and sold all I had. My parents tried everything to help me, but my pride made me believe I was able to get out of my situation without any help. I could not understand how things had gotten so hopeless, because I wasn’t a bad person. I could not plan for the future or even think about the next day.
‘I was lost, so I decided to go to a restoration centre where I was taught the Word of God. As I read, I realised that the real problem wasn’t drugs or drinking, but our sinful nature. The Word of God gave me new hope and an understanding of myself, the world and the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus. Learning that we are saved by grace through faith, I repented and trusted in the Lord. After six months I returned home. It was very difficult but I was trusting and focusing on Christ. My father was now born again and I went with him to church, where I met a brother who gave me Bible studies. I never knew that living for God could be so wonderful. Although I lost everything material in this world, I gained everything in Christ!’
- that doors remain open to take the gospel message to the people of this beautiful nation
- for sound biblical preaching, and genuine repentance and conversion
- that workers would be called and sent into areas where there is little evangelistic testimony
- that believers would remain faithful to the Lord and have an appetite for the Scriptures, and be strengthened in the faith.