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11/05/2018 11:47 SAST | Updated 11/05/2018 12:39 SAST

The Making Of A Dissident Afrikaner: Lessons From Beyers Naudé For Today's Rebels

Beyers Naudé was Afrikaner royalty. Yet he was celebrated as a true hero in the struggle against apartheid. There are lessons from his life for today's dissidents.

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Dr Beyers Naudé, the dissident Afrikaner clergyman who challenged apartheid and was banished for his beliefs.

"Our wealth is in the hands of foreign powers, serving foreign interest while we, the people of South Africa suffer. Our people are getting poorer because we don't have the land! The state must intervene and redistribute the resources evenly."

This refrain sounds all too familiar in our current discourse. Yet, these are the words preached from a Dutch Reformed Church pulpit in 1942, opposing the British business interests and fighting for the rights of Afrikaners. The preacher is Beyers Naudé who would later become one of only a few Afrikaners to be celebrated as an anti-apartheid struggle hero in the new South Africa.

Naude would have been 103 years old on Thursday.

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Beyers Naudé on 12 July 1985 during a demonstration.

After the recent death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, it became clear how binary our view of history is. There seems to be a disregard for the context of historical events or individuals and we judge it by very strict right/wrong conclusions.

Beyers Naudé is no different.

He would later become an enemy of the state, living under house arrest for seven years, while still, under the noses of the security police, assisting young black people in the struggle.

Some Afrikaners see him as a sell-out, while others view him as a struggle hero. Change over time is a very important part of studying history, and when we look at Naudé's story we get insight into Afrikaner nationalist history, as well as struggle history because of his personal change over time. The question for South Africans across the board today is what can we learn from this dissident Afrikaner dominee. When we look at the formation of this nationalist-turned-struggle hero we might see something of ourselves in his story.

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Beyers Naudé in an undated image talking with U.S. seneator Ted Kennedy.

The light of burning buildings surrounding the Roodepoort pastorage, set alight by Afrikaner rebels who opposed the government's involvement in World War One, lit the room during the night of May 10 1915 when Christiaan Frederik Beyers Naudé was born. He was named after the Boer general, bittereinder and close friend of his father, Christiaan Frederik Beyers. Naudé's father, Jozua Naudé, was a volunteer chaplain during the Anglo-Boer War, who became a dominee in the Dutch Reformed Church after the war. He married a teacher, Anna van Huyssteen, who also came from a staunch nationalist family. Beyers was their fourth child and second oldest son.

Racism was a very normal part of Beyers' upbringing, but what was more prevalent was the deep anti-British sentiment his parents had.

Beyers spent most of his childhood in Graaff-Reinet where his father was a dominee. His mother was the one who raised the children, and under her somewhat irrational strict rules Beyers found it difficult to embrace his mother's brand of tough love. Racism was a very normal part of Beyers' upbringing, but what was more prevalent was the deep anti-British sentiment his parents had. Beyers and his brother were forbidden to play rugby or cricket because it was too British, according to Anna. When there was no Afrikaans education available for his children, Jozua fought the authorities and founded an Afrikaans-medium school: Hoër Volkskool.

He joined the debating union — John Vorster was one of his fierce opponents in the debating scene...

The Naudés were frequently on the receiving end of racist attacks from the English part of Graaff-Reinet, and the church even split because of Jozua's fight for Afrikaans from the pulpit.

Jozua would tell young Beyers all about the atrocities of British oppression in detail, and as a child, Beyers sympathised with the plight of poor whites. He was therefore deeply aware of effects of the historical injustices from a young age. This social consciousness was balanced out by a very active and carefree childhood. Rules irritated the young Beyers.

In his matric year, he started showing a bit of dissidence by writing a letter to the school about the authoritarian style of the headmaster. It would be a logical assumption that young Bey's irritation with authority is what drove him to defy the Afrikaner establishment later in his life. But in hindsight, it was his social consciousness that would convince him later on.

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Beyers Naudé left his church and his people because of his opposition to apartheid.

After matriculating, blue-eyed Beyers, with his signature middle-path hairstyle, enrolled at Stellenbosch University in 1932 to study theology. Here he broke away from his confines of his strict family.

Although Maties was already the home of Afrikaner intelligentsia, Beyers could start to recreate himself as an individual. He was a very social student, only visiting the library twice during his studies. Politics was not his biggest interest, but he was a very charismatic personality on campus.

Beyers was part of the leadership of almost every society he joined, and in 1935 he was sworn in as SRC chairperson. He was a natural leader, but not an ideologue. In SRC reports he would always call for unity for the greater good of the broader student community. Beyers was a social animal.

He joined the debating union — John Vorster was one of his fierce opponents in the debating scene — and the Berg-en-Toer Klub, where he met his future wife, Ilse. This was a big turning point for him. She was a German girl and not part of the Dutch Reformed Church. He did not mind this difference, but his mother was furious. On the eve of their engagement, Anna sent Beyers' oldest sister to talk him out of the marriage.

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Beyers Naudé and Walter Sisulu deep in conversation after Sisulu's release from prison.

Yet, Beyers chose love over shallow identity. Ilse gave Bey his first taste of multiculturalism. Her father was a German missionary at Genadendal where Ilse and Bey spent many weekends and holidays. This was the first time Beyers realised that segregation had no place in the church.

After his studies, Beyers started his career as a minister in the DRC in Wellington. It was also the year he was inducted into the Afrikaner Broederbond. This was not his first encounter with this secret society. While he was a toddler, his father and a group of disgruntled young Afrikaners founded the Broederbond. His father only referred to these men as a group of friends when Beyers asked about it as a teenager. This was the start of Bey's climb to the top of the Afrikaner-establishment ladder.

The NP victory was a victory for his people. After the Afrikaners gained this political power, Beyers started seeing the evils of the system.

After a few years in the Cape Province, he moved to Transvaal to pursue his ambition to serve the Afrikaner people. He was a staunch National Party (NP) supporter.

During the 1948 elections, Beyers told Jan Smuts at a house visit that his party will lose the election and, after the elections, Beyers rejoiced. The NP victory was a victory for his people. After the Afrikaners gained this political power, Beyers started seeing the evils of the system.

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Then Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Beyers Naudé at a dinner in Naudé's honour in 1995.

The secrecy with which the Broederbond influenced the church was very concerning for him. As a young leader in the church, Beyers was approached by young ministers in the missional church that served black and coloured communities. They opened his eyes to the injustices of the apartheid regime. In the pain and suffering of these black South Africans, Beyers saw the suffering of his own people a few decades ago.

A watershed moment came when the World Council of Churches met in Johannesburg to debate the injustices of apartheid after the Sharpeville massacre. Beyers was a delegate of the DRC. The meeting concluded that the apartheid is unjust and the church's support for it should be ended — and the DRC delegation supported this notion. This started a storm within the church and the Afrikaner establishment. So much so that the DRC leadership called an emergency meeting where it pulled out of the "liberalist" Word Council of Churches.

What is just and fair always trumped identity politics for Beyers. Yet, to be progressive, he never denounced his own identity and history.

Beyers now knew he was now part of a system of oppression and attempted to change this system from the inside, starting with the Broederbond. His fellow Broeders warned him that he is playing with fire. He then moved outside the establishment by starting an ecumenical body — the Christian Institute — to promote anti-apartheid theology.

Beyers also left the Broederbond, stating that he has a greater obligation to God and justice than to an unjust system. This Afrikaner dissident was now a threat to the Afrikaner establishment.

At the Southern Transvaal synod, Beyers knew the end was near; yet, something strange happened: the synod elected him as moderator by a great majority. He knew this was the Broederbond's way of luring him back into its fold. Beyers saw this Broederbond meddling as a final sign to leave the establishment.

He would later become an enemy of the state, living under house arrest for seven years, while still, under the noses of the security police, assisting young black people in the struggle.

Naudé's story is an example for dissidents today.

What is just and fair always trumped identity politics for Beyers. Yet, to be progressive, he never denounced his own identity and history. He was able to purify his Afrikaner identity from its nationalist contamination to see fellow South Africans as humans. By doing this he gave Afrikaners some legitimacy during a very volatile time in South Africa.

Populism was not part of his repertoire, and he was not your classic white liberal. Deep-rooted reconciliation by stepping out of his comfort zone and privilege was the only way he saw to bring about change.

Beyer's story calls for everyday dissidents at the grassroots level, people who work in every community. That's how you affect change.