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#WCC70: Churches as “freedom agents”

#WCC70: Churches as “freedom agents”

Photo: Albin Hillert/LWF

12 February 2018

In 2018 we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches. In order to create a lively firsthand account of the ecumenical fellowship and of our shared journey, member churches have contributed stories of people, events, achievements and even failures, all of which have deepened our collective search for Christian unity.

This story was written by Olle Eriksson, a Namibian who worked for 35 years (1968 – 2003) with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia, Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission and Lutheran World Federation.

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the World Council of Churches.

White minorities ruled over three Southern African countries for many years, still after most former colonies in Africa had achieved independence. Bitter and bloody wars of 20 – 30 years preceded the independence of Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) in 1980 and Namibia (formerly South West Africa) in 1990, and majority rule in South Africa in 1994.

Freedom movements, like the South West African People's Organisation of Namibia, were the major forces to rally and fight for independence, and they deserve credit for the achievements prior to and after victory was won.

The freedom movements, later political parties, were, however, not the only movements and institutions to work for change, justice, independence and peace. Friendly governments, concerned individuals and organisations from various spheres of society joined hands with the oppressed people.

In this article I emphasize the role of the churches, locally and internationally, as an important and crucial force in bringing independence, peace, stability and progress to Namibia. Nowhere else in the world can the churches claim to have been as successful in working for the independence of a nation. Even political and military actors admit and appreciate this fact.

The stand of the churches arose in a situation where the civil society otherwise did not have a platform. Political organisations, workers unions and other organisations were forbidden or silenced. The only agencies that had some degree of freedom, and that had a widespread network of local congregations, national structures and indigenous leadership, were the churches.

Most of these churches, particularly the Anglican, Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches had already for a long time in addition to spiritual work been involved in social and development activities among the black, disadvantaged, oppressed and poor communities. The country was divided in various “homelands”. Families were separated due to a contract labour system, where men stayed away from their families for long periods. Freedom of movement was restricted, job opportunities were unequal, the education system was unequal, etc.

The churches knew the plight and aspirations of the people and had gained the trust of the people. Thus the churches had a mandate to stand up as a voice of the voiceless.

The churches also came to realise that alone and separated they could not achieve enough. The churches were thus drawn together by the political situation. The three Lutheran churches formed joint platforms, and interdenominational bodies like the Christian Council and then the Council of Churches in Namibia came into being, in the 1970s. Already before that, many churches had become members of international and ecumenical bodies like the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the World Council of Churches (WCC), and could make their voice heard on international platforms, and get much-needed solidarity and support. The list of outstanding personalities involved would become quite long.

Already in the 1960s and even more so in the 70s and 80s, LWF and WCC and their member churches provided funds and other support for many church-related and development projects and programmes. These ecumenical bodies were also requested to give humanitarian and development-oriented support to SWAPO. This of course also led to suspicions that such was aid used to buy weapons.

All this angered the South African white-led government, under whom South West Africa resorted. Churches, church leaders and church workers were intimidated and harassed. Buildings were bombed, like the Lutheran Printing Press in Oniipa. Church workers were detained and tortured, some landed up in Robben Island and other prisons, some were killed or died in landmine explosions. Expatriate workers were expelled or denied work visas and permits to work in certain areas.

Still, however, the churches enjoyed some kind of immunity and freedom, and to some degree were even listened to, because the government realised here was a force that could not be done away with.

There were of course attempts by the South African government, to drive publicity campaigns against the churches. Independence movements and also churches and church workers were labelled as being agents of Communism and Marxism, and of the Soviet Union and its allies. Ordinary people did not know much about communism. Because the South African government so adamantly spoke against it, the people started thinking that communism must in fact be something good. It took some time before the South African government realised what mistake they had done.

The rest is history. In brief, however, South Africa finally had to give up South West Africa /Namibia, and to agree to a UN-supervised independence process. The UN Transition Assistance Group, led by special representative Martti Ahtisaari, knew that churches had to be drawn into the process. Following the armed clashes and the crisis that blew up immediately after the UN presence started on 1 April 1989, the churches were asked to take care of trapped and wounded SWAPO guerrilla soldiers and bring them to safety. The repatriation process of over 42,000 exiled Namibians was to a great extent operated by the Churches’ Committee for Repatriation, Resettlement and Reconstruction, overseen by UN High Commissioner for Refugees. A fourth “R” could already now have been added, namely Reconciliation. Reconciliation was taken up as a central theme in the nation-building process of the new government. This was seen, for example, in the successful integration of guerrilla soldiers and former South African military in the new army.

One area, were the churches eventually failed, was to put pressure on the government to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission like in South Africa, and to address satisfactorily atrocities committed by SWAPO in the so-called Lubango dungeons and elsewhere.

So many strong women and men in church and society, in Namibia and abroad, have been courageous and far-sighted. We can also be confident in saying that never before have Christians joined so strongly in work for the independence of a nation. We shouldn’t forget all the prayers directed to the Almighty Lord. The prayers were heard.

More information about the WCC 70th anniversary

If you feel inspired to send us your WCC story, too, please be in touch!

fellowship@wcc-coe.org