African man wearing a black medical face mask stands in front of a poster at a museum.

Rev. Frank Chikane shares his experience of struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa with the participants of the WCC’s Commission of the Churches on International Affairs visiting the Nelson Mandela foundation in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 2021.


Has the moderation of the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs in this term met or exceeded your expectations?

Rev. Chikane: I expected us to do more of the global analysis of the power dynamics to understand better the nature of the challenges the world is facing– if you want to intervene in a particular situation as a church, you must understand the power dynamics involved and the interests that are being served by the challenges faced. And solutions are not as easy as these would be against one interest or another. If you look at most of the conflicts in the developing world, they are related to their colonial legacies and problems. Examples are Cameroon, Mozambique, Palestine and so forth – all those conflicts are colonial. Some, like the Korean Peninsula are a legacy of the cold war.

There have been limitations to what we can do. But on the other hand, we have achieved a lot. Work on the nuclear proliferation treaty with ICAN has been extraordinary, efforts to protect children together with UNICEF, work on the rights of stateless people with UNHCR – those are breakthroughs made. We made an effort to initiate talks among and between parties involved in the conflict in Colombia, we have engaged with all sides of the conflicts in the DRC, Burundi, South Sudan and so forth—the process is not complete, but we have started it.

We achieved a lot, although we still have not touched the real problem. It will require churches to engage with the powerful of the world. Because the conflicts come from there more than anywhere else. The Korean Peninsula, and Palestine and Israel, are classical cases.

You have said that the main task of the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs is helping to formulate the Christian mind on the critical issues of the world. Can you mention examples from your term moderating the commission, where churches have contributed to this?

Rev. Chikane: The Korean Peninsula is the classical example. We went there, in both South and North Korea, met with the churches, listened to them and engaged with them. We interacted with the governments on both sides. And we formed the Christian mind: whatever the history, the people of the Korean Peninsula have the right to bring together their families, divided by war for so many years. They want this—they want peace, they want to live together in a nuclear-free environment. The Christian mind is that we should be going to the powerful who are making it difficult for the two Koreas to achieve what they have agreed upon. The mind of God would say—stop the powerful from interfering with people on Korean Peninsula to make peace.

When we deal with Zimbabwe, we say that the leaders need to make peace, as so many ordinary people are suffering. Look at how many Zimbabweans are in South Africa and in other countries globally—they are in the main economic ‘refugees’ or migrants; most of them dont even have documents. They cross the rivers; many of them are threatened by crocodiles—just because their leaders are fighting about their interests. That cant be Gods mind. Gods mind would be that there is a peace, and that people of Zimbabwe can share the resources they have, not fighting each other. You can say the same about DRC and many other places.

The issue of the Middle East, of Israel and Palestine – the mind of God is that Jews and Palestinians should be treated the same. That is my simple approach: you can’t do something to a Palestinian that you can’t do to a Jew, and you can’t do to a Jew something that you can’t do to a Palestinian. And some of the churches are trapped – having a history of treating Jews badly in Europe, they now feel they need to support them even if they brutalize other people. That can’t be the mind of God. It is still a sin to support a state that brutalizes others and violates their rights.

You come from the dramatic South African context, where some of the churches were actively involved in supporting the injustices of the apartheid regime. From your experience, what should be the role of the ecumenical movement and the WCC in such difficult situations?

Rev. Chikane: The WCC has a good case study in South Africa—in 1960 in Sharpeville, 69 people were massacred; the world was shocked, but many churches in South Africa were still supporting the apartheid system. WCC had to convene a meeting of its member churches in South Africa to talk about this. It created a huge crisis, and one of the churches, Dutch Reformed Church, withdrew from the WCC. WCC had lots of problems when the Programme to Combat Racism was adopted – lots of divisions among the member churches. But ultimately, they turned the corner, and started to support the Programme to Combat Racism. Ultimately, the churches in South Africa took a stand against the apartheid system and began to support the victims of the apartheid system. And finally now, the Dutch Reformed Church is a member of the WCC again.

If the churches are not doing what they are supposed to do, the WCC needs to accompany them, assist and enable the churches, without undermining them. Where there are different views on issues of justice, the injunction that we should “do to others as we would that they do to us” must be the reference point – we should be able to say, this is unjust and you cant do that. We should be able to listen, engage and ask – where is justice? This is how we should measure it – are we doing justice? Without fighting, as we are not here to fight, but to help each other.

At times, WCC follows from or lags behind, and at times it is in front. At times, local churches are ahead of the WCC, but sometimes behind. Whoever is ahead or following behind – we must pull each other in the right direction and end up where God wants us to be.

African man wearing a black medical face mask stands in front of a poster at a museum. The poster reads 'Massacres and mayhem', shoing images of past war times in South Africa.

Rev. Frank Chikane shares his experience of struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa with the participants of the WCC’s Commission of the Churches on International Affairs visiting the Nelson Mandela foundation in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 2021.


One of the main goals of the WCC is working towards unity among Christians. In the context of Dutch Reformed Church case you mentioned, what do you think should be a higher priority in the WCCs work: unity, or justice?

Rev. Chikane: Both must be a priority for the WCC and among the churches. But you cant do unity at the expense of justice. If somebody is a racist and racism is a sin, you cant say that for the sake of unity, you are welcome here as a racist. Then we would be contradicting the Gospel - there is a line beyond which we cant go.

Under your leadership, the South African Council of Churches has been strongly involved calling out injustices of the apartheid regime of South Africa and supporting its victims. In 1988, the whole office building of the council in Johannesburg was bombed down to the ground, similarly to other attacks against anti-apartheid groups in South Africa at that time. If you would have known the explosion will happen – would you be changing anything in what you were doing, or stopping any of your work fighting against injustices?

Rev. Chikane: Maybe I take the Christian faith too seriously - but you couldnt achieve what Jesus did without being ready to die for the cause. There is a cost to justice, there is a cost to doing righteousness. We knew that what we were doing could lead to the loss of our lives. When we were hit (by the largest bomb ever used by the apartheid system), we knew – they had got us now. But we were not going to stop. Well - I was ready to die, as I was not going to allow this injustice to happen in the same way as God wouldn’t.

We could not imagine the implosion of the SACC Headquarters – explosives were put on the pillars of the building in such a professional way that the building imploded and  completely collapsed. We expected the worst, but we did not expect this to happen like that. But it happened. After that, I got poisoned with chemical weapons and nearly died – the poisoning was confirmed in plea bargaining confessions in court by those who carried out this dastardly act. We suspected you can be poisoned, we suspected you can be shot - but when it happens, it still shocks one and it hurts.

In the Christian faith, there is no achievement of justice without sacrifice. It goes with a sacrifice. At times, the church would have to lose money to do what God wants it to do. At times, WCC would have to lose money to remain faithful to the Lord. If someone says, I am sponsoring you, but if you are going to do that, I am going to withdraw my money, we should be able to say – go ahead, but we can only “obey God” rather than a “human being” or “human authority.” We have no choice but to stand for the Gospel. Now, once you do that, you know you are doing Gods will. The mind of God informs what you do, not your personal interests or fears. The Bible talks about emptying yourself – Jesus emptied himself, of his divine privileges, by assuming the form of a bond-servant by being made in the likeness of a human, to be able to save us. So – who are we to want to maintain our privileges and distort the Gospel?

From your perspective, how important is it today for churches to stay committed to their mission - even if it costs their position, finances, comfort?

Rev. Chikane: It is critical for the Gospel - if we take our faith seriously. In the midst of the pain, suffering, wars, conflicts – this is the time when the church should be taking a stand, irrespective of the consequences. If we dont, then we are not in step with the Lord. For us to be church, we must be like Jesus. If we are not, then we are less than church.

Because of your active role in calling out injustices, you have been imprisoned, tortured, poisoned. Nevertheless, you continuously stand up against the injustices of the world and speak out for the oppressed. Where do you find your motivation and inspiration?

Rev. Chikane: I still stand against injustices, because if I dont, then I am not living my faith. I believe you need to live your faith and testify to the Lord who saved you. Therefore, the motivation comes from taking seriously the Lords sacrifice for oneself. If He sacrificed his life for me, then I should be ready to sacrifice my life for others. Following him, you cant not be what He was – He says be like me, take the cross and follow me. The cross is not going to be an easy thing to carry. The church must take the cross for the sake of Gods people.