African Studies Quarterly

State, Civil Society and Apartheid: An Examination of Dutch Reformed Church-State Relations.  Tracy Kuperus. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Pp. 211.


State, Civil Society and Apartheid in South Africa: An Examination of Dutch Reformed Church-State Relations, a dissertation that has been turned into a first-rate book, will appeal to both political scientists and historians of religion, especially those interested in South Africa.   Although Kuperus'  primary conclusion that institutions of civil society do not necessarily prompt greater democratization of the state is hardly a surprising one, the way she carefully analyzes the changes within the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk, or the NGK) and its influence on the South African government over a sixty year period (1934 to 1994)  is a welcome contribution to the scholarship on church-state relations in 20th century South Africa.

In analyzing possible church-state relations, the author constructs a theoretical model that outlines six potential typologies that characterize this relationship.  At one end of the continuum resides extreme cooperation, while at the other is extreme conflict.  The main points identified by Kuperus in her model are cooptation/collaboration, mutual engagement, balanced pluralism, coexisting conflict, conflictual resistance and enforced disengagement.

Kuperus argues that the period from 1934 to 1947, when the United Party controlled the government, was one of coexisting conflict beween the government and the NGK. When the National Party came to power in 1948, this relationship shifted in tone to one of mutual engagement.  Collaboration marked the period from 1962 to 1978 when official interaction and collusion between the state and the church was so strong that the two institutions "became almost indistinguishable” (p.154). 

The relationship that existed between the church and state from 1979 to 1994 was typified by mutual engagement.  Contrary to the conventional view, which holds that the church pressured the state to dismantle apartheid legislation, lift the ban on the ANC and other political organizations and release Nelson Mandela, Kuperus argues that the church lagged behind the state with regards to liberalization during this period.  She writes,

in the end, the church’s position differed from positions held by state leaders who were willing to revise the directives of separate development for the purposes of white survival and economic prosperity. This situation revealed the NP-dominated state moving ahead of a societal institution like the NGK on reform and democratization (p. 151).  

Her explanation is that the NGK "could not easily distance itself from the moral and biblical underpinning of apartheid that it helped to construct” (p. 129).  However, there were also pragmatic reasons behind the NGK's resistance to change.  When the National Party embarked on reforms in 1982, conservatives within the organization broke off to form the Conservative Party.  In an effort to avoid a schism within its denomination, the NGK “took a more moderate stance on the issue of reform than state leaders were promoting” (p. 132). Despite this effort to maintain unity, there was a breakaway of conservative parishioners from the NGK to the newly formed Afrikaanse Protestante Kerk in 1986.

Kuperus concludes with some remarks on the progress the NGK has made in the last 15 years to distance itself from the “theology of apartheid” it created, to apologize for the pain it caused millions of people and in its attempts to seek more inclusive arrangements within Reformed institutions  (p. 159).  Having read this book after following the testimony of the NGK at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) faith community hearings, I do not draw the same sanguine conclusions as the author does about the NGK’s sincerity of apology or its commitment to greater church unity with nonwhite congregants.  For example, the NGK still has not united with the “daughter,” or Coloured and African churches.  Unfortunately, Kuperus only refers briefly to the TRC (see p. 159) and not at all to the faith hearings, which are rather large gaps in the book's account of events.  Given the lag time necessary for academic publishing, however, it is possible that these hearings (November 1997) came too late to be included in this book.  Despite the absence of the TRC and faith hearings in Kuperus's analysis, the book still presents an interesting and compelling account of the NGK's role in the overturning of South Africa's apartheid state. 

Lyn Graybill
University of Virginia