Protestant churches confess apartheid failings

Apartheid in South Africa pushed racial segregation to extremes Keystone Archive

Switzerland's federation of Protestant churches has expressed regret that it failed to do more to defend the victims of apartheid in South Africa.

This content was published on April 22, 2004 - 19:33

Critics have welcomed the move, but say that much still has to be done to compensate those wronged by the white government.

Speaking on Thursday, federation president Thomas Wipf said three separate research projects had shown that the church body had taken the wrong approach towards apartheid South Africa.

The admission comes as South Africa marks ten years of multiracial democracy.

The federation had already admitted in 2001 it hadn't done enough for the victims of racial segregation or sufficiently supported those opposed to the South African regime.

The research projects were intended to clarify the reasons for the churches’ inaction.

"From a theological viewpoint, condemning apartheid was obvious," said Paul Schneider, the federation vice-president. "But at that time, we had trouble formulating an official position."

Swiss mediators

During apartheid, the Swiss Protestant churches tried to position themselves as mediators between the South African government and their opponents.

"They chose alternative positions that led them to talk with the apartheid regime and the churches collaborating with it," said Eric Morier-Genoud, who studied the role of Swiss churches in apartheid South Africa.

"They felt this was more constructive and probably kind of Swiss."

Morier-Genoud told swissinfo that the Protestant churches were perfectly aware of what was going on in South Africa at the time. "There was a strong debate within the federation, and then they voted on how to proceed."

The academic adds that the federation's structure meant that it did not rally behind one opinion, unlike the Catholic Church.

"People in Zurich, who were close to the banks and the economy, were against outright opposition," he said, "While Protestants in Neuchâtel were opposed to the apartheid regime."

But he added that the Swiss Catholic Church had also failed to confront apartheid.


The federation has faced criticism it did not do enough to bring about the end of apartheid.

"The World Alliance of Reformed Churches called apartheid a sin in 1982," said Mascha Madörin of Aktion Finanzplatz Schweiz, a group monitoring the Swiss financial system.

Madörin, who is coordinating the Apartheid Debt and Reparations Campaign in Switzerland, told swissinfo the church body had supported dialogue with the apartheid regime, even though local South African churches were calling for international sanctions.

And while she welcomes the federation’s expressions of regret, she doubts it will really change anything.

“The federation still needs to pay more attention to the South African churches’ discussions about apartheid-era claims against Swiss companies,” she said.

Morier-Genoud agrees that collaborating with South Africa's regime was a mistake. "The apartheid government used the Protestant churches' position to legitimise its own existence," he added.

One voice

Schneider told swissinfo that the federation now regrets its earlier decisions and accepts the criticism. "We regret we did no pay enough attention to those calling for an end to apartheid," he said.

The federation now intends to overcome some of its shortcomings and will align its position more closely with that of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. It will draw up guidelines for its international activities.

"We intend to make sure we speak with one voice within the federation," Schneider told swissinfo. "We will also make sure there is a clear distinction between theology and politics in the future."

swissinfo, Scott Capper

In brief

Switzerland's Protestant churches have admitted they failed to do enough to help the victims of apartheid in South Africa.

The Swiss federation of Protestant churches and the Catholic bishops conference did not condemn racial segregation in South Africa.

The Protestant churches' inaction has been partially blamed on the federation's democratic structure, which gave conservatives with strong ties to finance and business a bigger voice.

But critics say that the church body should have aligned itself with international bodies condemning apartheid.

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