Beyers Naudé

The South African cleric and activist Beyers Naudé(1915–2004) was one of the most important white voices opposed to his country's system of reconciliation, known as apartheid, in the 20th century. Naudé came to believe that Christian beliefs could not be reconciled with the racist apartheid system, which discriminated against native Africans. After leaving the Dutch Reformed Church in which he had been raised and ordained a minister, Naudé formed the Christian Institute of Southern Africa.

AP Images/Themba Hadebe

AP Images/Themba Hadebe

Beyers Naudé grew up surrounded by the tradition of the Afrikaner ethnic group, white South Africans who traced their ancestry to Dutch colonists of the 17th and 18th centuries. During the decades prior to Naudé's birth, Afrikaners living in both the Republic of Transvaal and the Orange Free State had engaged in armed struggle against the British Empire, in the form of Britishborn South Africans, in what became known as the Boer War (1899–1902). Nine years after the Boers’ defeat, in 1910, the Union of South Africa became a dominion within the British Empire. Five years later, on May 10, 1915, Naudé would be born, in Rudepoort, then a small town near Johannesburg. He was named Christiaan Frederick Beyers Naudé, after Boer War Afrikaner general Christiaan Frederick Beyers, with whom his father was friendly.

With his ordination, Naudé was appointed assistant minister of a church in Wellington, South Africa, and over the next two decades he took ministerial posts in churches of increasing size and importance. In 1949, he became co-minister of an NGK church in Pretoria and met fellow Ben Marais, who was questioning the biblical justification for apartheid (segregation and other discrimination based on race) that NGK churches generally offered. Naudé encounter other stirrings of anti-apartheid sentiment within the church and his own growing doubts were strengthened by periods of postgraduate study in Europe and North America. He was especially disturbed by the damage apartheid restrictions wreaked on black family structure. Naudé studied the life of German Lutheran anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) and began to ponder the responsibility of South African Christians with regard to the apartheid system.

Condemned Sharpeville Massacre

Naudé's personal turning point came after the so-called Sharpeville Massacre of March 21, 1960, in which 69 unarmed black demonstrators were killed by South African national police forces. The massacre is generally considered the event that touched off South Africa's anti-apartheid movement, and it played that role in Naudé's own life. In the wake of the attack, he wrote an article in an Afrikaans-language newspaper (quoted in the London Times) in which he described Sharpeville as “the day my conscience came out of hiding,” arguing that “the whole moral and ethical basis of the Afrikaners’ thinking, the Church's justification of apartheid, of separate churches, of everything Afrikaners stood for, fell away.”

By 1960, Naudé had become one of the leading white churchmen in South Africa. He held the important position of Moderator of the Transvaal Synod of the NGK and was being mentioned as a potential leader of the Broederbond, perhaps even as a possible South African prime minister. Refusing to play politics, however, he first began to back resolutions of condemnation of the South African government—and to maintain his position when his peers folded under government pressure When South Africa was condemned by the World Council of Churches, the NGK withdrew from the Council, but Naudé refused to recant his condemnation.

As the South African government doubled down on apartheid and began to implement new racial restrictions, Naudé's position worsened. He was defrocked as a minister by 1963, and in his last sermon, he urged his hearers (according to South African History online) to place “the authority of God before the authority of man.” Resigning from his positions within the church, Naudé now directly criticized South African churches for their inaction, stating that (as quoted in the London Times) “if blood runs in the streets of South Africa it will not be because the World Council of Churches has done something but because the churches of South Africa have done nothing.” He left the Broederbond as well and gradually shed his identification as an Afrikaner. “What really annoyed the leaders of Afrikaner nationalism when I broke ranks was that I was every bit as much of a white Afrikaner as they were,” he was quoted as saying in the London Daily Telegraph. “I think I reminded them of that side of Afrikanerdom which they have never been able to tame.”

In late 1963, Naudé co-founded the Christian Institute of Southern Africa, an interfaith group devoted to racial reconciliation. As the group's first president, he was in the crosshairs of government attempts to repress the group. The Christian Institute had little support from mainstream South African churches and, after Naudé began to criticize them for their inaction in the face of apartheid injustices, government pressure on soon him intensified. Often harassed at appearances in South Africa, he began to travel abroad. He was honored by being asked to appear at London's historic Westminster Abbey and received theological awards in the Netherlands and West Germany. His passport was confiscated but temporarily returned so that he could collect the Reinhold Niebuhr Award in Chicago in 1975.

Preached at Black Churches

Within South Africa, Naudé was welcomed at black Dutch Reformed churches and sometimes gave sermons at a black church in the segregated township of Alexandra. South Africa's parliament, however, launched an investigation into the Christian Institute under the aegis of a body called the Schlebusch Commission. Naudé refused to testify before the commission and was sentenced to a month in prison or a fine of 50 rand. He chose the prison sentence but was bailed out by a sympathetic minister. The Christian Institute was banned in 1977, and Naudé was placed under quasi-house arrest: he was not permitted to leave his home, or to speak with more than one person at a time.

Despite such restrictions, Naudé managed to continue his activist work, receiving visitors from other countries and educating them about the injustices of apartheid. When they entered his house, his wife would leave the room in order not to violate the one-person rule. Among his frequent visitors was South African Catholic archbishop and anti-apartheid leader Desmond Tutu. Naudé continued to receive awards both inside and outside South Africa, and his house arrest order was lifted in 1984. The following year he succeeded Tutu as secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches.

When South African president F.W. de Klerk announced the country's first free elections in 1994, Naudé exclaimed (according to South African History online), “Gee, at last! What I had dreamt, hoped and worked for is becoming a reality.” He warned, however, that to eliminate the negative effects of apartheid would take 15 to 20 years. At his 80th birthday party a year later, he was praised in a speech by newly elected South African president Nelson Mandela as a “living spring of hope for racial reconciliation” and “a shining beacon to all South Africans,” as quoted by the Claypot in South Africa website.

In 1999, Naudé opened the inauguration ceremony for South Africa's second black president, Thabo Mbeki. Near the end of his life, he returned to the Aasvoëlkop congregation in Johannesburg, now a simple member of the congregation where he had served as pastor before being removed from ministerial duties. Naudé died in Johannesburg on September 7, 2004. Before his death, the city's D.F. Malan Drive, named for an apartheid-era South African prime minister, was renamed Beyers Naudé Drive. He remains, according to a writer for the London Independent, “a hero of South Africa's freedom, a man who liberated himself from his roots, became a prophet of freedom and democracy and won the trust of leaders of all races.”


Daily Telegraph (London, England), September 8, 2004, p. 1.

Catholic New Times, October 24, 2004, p. 3.

Independent (London, England), September 8, 2004, p. 38.

Times (London, England), September 8, 2004, p. 29.


Claypot in South Africa website, (November 27, 2016), Colleen Ryan, “Beyers Naudé—A Pilgrimage of Faith.”

Stellenbosch University website, (November 27, 2016), “The Contribution of Christiaan Frederick Beyers Naudé, as Anti-Apartheid Theologian.”

South African History online, (November 27, 2016), “Reverend Beyers Naudé.”❑

(MLA 8th Edition)