The Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (DRCA)

A group of ladies in traditional dress expressing their joy at a music festival.

The Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (DRCA) was born from many years of missionary endeavours by the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), but especially also through the work of pioneer evangelists and ministers coming from the black communities themselves. The DRCA is a multilingual church, with Sesotho, Setswana, isiXhosa and isiZulu as the main languages of communication. It still struggles to recover from a tragic schism in 1994.

A racially and ethnically divided country and church

Historically, the South African landscape developed into a collage of various demarcated areas occupied by particular racial, ethnic and language groups. This was entrenched by the apartheid laws with respect to group areas and homelands or “Bantustans”. Thus, the Zulu people settled in Zululand and Natal, the Basotho settled mainly in the Free State, Tswana people occupied the North West and Northern Cape regions, the Xhosa people were established in the Eastern and Western Cape. There were townships for black people while coloured and Indian people were also established outside (white) cities, towns and villages in their own areas, ‘within borders’. After the dawn of a democratic South Africa, and due to urbanisation, these borders have in a sense been erased, but in some areas the demographic divisions remain largely the same.

The mission policy of the DRC has been to work towards separate, indigenous and independent churches for each race or language group. This policy, which was officially formulated in 1934, resulted in a Dutch Reformed Church domestically divided into four separate churches, one for each racial group. But also within the ‘black church’ separate churches, synods and theological training institutions for each main ethnic group were maintained.

A brief history of the establishment of the DRCA

The DRC’s mission to black people in South Africa started at a relatively late stage; only some years after the Great Trek in 1838 when white settlers engaged with the black tribes north of the Gariep River. Before, some missionaries from English, American, French and German missionary organisations were already active in the northern parts of the country. In 1862 the well-known Rev. Andrew Murray Jnr. accompanied the first two missionaries sent by the DRC in the Cape Colony, Alexander McKidd and S. J. G. Hofmeyr, to what is now the northern part of South Africa. According to the newly established Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (Transvaal) laws, the missionaries could only start with their work once invited by a tribal chief. Invited by the Buys clan in 1865, Rev. Stephanus Hofmeyr worked devotedly for 48 years as a pioneer missionary in the Soutpansberg area. He also started the work in Zimbabwe, as we will see in Chapter 9. Since 1864 Rev. Henri Gonin worked at Saulspoort among the Bakgatla people. The first two converts were Petrus and Abraham Phiri. Rev. Gonin sent candidates for training as evangelists to Morija in Lesotho, the theological seminary of the Paris Evangelical Mission Society. In 1906 Thomas Phiri became the first black minister to be ordained in this northern mission field. This mission of the DRC Cape Colony in the Transvaal has only been transferred to the DRC Transvaal in 1920.

In the meanwhile, the DRC in the Cape Colony also started work among isiXhosa-speaking migrant workers in the Western Cape. In 1900 the pioneer evangelist James Jalobe was ordained by the DRC as the first black minister. The work expanded to the north and east, especially by establishing several mission stations in the Ciskei and Transkei areas. The Dutch Reformed Bantu Church in South Africa, the church in the Cape Colony of which the peculiar name served to distinguish it from the Dutch Reformed Mission Church among the so-called coloured people in the same region, was formed in 1951.

In 1885 the DRC in Transvaal commenced with its own work with Rev. T. J. A. Maré doing mission work at Elim, near Pretoria. As
elsewhere in the DRC, the Women’s Missionary Guild played a significant role in order to sustain the work. The work expanded gradually and in 1932 the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of Transvaal was constituted. Motivated by the 1955 Tomlinson Report on the importance of the development of the homelands, many young DRC missionaries volunteered to go to the various ‘homelands’ and the industrialised and urbanised areas of Pretoria, the Witwatersrand and Vereeniging. This led to the establishment of various mission stations, medical- and educational institutions as well as the rapid growth of the church across the Transvaal Province.

During its first synod in 1864, the DRC in the Republic of the Orange Free State decided that every congregation should engage in mission work in its local area. DRC ministers, like C. P. Theron, C. M. Fraser, D. J. Minnaar and A. P. Meiring, played leading roles. The first full-time missionaries were Revs. G. J. Willemsen (1889) and J. S. Louw (1896). But the contribution of the first evangelists J. Marumo in Bethlehem, A. Poto in Heilbron, D. Kogola in Boshoff and P. Khorong in Kroonstad was vital to lay the foundations.

In 1871 King Moshoeshoe’s half-brother, Chief Mopeli, who settled with his people at Witsieshoek requested Pres. Brand of the Free State Republic for a tshiya, that is, a central pole to keep the roof of his hut upright. This was a request for the service of a missionary.

Pres. Brand donated the farm Eerste Zending for the establishment of a mission station. Several missionaries served here, among whom Rev. J. J. Ross who laboured there for 45 years, establishing schools, a hospital and more. The work in the Free State also expanded to the Thaba Nchu area, to the migrant workers on the goldfields and in 1955 the DRC and the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in the Orange Free State, the latter already officially established in 1910, started a joint missionary endeavour in Lesotho.

The DRC in Natal used to be the smallest of the federated DRC churches in the four provinces. Revs. P. D. M. Huet and F. L. Cachet of Ladysmith encouraged the work among the isiZulu-speaking population. The first full-time missionary was Rev. W. Illing, who started working in Ladysmith in 1862. The DRC Cape Province assisted with the work. The establishment of the Spiritual Centenary Monument Mission, commemorating the Great Trek of 1838 and supported by the churches in all provinces, did much to expand the work into northern Zululand and the Makhathini area. A mission station was also established at Dingaanstat, the former military headquarters of King Dingane of the Zulu Kingdom. The different congregations convened in 1952 to form the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of Natal.

‘Called and sent as a light in the darkness’

On 7 May 1963 delegates from the various mission churches among the black communities convened at Kroonstad to form the General
Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa. All the different churches, there were 7 regional synods at the time, became the regional synods of the one DRCA. Theological training was originally done at the Stoffberg School near Heilbron, but soon four theological training colleges were established for the different language groups: at Witsieshoek (Qwaqwa), Turfloop (Northern Transvaal), Dingaanstat (Natal) and Decoligny (Transkei). Much work has been done in terms of literature, such as the translation of the Bible, the compilation of a catechism book and a hymnbook (Hosanna) in different languages. A church magazine was distributed and the church developed its own printing press and publisher. Various projects of compassion (such as developing schools for children with disabilities) and teacher training colleges were established. Over the years, God made use of many missionaries and lecturers in establishing the church. But it was especially the devotion of pioneer black evangelists and ministers, and the many who followed in their footsteps, including the elders and the sisters in the women’s guild, that were used by God in building a vibrant church and sending it out all over the country, to witness to the Light in all languages. Therefore, the slogan of the DRCA is ‘a light in the darkness’ and its emblem is a hand holding a torch. The official uniform black and white) also proclaims this message.

The DRCA understands itself as a Reformed church adhering to the orthodox five solae of the Reformation; that is the five theological concepts based on the Latin word for ‘only’. They are: sola gratia, sola fidei, sola scriptura, solus Christi and soli Deo gloria. These essential doctrines are set out in the three articles of faith, viz., the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort. The DRCA also maintains a traditional approach to worship and ministry, wearing particular uniforms and the functioning of the different guilds for women, men and the youth respectively. The ‘in Africa’ in the church’s name is also symbolic of a church that took root in African soil.

A tragic schism

In the 1980s the church’s struggle against the apartheid system reached a climax. It was evident that a racially divided church could not be defended theologically. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRCM) spoke out for unity as an imperative for the church in the Confession of Belhar (1986). The DRCA also felt strongly that all four churches should take part in a reunification process. In 1987 the executive council of the DRCA invited the other three churches to begin with a unification process. This process did not manage to take off. In 1990, the executive councils of the DRCA and the DRMC formed a joint committee in order to start the unification process of the two churches with the hope that the two other churches would join in too. In April 1994, a couple of days before the new and democratic South Africa saw the day, a joint synod of the DRCA and DRMC convened in Belhar and took the historic step to unite, forming the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA).

But some DRCA church leaders and congregations from the synods of Phororo (Northern Cape) and the Free State did not accept the outcome of the Belhar Synod. They felt that the unification should have waited until the DRC and RCA were ready to unite. They also expressed concerns about practical aspects like theological training, the official church magazine, finances and the culture the new church would have, aspects they felt were not addressed and finalised according to church ordinance.

This resulted in confusion and tension among the churches; some congregations in the Free State and Phororo decided to join the unification while others decided to retain their name and confessional basis. Many congregations were internally divided as to what decision to take. The Phororo Synod of the DRCA officially decided to continue to belong to the DRCA soon after the Belhar Synod and the Free State congregations who did not want to join URCSA convened at Parys in September 1995 and made the decision to continue as part of the DRCA. Court cases between URCSA and the DRCA ensued upon which, in 1998, the Appeal Court ruled that the DRCA could indeed remain the DRCA and that a general synod could not change the denominational membership of congregations without their consent. This schism and the resulting disputes about properties resulting in 38 High Court cases affected the church family financially, spiritually and in terms of the ministry. Despite settlements and reconciliation reached in 2012, deep wounds and distrust remain in the DRC Family inside South Africa.

Structure

Presently the DRCA has four regional synods, viz., the Free State with 15 circuits, Northern Cape with five, the Northern and Southern Transvaal with four and the Cape Synod with three. There are about 50 ministers for the approximately 200 congregations, meaning that most of the congregations do not have ministers. Due to poverty, most congregations simply cannot financially afford to sustain a minister’s post. Elders play a vital role in maintaining the ministry in vacant congregations. To deal with the present shortage of ministers part-time theological training was developed in cooperation with the Huguenot College and the Mukhanyo Theological College.

Challenges today

The church nurtures its traditional culture, embodied by the functioning of the different guilds or movements (like those for women, men, youth and children) in the congregations. These movements help the believer to take up office as king, priest and prophet in the Christian faith. However, it is sometimes challenging not to allow these movements to become churches within the church. Church choirs still play an important role. In many congregations songs with a typically African beat and dancing replaced the more solemn hymns in the Hosanna hymnals.

In 2015 the General Synod of the DRCA approved a vision and mission statement for the church. The overarching aim is: ‘To restore the glory of God in the church so that it can be a light shining in the world.’ The Synod reformulated the church’s Reformed identity and its Presbyterian governance system in adherence to the Scripture and the church’s confessions. The expressed mission is to build a dynamic institution with programmes striving towards producing high-quality members, congregations, councils, officers and organisations. Building on 1 Corinthians 14:40, the church is committed to building a healthy body of Christ, a church where Christ alone rules, where all things are done in a fitting and orderly way according to God’s will. Respect, dignity and love shall prevail, talents and potentials will grow so that the church will fulfil its calling in this world, that is, ‘to make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19).

The DRCA currently faces challenges with regard to the Reformed character of the church as many members and even ministers are influenced by the teachings and styles of charismatic churches, by proponents of prosperity gospels, modernism, postmodernism and an upsurge of other traditional religious beliefs and rites. The 2015 General Synod thus decided that all ministers and church council members must recommit themselves to do the following:

  • submit to Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Saviour of the church,
  • study and be loyal to the Word of God, the Reformed confessions, church ordinance and decisions taken by the DRCA to apply them without partiality,
  • ensure the pure preaching of the Word of God and to make sure that worship, sacraments, Sunday School and catechism classes are conducted according to the decisions of the church in their local congregations,
  • and that their own households will be an example to the world.

Through continuous reformation, and returning to its roots, the DRCA would like to make a particular contribution to the wider (Dutch) Reformed church family and to be true to its motto ‘a light in the darkness’.

Contact

Dr Andries Hoffman (Scribe: DRCA General Synod)
[email protected]