The Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (DRCA) was born from many years of missionary endeavours by the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), but particularly 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. The church is still struggling 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 concerning group areas and homelands or “Bantustans”. Thus, the Zulu people settled in Zululand and Natal, the Basotho settled mainly in the Free State, the Tswana people occupied the Northwest and Northern Cape regions, and the Xhosa people occupied the Eastern and Western Cape. There were townships for Black people while Coloured (Brown) and Indian people were based outside (white) cities, towns, and villages in their areas, ‘within borders’. The enforcement of these borders was strictly regulated by legislation. After the dawn of a democratic South Africa, and due to urbanisation, these borders have in a sense been erased. However, in some areas, the demographic divisions remain largely the same.
The mission policy of the DRC strived to establish separate, indigenous, and independent churches for each ethnic or linguistic group. This policy, which was officially formulated in 1934, divided a Dutch Reformed Church domestically into four separate churches, one for each racial group (Black, Coloured, Indian, White). Furthermore, within the ‘black church’, separate churches, synods, and theological training institutions were established for each ethnic group.
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. It was only a few years after the Great Trek in 1838 that white settlers engaged with black tribes north of the Gariep River. There were already missionaries doing work in the northern parts of the country from English, American, French, and German missionary organisations. 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 (Limpopo Province). 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 the chapters on the Reformed Church in Zimbabwe. Since 1864, Rev. Henri Gonin worked at Saulspoort (today’s North West Province) 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. The DRC Cape Colony transferred this mission to the DRC Transvaal in 1920.
Rev. Stephanus Hofmeyr worked devotedly for 48 years as a pioneer missionary in the Soutpansberg area.
Meanwhile, the DRC in the Cape Colony also started working with 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 its peculiar name served to differentiate it from the Dutch Reformed Mission Church among the so-called coloured people in the same region, was founded in 1951.
In 1885 the DRC in Transvaal commenced its 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 sustaining the work. Gradually, the work expanded, resulting in the formation of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of Transvaal in 1932. 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. As a result, multiple mission stations and medical and educational institutions were established throughout the Transvaal Province, and the church expanded rapidly.
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). However, 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 laying the foundations.
In 1871 King Moshoeshoe’s half-brother, Chief Mopeli, who settled with his people at Witsieshoek, asked Pres. Brand of the Free State Republic for a tshiya, which is a central pole that would 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 at Eerste Zending, including Rev. J. J. Ross, who built schools, hospitals, and more over the course of 45 years. The first synod of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of the Orange Free State took place in 1910. The work in the Free State also expanded to the Thaba Nchu area, to the migrant workers on the goldfields. In 1955 the DRC and the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in the Orange Free State, 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 Plains. A mission station was also established in 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. Consequently, all the various churches (there were seven regional synods at the time) became a part of the DRCA.
Theological training was initially done at the Stoffberg School near Heilbron, but soon four theological training colleges were established for the different language groups: Witsieshoek (Qwaqwa), Turfloop (Northern Transvaal), Dingaanstat (Natal) and Decoligny (Transkei).
There was much work done on the literary front as well, including translating the Bible and compiling a catechism and hymnbook (Hosanna) in different languages. Additionally, a church magazine was distributed, and the church developed its own printing press and publisher – today known as the Christian Literature Fund.
A variety of projects of compassion were developed, such as schools for disabled children and teacher training colleges. Over the years, the Lord used 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 League, 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.
A hand holding a torch (its emblem) represents the DRCA’s motto, “a light in the darkness”. The official uniform (black and white) also proclaims this message.
Mrs Moji of the Women’s League conducts Sunday school under a pepper tree.
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. A traditional approach to worship and ministry is observed by the DRCA, which maintains its own uniforms and operates 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
During 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. In the Confession of Belhar (1986), the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRCM) emphasised unity as imperative for the church. Additionally, the DRCA felt that all four churches should participate in a reunification process. In 1987 the executive council of the DRCA invited the other three churches to begin a unification process. This process failed to take off. In 1990, the executive councils of the DRCA and the DRMC formed a joint committee to oversee 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 light of 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 unification at 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 keep their name and confessional basis as DRCA congregations. Many congregations were divided over what decision to take. The Phororo Synod of the DRCA officially decided to continue to belong to the DRCA soon after the Belhar Synod. The Free State congregations who did not want to join URCSA convened at Parys in September 1995 and decided to continue as part of the DRCA. Court cases between URCSA and the DRCA ensued, and 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.
Presently the DRCA has four regional synods, viz., the Free State with 15 circuits, (Phororo) Northern Cape with five, the Northern and Southern Transvaal with four and the Cape Synod with three. Around 50 ministers serve 200 congregations, which means that most congregations are without a minister. Due to poverty, most congregations cannot financially afford to sustain a minister’s post. Elders play a vital role in maintaining the ministry in vacant congregations. To address the present shortage of ministers in the DRCA, part-time theological training was developed in collaboration with the Huguenot College and the Mukhanyo Theological College.
A group of ladies in traditional dress expressing their joy at a music festival.
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. The wearing of distinct uniforms for the respective movements became very important. Church choirs still play an invaluable role. In many congregations, songs with a typical 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 Scripture and the church’s confessions. The expressed mission is to build a dynamic institution with programmes striving toward producing high-quality members, congregations, councils, officers, and organisations. In light of 1 Corinthians 14:40, the church is committed to building a healthy body of Christ, a church where only Christ rules and everything is carried out according to God’s will. Within the church, respect, dignity, and love will prevail, and talents and potentials will grow so that the church can fulfil its destiny in the world, namely, “to make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
The DRCA’s General Synod meeting in 2019 at the Deo Gloria camping site in Barkly West
The DRCA currently faces challenges regarding the Reformed character of the church because 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:
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions imposed on churches caused major disruptions to the functioning of the church, both financially and ministry-wise. Internal power struggles, especially between factions of ministers, also hamper the growth of the church.
As part of its ongoing reformation and return to its roots, the DRCA hopes to stay true to its motto and be a “light in the darkness.”
Rev. Abel Marumo (Scribe)