Celebrating 40 years as an independent church
The Dutch Reformed Church in Botswana (DRCB) is the eldest of the sister churches in the church family outside the South African borders. The church’s birth dates back to 1877 when the first missionary of the Dutch Reformed Church, Rev. Pieter Brink, began missionary work at Mochudi in Botswana.
Botswana is a huge country, but it is sparsely populated by only about 2 million people. The capital is Gaborone and its major languages are Setswana and English. Botswana is the world’s largest producer of diamonds and it is this trade, among others, that transformed it into a middle-income nation with a strong currency, the Pula, meaning rain. Some of Africa’s largest and most beautiful wilderness areas are found in Botswana and safari-based tourism is another important source of income for the country. As Africa’s oldest multiparty democracy, Botswana has the reputation of being one of Africa’s most stable countries in terms of politics, is relatively free of corruption, and has a good human rights record. There are, however, also challenges such as severe droughts and HIV/Aids.
Botswana is generally considered a Christian country as more than 70% of the population profess to be Christian. Ground-breaking missionary work was done by the London Missionary Society through the well-known Robert Moffat, his son, John Moffat, and his son-in-law, David Livingstone. Robert Moffat was the first to translate the Bible in Setswana. As a result of the work of the London Mission Society, the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA) was established and is one of the major churches in Botswana.
The origins of the Dutch Reformed Church’s work in Botswana can be traced to a farm called Saulspoort, near the Pilanesberg in the current North West Province of South Africa. The farm once belonged to Paul Kruger, then the President of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (South African Republic or ZAR) which was in existence between 1852 and 1902. In 1866 the evangelist David Mogatle Modibane and the Swiss missionary Rev. Henri Gonin from the DRC in the Cape Colony started missionary work among the Bakgatla people near Saulspoort. There were, however, clashes between Chief Kgamanyane of the Bakgatla and Pres. Kruger about laws forced upon the Bakgatla (and what Chief Kgamanyane saw as disrespectful treatment of himself by Kruger). Almost all of the Bakgatla people including many converts of the DRC mission endeavour moved across the border of what was then called Bechuanaland. The Bakgatla people settled at Mochudi on the banks of the Ngotwane River. Rev. Gonin did not follow the Bakgatla people but stayed on at Saulspoort where he continued his work.
Rev. Pieter Brink, who studied at the Missionary Institute in Wellington, worked with Rev. Gonin at Saulspoort for some years and learned Setswana. In 1877 he and his wife, Anna Elizabeth, were sent to Mochudi by the DRC Cape Synod. Rev. Brink laid the foundations for the mission work but died in 1886 at the young age of 43 due to bad health. The German couple Rev. Emil Bernhard Beyer and his wife Anna (née Endemann) succeeded him. With them, Miss Mary Murray and Miss Lenie van der Merwe established solid groundwork in education, medical and social work. In 1877 Miss Debora Retief replaced Miss Van der Merwe.
When Chief Kgamanyane died in 1874 he was succeeded by his son Lentswe. Because of animosity between the Bakgatla and the Bakwena tribes, the mission could not expand beyond the Mochudi area. But, in 1892, Chief Lentswe converted to Christianity after the chief experienced an intense internal struggle during a time of seclusion in the hills. To become a Christian meant a break with traditional practices and he had to send two of his three wives and their children back to their families. When the chief converted, practically the whole Bakgatla tribe accepted the Dutch Reformed Church as the ‘people’s church’.
Mochudi was the first mission station to officially form a congregation and Sikwane came after in 1885. Several schools were established at Mochudi and the surroundings. The large church building at Mochudi was built in 1904 and is still used today. The church slowly expanded and a number of church buildings were eventually built in various towns in Botswana. Institutions for disabled persons were also established. Several other missionaries such as the Revs. Willie Neethling, Pieter Stoffberg, D. J. Joubert, J. C. Knobel, Johannes Reyneke, and Ado Krige did wonderful work in Botswana. Generations of the well-known missionary family like the Murrays also laboured in this mission field. The first black minister of Botswana was Rev. Thomas Phiri.
Several medical doctors also played a role in mission work in Botswana, among whom Dr G. H. J. Teichler, an eye specialist, will be remembered. The young Rev. Neethling also made a big impression. In 1896 the gable of the church building collapsed because of a storm and it came down on the young minister. He died saying: ‘God makes no mistakes,’ words that are remembered and quoted at Mochudi to this day.
Women who served in Botswana left enduring impressions. Debora Retief is one of the women who worked as a missionary in Mochudi for more than 42 years. To this day, the Debora Retief Memorial Hospital is an important institution where nurses are also trained. Agnes Krynauw worked for 22 years at Mochudi and the girl’s hostel of the Homecrafts Centre was named after her. Miss M. Vermeulen and Miss E. J. von Mollendorf built on these foundations. From 1975 until her retirement in 2006, Miss Elize Cronjé played a major role in the establishment of the Home Crafts Centre. Girls from across Botswana came to learn home economics and other subjects at this centre. Sadly, the Home Crafts Centre recently burnt down, and not enough money could be raised to rebuild it.
In 1955 the two Botswana congregations, Mochudi and Sikwane, officially became part of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of the Transvaal. Other Botswana congregations followed: West Mochudi in 1964, East Mochudi in 1969, Gaborone in 1970, and Makaleng in 1977. In 1972 the eight Botswana congregations formed their own presbytery.
After Botswana’s independence in 1966, the new government proclaimed a Societies Bill in 1973 with the result that only one Dutch Reformed Church was now recognised. The question was if the Church would continue as a regional synod of the DRCA or become independent. After permission was granted from the relevant role players, the Dutch Reformed Church in Botswana officially registered as an independent church in 1979. The Afrikaans-speaking congregations of Lobatse in Gaborone also joined the DRCB. In the same year, the Northern Cape Synod seceded from the Western and Southern Cape Synod of the DRC and entered into a partnership with the DRCB.
Today the DRCB consists of one synod and four presbyteries. It has approximately 10,000 members, 20 congregations, and 7 branches. There are 27 preaching points that are ministered by 20 ministers.
Congregations are governed by church councils who have four statutory meetings in a year and several special meetings. The 4 circuits are made of about 5 congregations each and they hold their assemblies annually. The highest governing and policy-making body is the Synod which is led by the Moderamen. The Synod Assembly is held every two years.
The DRCB is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ as the head of the church, based upon the Bible as the holy and infallible Word of God. The Doctrine which the Church confesses, in accordance with the word of God is expressed on;
The training of ministers is coordinated by the DRCB Training and Development Committee. Previously it was done at Kgolagano College, the University of Botswana and the University of North West. Of late the Training and Development Committee has extended the pool and Theological training in the DRCB takes place at the theological faculties and centres for professional development at Kgolagano College, University of Pretoria, University of the Free State, University of North West, the University of Stellenbosch and the University of Zimbabwe, Zambia (Justo Mwale University).
The Church owns projects aimed at integrating the disadvantaged groups in the society into mainstream education. It has the following projects:
The DRCB has standing partnership with the Government of Botswana regarding some of their projects regulated by Memorandums of Agreement documents. The church operates from its premises and the different congregations have their owns premises of operation.
There are, however, also a lot of commendable endeavours and a lot to be thankful about. A new dedicated leadership is working hard to bolster and build out the Church. Recently the Reformed Church in Zambia (RCZ) has sent a missionary pastor to assist the DRCB and there is a good partnership of mutual assistance between the DRCB and the DRC Northern Cape Synod; the partnerships between congregations bring new energy. The creation of new possibilities for the training of pastors, such as at the North-West University Mahikeng Campus may also boost the Church. With government assistance the DRCB runs three schools for children with disabilities, thereby contributing to society.
The DRCB has also indicated that they are very keen to participate in the reunification process of the four domestic churches of the DRC family in South Africa.