Tree-planting on Heritage Day, 22nd September 2019 F.l.t.r.: Alexia Pillay, Joel Munilal,
Kadesh Govender, Rev. A. Sirpal and Alicia Pillay (standing)
The Reformed Church in Africa (RCA) is a small but vibrant church with unambiguous evangelical characteristics. The church grew from the missionary endeavours of the Dutch Reformed Church, focusing predominately on Hindu and Muslim communities of Indian descent. It was officially established on 27 August 1968 as the Indian Reformed Church later to change its name to the Reformed Church in Africa.
Most of the Indian South Africans descended from migrants who came to South Africa as indentured labourers from 1860. By 1911 more than 150 000 migrants from India have settled mostly in the Natal Colony as labourers on sugar cane plantations, but later also as workers on coal mines and railways. The majority of them were Hindus, but some were also Muslims and Christians. Their mother tongues were mostly Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. Ill-treatment of these migrant labourers caused many of them to return to India when their contracts expired. The majority of those who remained eventually established themselves around the Durban area, making Durban – especially due to the suburbs Phoenix and Chatsworth – the largest “Indian city” outside India today. There are also growing Indian communities all over KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and around Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Kimberley.
During the apartheid years, the Indian population was also submitted to discriminating laws. Following in the footsteps of the well-known statesman and philosopher Mahatma Gandhi, who has been one of the migrant workers in South Africa during colonial times, some of the most distinguished activists against the apartheid system were Indian. Even today, South African Indian leaders are contributing hugely to the nation. Today, there are about 1,3 million Indian South Africans, that is, about 2.7% of the total population. Of the Indian population 47% are Hindu, 24% Muslim and 24% Christian. Most of the Christians belong to either the Roman Catholic Church or to Pentecostal and charismatic churches.
The first official attempts of Dutch Reformed missionaries to reach out to the Indian communities were made in 1946, with Rev. M. W. Theunissen and later Rev. C. W. J. Pistorius working among Indians in the Pietermaritzburg area. This was, however, done only on a part-time basis at first. A small church was erected in 1949, but the spiritual work only really started to make a difference when the first Indian evangelist, Mr Albert Murugan, was ordained and inducted as a full-time appointee. By 1955 there were already 30 new converts baptised. In 1957 Rev. J. Pretorius became the first full-time minister of this congregation with an outpost ministry also in Durban. In 1959 the first church building in Durban was erected. The work expanded and more evangelists were trained and ordained: Evangelists J. K. Naidoo, Kisten Moodley and S. Sukdaven. The method of evangelism was prayer meetings at the homes of believers, evangelism crusades, literature distribution, Sunday Schools and one-on-one discussions.
More congregations were established in Durban, viz. Durban South, Emmanuel, Moriah, Jeshurun and Maranatha, but also in the Pretoria-Johannesburg area, viz. Charisma and Shalom, Cape Town, viz. Living Waters and Port Elizabeth, viz. Calvary. Other people who played a significant role towards the birth of the church were Mrs Esperance Kelber and Rev. C. J. A. Greyling in the Transvaal, Rev. D. J. Pypers in the Cape, Dr C. du P. le Roux in Benoni and Germiston, Rev. D. P. Bekker in Durban South, Rev. W. L. F. Botes in Pretoria, Rev. P. J. P. de Beer in Pretoria and Durban and Rev. J. S. de Wet in Port Elizabeth.
The academic, financial and administrative support from the DRC contributed greatly to the missionary efforts and the birth of this church. However, the apartheid system of the old South Africa was a hindrance to this missionary activity as the outreach workers were perceived to be part of the political system. The introduction and training of evangelists from the Indian communities themselves had a greater impact also because they knew the culture, the language and specific needs of the people among whom they worked and with whom they could identify themselves.
The first Indian pioneer evangelists were A. Murugan in Pietermaritzburg, E. J. Manikkam (later a minister in Cape Town), G. S. Moodley (later a minister in Benoni), and K. Moodley (later a minister in Sydenham, Durban), G. B. Peter (later a minister in Lenasia), R. Govender (later a minister in Pretoria), S. Sukdaven (later a minister in Pietermaritzburg) and J. K. Naidoo, later a minister in Merebank, Durban. An important feature in the RCA is the second generation of ministers made up of sons and sons-in-law of the first group of ministers. The surnames Moodley, Sukdaven and Shunmogam indeed give the RCA the character of a big family.
Ministers and delegates from four Indian congregations in Pietermaritzburg, Durban South, Transvaal and the Cape Province established between 1957 and 1966 met with representatives of the Dutch Reformed Church in Raisethorpe, Pietermaritzburg for the convention of the first Synod in 1968.
At first, all the ministers and evangelists of the RCA were financially dependent on the DRC, but this financial dependence has diminished significantly. Although most congregations struggle to pay their ministers’ salaries, they strive to be autonomous. Today, quite a number of young ministers are available, but congregations cannot afford them.
From its establishment, the RCA developed a strongly evangelical identity. Many members are first-generation converts who enthusiastically participate in outreach activities. This remains the hallmark of the church, as this evangelical identity is inculcated in converts. The vast majority of RCA congregation members are involved in mission and evangelism under the leadership of the evangelists. Even when political tensions were at its highest in South Africa and calls were made for the RCA to break away from the DRC because of apartheid, the RCA maintained that the church had an evangelical rather than political calling. This is the reason for the adoption of the Laudium Declaration in 1986. This is a declaration about the evangelical and Reformed stance of the RCA and it reflects a strong sense of the duty of being sent out in this world.
The RCA congregations are located primarily in Indian communities. However, the demographics of these communities have changed and the church is no longer only serving people of Indian descent. In fact, many congregations have a wonderful mix of congregants, many of whom serve as elders and deacons.
The RCA strives to have an impact on communities in the context in which they live. There are several outreach programmes from different congregations, one type of programme being food schemes in informal settlements with its many desperately poor people. The RCA also reaches out to children through various programmes and they support different missionaries and ministries. But the most significant contribution is its strong emphasis on evangelism through inviting people to church services and Bible classes, through welcoming people into the fellowship of Christ and taking up its role in spiritual healing through its ministry of deliverance from bondage.
The RCA consists of a synod, three presbyteries and 12 congregations – six in KwaZulu-Natal, three in the Cape Region and three in Gauteng. It has about 2 000 members.
Rev. Ivan Akash Sirpal