The Reformed Church in Africa (RCA)

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 and later changed its name to the Reformed Church in Africa.

Indentured labourers

Most of the Indian South Africans are descended from migrants who came to South Africa as indentured labourers from 1860 onwards. By 1911 more than 150,000 migrants from India had settled mostly in the Natal Colony as labourers on sugar cane plantations, but later also as workers on coal mines and railways. Most of them were Hindus, but some were 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 (Gqeberha) and Kimberley.

During the apartheid years, the Indian population was subject to discriminating laws. Following in the footsteps of the well-known statesman and philosopher Mahatma Gandhi (who was one of the migrant workers in South Africa during colonial times), some of the most distinguished activists against the apartheid regime were Indian.

South African Indian leaders continue to make a significant contribution to the nation. There are approximately 1,3 million Indian South Africans today, which is about 2.7% of the 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 missionary endeavours bear fruit

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 ministry 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 built. The work expanded and more evangelists were trained and ordained: Evangelists J. K. Naidoo, Kisten Moodley and S. Sukdaven. The methods of evangelism were 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 Shanti, Cape Town, viz. Living Waters and Port Elizabeth, viz. Calvary. Other people who played a significant role in 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 more significant impact 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). A noteworthy feature of 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.

Autonomy and identity of the church

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.

Since its founding, the RCA has developed a strong 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 their 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 declaration describes the evangelical and Reformed stance of the RCA and it reflects a strong sense of the duty of being sent out in this world.

Revs. Ivan Akash Sirpal (clerk), K. Moodley (moderator) , Dr V. V. Pillay (actuary) and W.C. Cronje (assesor) at the RCA Synod Meeting at Phoenix Durban in 2018.

Five elements of the declaration

  • Biblical gospel: The Church firmly beliefs that the biblical gospel is God’s enduring message to the world and is determined to defend, proclaim, and embody it.
  • The Holy Spirit’s witness: The Church affirms that the Holy Spirit’s witness to Christ is indispensable to evangelism and that, without the Holy Spirit’s supernatural work, rebirth and new life is not possible and all the Church’s endeavours fruitless.
  • Evangelistic witness and compassionate service: The Church believes that the congregation of believers should turn itself outward to its local community in evangelistic witness and compassionate service.
  • Unity: The Church affirms its God-given unity at the deepest level with all born-again believers. The Church determines to foster such unity across all denominational barriers. In the immediate circle of the RCA, it will strengthen structural unity with those who share the same confession, provided that such structural unity will not stifle the evangelistic witness of the Reformed Church in Africa.
  • Prophetic witness: The Church affirms that the proclamation of God’s kingdom of justice, peace and holiness demands the denunciation of all injustice, oppression, and immorality. The RCA will not shrink from this prophetic witness.

Current focus

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. Some congregations, like the one in Laudium, host migrant families from sister churches in Malawi and Zimbabwe.

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, welcoming people into the fellowship of Christ, and taking up its role in spiritual healing through its ministry of deliverance from bondage.


Tree-planting on Heritage Day, 22nd September 2019

 

The RCA’s most important challenges

  • The ministry to Muslim and Hindu communities has become increasingly challenging. These groups often equate Christianity with westernisation, implying that it will result in the destruction of the group’s cultural identity.
  • The problems posed to preaching the gospel by modernism, postmodernism and attitudes of scepticism and distrust toward grand narratives or ideologies. Today, the question of what truth is, as well as how to define it, is often associated with the doctrine of ‘relativism’.
  • The preaching of liberation and prosperity theology with an emphasis on liberating the oppressed, the marginalised and the poor, but with little or no emphasis on spiritual liberation from sin. The emphasis on attaining health and wealth, based on the charisma of the leader to perform miracles, but without real theological grounding in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
  • That ministers and pastors are no longer seen as moral authorities in their communities. The perception is that many enter the vocation only for the sake of self-interest and self-enrichment. Not all church leaders take on their prophetic role and speak biblical truth in today’s world.
  • Other challenges to be addressed, new-age philosophy, agnosticism, and atheism and, lastly, convincing people of the sanctity of marriage.
  • Maintaining the church (especially synodical) structure, financial sustainability, theological training of ministers, internal conflicts and surviving and even making an impact as small minority communities.

Ministers and spiritual workers retreat at Camperdown KZN in 2019

F.l.t.r.: back row: Rev. B. Chettiar, Rev. W.C. Cronje (Assessor), Rev. K. Moodley (Moderator), Rev. W.L. Naidoo, Rev. B. Singh and Dr Gideon van der Watt
Front row: , Prop. P Padayachee, Elder S. Nilliah, Rev. A. Sirpal (General Secretary/Scribe), Dr Frederick Marais, Dr V.V. Pillay (Actuary), the late Rev. N. Moonsamy and Elder A. Pillay

 

The church prayerfully embarked on a comprehensive strategic plan on how to effectively face these challenges, make use of the existing opportunities and be obedient to their identity and calling as an evangelical, and thus also missional church.

Structure and statistics

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.

Contact

Rev. Ivan Akash Sirpal
akashsirpal@yahoo.com