Of Missionaries and Whistle-blowers

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DEPUTY Chief Justice Raymond Ray Zondo, head of the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture. African News Agency (ANA)

In 1779,a Dutch doctor named Johannes van der Kemp fell in love.  He was an aristocrat and she was a wool-spinner.  When news of this “unsuitable marriage” reached the Dutch court, he was summoned before Prince William V to explain himself.  In due course, he lost his wife, and later moved to South Africa, where he found that inter-racial marriages were frowned upon.  Nevertheless he married the widow of a slave.

He made several attempts to start mission schools for the Xhosa on the Eastern Cape, but there was so much resistance from the white settlers that the governor of the Cape Colony recalled him from that frontier.  So he started a school for the Khoi in Graff-Reinett, teaching literacy to slaves.  Before long, 300 wagons of armed settlers assembled at Zwargershoek to forcibly send him on his way.  They burned his Khoi school to the ground.

So he moved again, to Algoa Bay.  His vocation changed too, because these were the days of the Anti-Slavery movement in British Parliament.  As long as Britannia ruled the waves, outlawing slavery could be effectively enforced world-wide.  Van der Kemp became a kind of Slavery Observatory, filing his reports both to the Governor in Capetown (Dutch or British, depending on which was holding sway) and also to William Wilberforce, the British MP who was driving the Anti-Slavery Bill. Van der Kemp’s accounts of the horrific ways that the Khoi were being treated by white settlers was popular reading in the Anti-Slavery media at that time.

The Cape governor JW Janssens insisted that van der Kemp move further south to Botha’s Plain, a less fertile area of course.  He built a mission there called Bethelsdorp, near present-day Port Elizabeth.  It was an early version of a refugee camp for Khoi people, dispossessed of their lands.  Van der Kemp became fluent in the Khoi language.

Soon after van der Kemp’s death in late 1811, a new Cape governor Sir John Craddock set up a circuit court at Algoa Bay to investigate allegations he had raised about atrocities and injustices.  In its day, this was the equivalent to our Zondo Commission.  It was unprecedented.  They called it “the Black Circuit” and only a year after van der Kemp’s death, it had already debriefed a thousand witnesses – European, Xhosa and Khoi.  Fifty-eight settlers were put on trial, but everyone knew that for every person on trial, at least ten more went un-reported.

Many missionaries followed in this path, including John Kicherer who had sailed from the UK with van der Kemp in 1798.  But Kicherer travelled north to work among the San “bushmen” in the northern Cape.  Later in that century, another missionary doctor named David Livingstone penetrated ever further to the north, continuing the role of Slavery Observatory.

Missions were better known over the years for education and health.  Mission schools and mission hospitals can still be found all over Africa.  But progress was slow, because of the resistance that missionaries faced from the settlers and business interests invading deep rural Africa.  Fighting for Justice was always part of the missionary’s remit, and that included whistle-blowing.  To expose the excesses of Colonialism.

Mozambican academic Mia Couto offers an interesting count.  According to his research, by 1940 the number of Africans – across the continent – who were attending High School was less than 11 000.  We know how rare black lawyers were – Mandela and Tambo was the first black law firm ever.  It was founded before the Group Areas Act was enacted, because they suddenly found that their office was in a “white area”.  So many post-war black intellectuals and political leaders emerged from mission schools.

About this time, yet another missionary arrived in Johannesburg from England, named Trevor Huddleston.   In 1954 he gave Hugh Masekela his first trumpet.  In 1959 he co-founded the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) with Julius Nyerere.  He became a bishop in Tanzania in 1960.  In 1988 he and Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed a rally of 200 000 people in Hyde Park, London.  By now it was clear that public opinion was evolving.  Winds of change were blowing.  Few missionaries ever got to blow the whistle as loud as Huddleston!

But Africa and Africans had also changed.  There had been much urbanization (a way for investors to enjoy a cheap labour force) and the largest church denomination of them all is now Zion Christian Church.  It has made huge contributions to both the Christianization of Africa and the Africanization of Christianity.  Along with St. Engenas ZCC. The truth is that many African missionaries now travel to different parts of the world, and this accounts for the revitalization of the church in many settings.

In South Africa, the Zondo Commission represents a great leap forward.  Instead of harbouring secrets, citizens of all races are being invited to step forward and come clean on what they know about State Capture.  Yet some of them require “Witness Protection” because of the still-prevalent attitude that they are “Impimpi”.  They need the persistence and fortitude of that pioneer missionary Dr. Johannes van der Kemp, champion of the Khoi.

Just as white whistle-blowers spoke up about settlers behaving badly, so also the time has now come that blacks are openly reporting corruption and patronage committed by blacks in governance.  This should not cause them to be labelled coconuts or oreos, but heroes.  Democrats.

Father Huddleston died in April 1998 at his home in England. He was 85 years of age.  His ashes were interred next to the Church of Christ the King in Sophiatown.  Dr van der Kemp died in Capetown, after surviving a number of assassination attempts over the years.  He was 63 years old.  Edward Snowden put it this way: “The sad truth is that societies that demand whistleblowers be martyrs often find themselves without either, and always when it matters most.”  It is good citizenship to report crime.  And someone has to speak truth to power.


Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director for the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his personal capacity.