The history of Catholics in South Africa dates from the colony’s earliest days. Founded by the Dutch East India Company in 1652, it was intended as a mere market garden to replenish shipping along the routes to the Orient. But the lush habitation, in which almost any plant you like grows more quickly and for longer in the year than anywhere else, combined with scenery of astonishing beauty and ideal transport links on the highway of the seas, made it an attractive spot for those seeking to escape the crowded miseries of late seventeenth-century Europe.
Our best account of the first Catholics living in South Africa comes thanks to its position as the halfway-house on the route to Asia. In 1685, the Jesuit mathematician, astronomer, and not-quite-secret-agent Fr Guy Tachard stopped off at the Cape of Good Hope en route to Siam as an emissary of the Sun King, Louis XIV.
Given Dutch hostility both to the French and to Catholicism, Père Tachard was surprised by the generous welcome provided by the governor, Simon van der Stel. Tachard was allowed to set up an astronomical observatory in the Company’s Gardens. No sooner had this happened than he was sought out by Catholics.
Their position was difficult: anyone who wasn’t in line with the state-backed Calvinist church was unmistakably a second-class citizen at best, and the Mass in particular was banned. (The Dutch Republic of its day does not deserve its reputation as a haven of toleration.) So it is no wonder that they reacted with joy to Fr Tachard’s arrival.
“Those who could not express themselves otherwise knelt and kissed our hands,” one of the expedition’s priests wrote. “In the mornings and evenings they came privately to us. There were some of all countries and of all conditions: free, slaves, French, Germans, Portuguese, Spaniards, Flemings, and Indians.”
Those who spoke French, Latin, Spanish, or Portuguese were lucky enough to have their confessions heard, though there was still no chance of Mass: local inhabitants were even forbidden from visiting the French ships.
A brief interlude of religious liberty was provided during the tenure of the Enlightenment-influenced governor Jacob de Mist, who allowed three Dutch priests to offer Mass for the sake of Catholic troops. The conquest of the Cape by the British soon put paid to this: the new rulers re-imposed the Mass ban in order to placate and win over prominent local Dutchmen and Huguenots who feared Catholic freedom.
After the Congress of Vienna confirmed the Cape as a British possession, a more optimistic Vatican erected a Vicariate of the Cape of Good Hope. Then, in the aftermath of Catholic Emancipation, the British government was prepared to allow a Catholic bishop in Southern Africa. The Irish Dominican Patrick Griffith was appointed vicar apostolic. He found himself in charge of a huge swath of territory with little more than a handful of priests. Colonial authorities forbade opening new mission stations within five miles of existing ones. Spreading the Gospel, then, had to play second fiddle to the spiritual care of the existing Catholics, mostly Irish, in the towns.
South Africa has always been a divided society, and the settler-native split is only the most pronounced division among the rich tapestry of peoples who call the country their home. One scholar has said that as late as the 1950s the Catholic Church in South Africa was still best described as a “a settler Church for whites and a mission Church for blacks”.
But while they arrived later than their Protestant rivals, when the missionaries came in the late 19th century they stayed – and built strong foundations. Some came from France, Switzerland, and the Low Countries, but the bulk came from the German-speaking world, England, and most numerously Ireland. A panoply of existing religious orders were soon found at the far end of the African continent.
Zululand had proved impenetrable for Catholic missionaries, until an extraordinary turn of events thanks to an eccentric man. John Robert Dunn, the child of English settlers, had become a close advisor to Mpande, the King of the Zulus, and his successor Cetshwayo. After he backed the British in the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War, the victors granted Dunn a large tract of land and he lived more or less as a Zulu chief himself. In addition to his wife Catherine, he took forty-eight Zulu women as his concubines and fathered well over a hundred children.
Protestant missionaries took strong exception to this ostensible European “going native” and when, on his deathbed, he asked Anglican and Lutheran missionaries to educate his children they refused. So Dunn entrusted the teaching of his numerous offspring to the Catholic Church, apologising as he did so for his pagan habits.Within a year, priests were dispatched to look after the Dunn children and the Catholic route into Zululand was secure. By 1906, the Zulu chief Umfungelwa reported of the “Romans” that “everywhere they treat well the abantu [native peoples] and heal the sick”.
A minority of Catholic clerics, however zealous they were for souls, were nonetheless wary of nativising the clergy. It would be too simplistic to blanketly ascribe this to racism, but it would be naive to absolve them of the charge completely. In the early 1900s it appeared as if white political domination would continue more or less forever, and many Catholics feared that they would be politcially marginalised if they were too closely associated with black South Africans.
Life was also difficult for the early native clergy. Sent to study in Rome where they were for the most part well-treated, upon upon finishing their studies they had to return home to the land of their birth, where they were treated as second-class citizens at best. The first Zulu priest, Fr Edward Mnganga, fell into a physical altercation with his immediate superior over personal mistreatment and was locked away in an asylum for many years.
Over the 19th century, colonial authorities had become more race-conscious and segregationalist. Encouraging Catholic (and other) missionary work through education allowed new schools to be opened that catered to the native population, keeping existing schools the preserve of the whites.
The race question came to a head when the National Party unexpectedly won the 1948 general election on a platform promising to erect the apartheid system of complete “separate development” of the races, instilling racial discrimination into every aspect of society with pettifogging detail. Writing in The Southern Cross, (then the bishops’ official publication) a month before the election, Fr Owen McCann made clear the Church’s opposition to apartheid. “Only by recognising that all men are brothers under the fatherhood of God,” the future Cardinal Archbishop of Cape Town wrote, “can South Africa find a way out of its complex problems.”
The deep-seated anti-Catholicism in Dutch Reformed and National Party circles made the Church’s work difficult. Even the Church’s attempt to find common cause on ant-communism gained little response from the Nationalists. In their mindset, the swart gevaar (black threat) and the rooi gevaar (red threat) were at the forefront, but the Roomse gevaar (Roman threat) wasn’t far behind.
Nonetheless, for the sake of the faithful and the oppressed, the Church couldn’t help but make known both the intellectual error of apartheid’s principles and the deep injustices which would inevitably result from the vast expansion of state power apartheid necessitated. When segregation was introduced to the commuter railways of the diversely populated Cape, Bishop Henneman condemned the policy as “noxious, unchristian, and destructive”.
Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban vigorously opposed racist land seizures and expulsion of residents. The provincial of South African’s Dominicans, Fr Albert Nolan, developed an analysis of the apartheid state that suggested the original impetus of Afrikaner nationalism was shifting to an ideology of state security.
Stephen Naidoo, the Catholic Archbishop of Cape Town, was once arrested at an anti-apartheid protest with his better-known Anglican opposite number, Desmond Tutu. At the police station, the sergeant, an Afrikaner, asked all the arrested to state their name and occupation. “Stephen Naidoo, Archbishop of Cape Town,” His Excellency reported.
“Next!” the sergeant barked.
“Desmond Tutu, Archbishop of Cape Town.”
The sergeant thought his leg was being pulled. “All right! Which one of you jokers is the real Archbishop of Cape Town?”
“Ach, all right,” Tutu told the policeman, nodding towards Naidoo. “It’s him.”