When I arrived in South Africa for the first time (that was early 1984, and apartheid and white Afrikaners still ruled the roost) the one thing that stood out above everything else was the number of churches of various denominations: Anglicans, Apostolic Church, Baptists, Congregational Church, English Church in South Africa, Reformed Church, Greek Orthodox, Hervormde Church, Hindu, Jewish, Lutheran, Methodists, Muslim, Nederduitse Reformed Church, Pentecostalists, Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Evangelical Church, Seventh Day Adventists.
I may have missed a few, but you get the gist: for a medium-size town like Vanderbijlpark, there’s an awful lot of churches. And these couldn’t have been around and flourishing if the average South African was not a committed church goer. That’s probably why, when Danie Botes (who was one of the technicians I knew at Iscor) asked me what church I was going to, and I answered “none” he looked at me like I had turned into an alien on the spot. Here was someone who, from his daily work activities, he had assumed to be a pretty normal guy, and was not affiliated to any church ?
It goes without saying that in apartheid South Africa religion and the various denominations of churches were so interwoven with the social fabric that you almost described yourself as an outcast if you didn’t belong to a church. After all, that’s what you did on a Sunday: in the morning you went to church, and in the afternoon (and sometimes on a Saturday too) there were often social activities arranged by your church.
The strangest thing that ever happened to me was shortly after I had joined Iscor: when I arrived in South Africa in 1984 there had already been a drought for the last few months, and it didn’t look like it was going to break out of it any time soon. One afternoon we were told we could go home at 3pm, thereby giving people the opportunity to go to church and pray for rain. Really? Honestly? The mind boggles that such a mindset could still exist in this day and age.
Surely you know that rain comes from climate and weather patterns, and that while natural explanations are sufficient to explain what’s going on, you know there’s going to be variations from year to year. And surely educated South Africans must be aware of this, so why drag god into the equation? In the end, the drought ended about two months later, so if god responded to prayers, he took his time.
Mind you, respect for technology (which you surely must have if you work in a steel company) sometimes clashes with respect for religion, especially if the latter is of the creationist kind. At one point the same Danie Botes expressed disbelief in the fact of continental movement, finding it utterly beyond common sense. When I told him that satellites had recently measured the speed at which North America drifted away from Europe, he didn’t know how to react – on the one hand you can’t as an engineer disbelieve what the most up-to-date technology of the day is telling you, but how do you square that with your religious principles?
That’s why I always used to say that you could become great pals with Afrikaners but you never could fully understand them since their mind worked North-South and yours went East-West. Since I have not been back to South Africa since the end of apartheid I don’t know how religion has coped with the transition to majority rule. I assume it will have survived – after all, religion went deep, and was not restricted to the white population.