Allan Aubrey Boesak

Allan Boesak (born 1945), cofounder of the United Democratic Front (UDF), was a leading opponent of apartheid in South Africa and continues to be a spritual and political force.

Allan Aubrey Boesak was born on February 23, 1945, in Kakamas, N.W. Cape, South Africa. From an early age he developed his twin interests of religion and politics. Having always wanted to be a minister, Boesak at age 14 became a sexton in the Dutch Reformed Church's Sendingkerk (a "colored," or mixedrace, offshoot of the white Dutch Reformed Church). After graduating from Bellville Theological Seminary in 1967, Boesak was ordained at age 23. He married Dorothy Rose Martin in 1969 and they had four children (he eventually divorced and later married Elna Botha in 1991). By his late teens Boesak had expressed increasing dissatisfaction with South Africa's apartheid, a strict form of segregation, especially after the government cited racial reasons to force his family to relocate.

From 1970 to 1976 Boesak studied at the Kampen Theological Institute in Holland, where he completed his doctorate on ethics. Returning to South Africa shortly after the 1976 Soweto uprisings, Boesak increased his political activities through the church. Boesak's appeal quickly spread beyond the 2.8 million "coloreds" to both black and white opponents of apartheid. In 1981 various black Reformed churches founded ABRECSA (the Alliance of Black Reformed Christians in Southern Africa) and elected Boesak as chairman. The alliance's statement reflected many of Boesak's beliefs. It rejected the use of religion as a cultural or racist ideology (as employed by the white Dutch Reformed Church according to the alliance). The alliance's statement furthermore rejected divorcing religion from political activism. Boesak and the alliance believed that the struggle against apartheid represented a struggle for Christianity's integrity.

Boesak first received international attention in August of 1982 when the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) met in Canada. WARC represented about 150 churches of Calvinist tradition in 76 countries with a combined membership of over 50 million. Boesak introduced a motion requesting that WARC declare apartheid a heresy contrary to both the Gospel and the Reformed tradition. The alliance adopted the Declaration on Racism, suspended South Africa's white Dutch Reformed Church, and unanimously elected Boesak president of the alliance. His new position made him spiritual leader to over 50 million Christians. This base of international support subsequently protected him against some forms of governmental repression. He held the post until 1989.

In January of 1983 Boesak suggested that all groups opposed to the government's new constitution should unite. The government of Pieter Willem Botha had proposed giving increased powers to the state president while allowing limited representation in parliament to the mixed-race people and Asians, while excluding South Africa's blacks, who formed 73 percent of the population. Boesak opposed the constitution on moral grounds since it excluded the majority of South Africans, entrenched apartheid and white domination, and accepted ethnicity as the criterion for politics in South Africa.

Following Boesak's suggestion, a steering committee established the United Democratic Front (UDF). In August of 1983, before some 20,000 supporters, Boesak helped launch the UDF at Mitchells Plain outside of Cape Town. Boesak was elected patron. By early 1986 the UDF, an umbrella organization for some 700 organizations representing about two million white, mixed-race, and black South Africans, was the largest and most powerful legal opposition force in South Africa. Its membership and especially its goals approximated those of the then-banned African National Congress (ANC).

Boesak increasingly appeared at the forefront of opposition to the white government. He believed that "apartheid can never be modified," only "eradicated." While Boesak preferred nonviolent protest, he questioned its success in South Africa: "One cannot talk about violence if one is unable to do anything about it. In such a situation, nonviolence becomes an oppressive ideology. It aids and abets the oppressor."

Verbally, Boesak termed South Africa's government the "spiritual children of Hitler" and the South African police a "spiritual murder machine." Politically, he continued as a leader of the UDF and urged consumer boycotts of white businesses as well as a day of prayer for the overthrow of the white government. He opposed President Reagan's policy of "constructive engagement" toward South Africa.

On April 27, 1994, the first elections open to all South African citizens regardless of color were held. The ANC won over 62 percent of the popular vote and Nelson Mandela, who had been a political prisoner for over 27 years, was elected president. Boesak became president of the Association of Christian Students in South Africa, and founded the Foundation for Peace and Justice in Belleville. He also serves as the head of economic affairs for the African National Congress Western Cape. South Africa continues to see Reverend Boesak work as an articulate cleric-politician.

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Further Reading on Allan Aubrey Boesak

No biographies have yet appeared on Allan Boesak. He has written a number of books, including Farewell to Innocence: A Socio-Ethical Study on Black Theology and Black Power (1977), Finger of God: Sermons on Faith and Socio-Political Responsibility (1982), Walking on Thorns: The Call to Christian Obedience (1984), Black and Reformed: Apartheid, Liberation, and the Calvinist Tradition (1984), A Call for the End to Unjust Rule (1987), Comfort and Protest: Reflections on the Apocalypse of John of Patmos (1987), and If This Is Treason, I Am Guilty (1988). A thorough introduction to South Africa is South Africa: Time Running Out (Study Commission On U.S. Policy Toward Southern Africa, University of California, 1981, 1986).