By the 1920s there was still no prominent figure in the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) who advocated the DRC practice of segregated schools, parishes and churches as a model for political or economic discrimination. Indeed Johannes du Plessis (no relation to J.C du Plessis), a towering figure in the DRC missions field from as early as 1910, was urging Afrikaners to govern blacks in a Christian manner. In 1921 Du Plessis, professor at the Theological School at Stellenbosch, edited a manifesto by ten leading figures in missionary circles who tried to defend the DRC against the charge of influential black academic D.D.T. Jabavu that it was ‘an anti-native church’. The statement admitted that the DRC had fallen short in its ministries to black people, but pointed out in partial exculpation that it was the only large church in the country whose missions relied exclusively on funding from local whites. While the DRC writers regarded segregation as a ‘most excellent theory’, they were more aware of the ambiguities, contradictions and pitfalls of segregation than were many English-speaking theorists of the time.
The DRC mission leaders did not restrict themselves to vague expressions of goodwill towards blacks, but made striking concrete demands. Educated blacks should be exempted from the pass laws, black workers should have the right to strike, and ‘Bantu tradesmen’ should be able to compete unhindered against whites. They insisted, too, on expanded secondary education for blacks. In 1923 the DRC’s Federal Council, a body created to deal with church issues across provincial boundaries, convened an inter church conference of some 50 leaders, both white and black. This meeting marked the highest level of consensus on segregation that blacks, English-speaking whites and Afrikaners would ever attain. It called for ‘differential development of the Bantu’, but also rejected ‘complete segregation’.
Though marginalised in white parliamentary politics, English-speaking missionaries strove to enhance their influence by allying with elite, extra-parliamentary networks. Three groups in particular became their allies: white paternalist theorists like C.T. Loram and Edgar Brookes, who expounded a mild form of segregation as a Christian alternative to blatant white domination; black nationalist leaders – including almost all the founders of the African National Congress – most of them educated in mission schools and committed to the tenets and language of the social gospel; and international missionary statesmen like the Scot J.H. Oldham, who enabled South African missionaries to raise funds from US charitable foundations and gain a hearing in the governing councils of the British Empire.
Protestant missionary influence in South African politics reached its peak in the years immediately after the inter-church conference of 1923, when an extraordinary Christian coalition – English-speaking missionaries in the centre, black nationalist leaders on the left, Afrikaner churchmen on the right – demanded reforms from the South African government. Johannes du Plessis led this alliance, which seemed to herald a concerted attack on the perennial injustices of South African society. A pugnacious controversialist, Du Plessis never hedged his provocative views for any audience, white or black. His complex political vision enabled him to hold together a motley alliance of interest groups. It was his mildly modernist theology, not his politics, which undid him in 1928 when authorities in his own church charged him with heresy.
Embroiled in a series of well-publicised ecclesiastical and civil trials, Du Plessis lost his ability to lead the DRC into ecumenical endeavours. At the same time many black leaders were turning away from missionary leadership. As a new ideology, labelled ‘apartheid’ from as early as 1929,gained ground in the DRC, the time for reform by an interracial Christian coalition had passed.
Many of the principal themes of apartheid were initially developed among missionary leaders in the DRC, who strove to reconcile the church’s missionary obligation to blacks with its attempt to build a volkskerk for white Afrikaners – a scheme to foster a form of separate ‘development’ among blacks that would fulfil the duty of white Christians but not threaten white supremacy. The word apartheid first appeared in print as part of the proceedings of a DRC missions conference in the Orange Free State, (See Origins of the term ‘Apartheid‘).