A young fourth year seminarian sat quietly in his chair glancing at the clock. It was nearly 11. He raised his hand and asked the lecturer if the class could be excused to listen to the radio. Permission granted, the class hurried towards the radio.
It was 21 June 1971. A judge from Pakistan delivered his verdict in an hour-and-a-half broadcast. The judge overturned a 1950 International Court of Justice ruling that South Africa’s mandate in Namibia (once South-West Africa) was legal. Now, the court ruled, South Africa was illegally occupying the territory.
Excited, the seminarians returned to their class after the broadcast. A Finnish New Testament professor was lecturing on Romans 13: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God…”
The young theology student was Zephania Kameeta. And he remembered later:
The broadcast raised our hopes so much. After that we accidentally had the New Testament lecture. No, maybe the Lord himself asked the professor on that day to discuss that particular passage.
All authority has been given by God. And you know in South Africa and Namibia this text is the basis of racial separateness — apartheid — and I don’t believe in it. Apartheid is not based on a political ideology, but it is based on religion. And this text is one that is being used in South Africa to justify apartheid. Those who are fighting against that, those who are saying things against that — they must be communists or Marxists. That’s the attitude.
After we discussed Romans 13, following the World Court decision, we started for the first time to look at the text within the context of this Southern African situation. And we asked our professor within the context of what we heard a few minutes before what he thought was the rule for the church in this kind of situation. Because we read this text (v. 3) where it suggests that authorities are entitled to punish those who are doing wrong and reward those who are doing good.
But our experience up to that day in Namibia was that the authority was there to punish those who are doing good and to praise those who are doing wrong. And we asked: What’s the responsibility of the church in this kind of situation? Has the church anything to say? Should the church only be concerned about what is to come? Or should the church be the first-taste of the kingdom of God? Should the church keep quiet in view of the suffering of the people, in view of injustice?
The professor heard the explosion of questions, paused, and then said: “I believe the church has something to say, but I don’t know precisely what at this moment.”
The students, more excited now, said they’d give the lecturer a chance to think about that point. But they said they’d boycott classes if the church didn’t have anything to say.
Kameeta says it was at that moment that the theology students saw clearly that there was no point in being trained “to serve an organization that will be silent in the face of the suffering of their people”.
The students stayed out of class for a whole day. It was the first time there had been anything like a boycott. The next day one of the lecturers met with the students and said, “I’d like to ask you a question: Who then is the church? Is it the lecturers? And if it isn’t us — if we’re not doing or saying anything — they why are you not acting? Why aren’t you doing anything?”
The provocative question startled the students. After a brief discussion they decided to draft an open letter to South African Prime Minister B.J. Vorster. The church boards of the two large Lutheran churches in Namibia were meeting at that time. They read the students’ letter and decided to accept it. On 30 June 1971, the leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Ovambokavango Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia/SWA sent the open letter.
In deferential but firm language the letter said the South African government “failed to take cognizance of Human Rights as declared by the UN”. The letter demonstrated a growing consciousness and consensus among the country’s overwhelming black majority. Writer Heinz Hunke in his book, Namibia: The Strength of the Powerless, has said: “No other single document has ever had such an immediate and lasting influence in Namibia as this letter. The black population recognized that their feelings were being expressed by their church leaders…. From now on the neat network of lies and propaganda would be destroyed again and again by the unintimidated denouncements of church leaders who belonged to the oppressed majority.”
— from “Introduction”, Roger Kahle, in Zephania Kameeta’s Why, O Lord? Psalms and sermons from Namibia (1986)