Katrin Kusmierz: Theology in Transition. Public Theologies in Post-Apartheid South Africa

PhD-thesis, Ecumenics and Missiology, Faculty of Theology, 2010

Theology has played an ambivalent role in South Africa’s history, but, besides a theological legitimation of racial segregation and apartheid by the white Dutch Reformed Churches, various theologies critical of apartheid were developed since the late seventies and have strongly influenced a church based opposition movement. The thesis traces the changes these “critical political theologies” underwent in the wake of the political transition in South Africa and analyses contemporary theological thought on the public role of churches (and religions in general) in a democratic society. Using the political debate on same sex marriage (2006) as a case study it reflects on problems and possibilities of religious involvement in public discourse.

Outline of Research

South African churches entered the area of democracy with a distinct legacy: whether critical or supportive of apartheid, churches and theology have inevitably engaged with the socio-political sphere. So called “Black theology”, “contextual” and “prophetic theology” have contributed to building a critical consciousness within churches, that formed the basis for the involvement of faith based organisations, church groups, church bodies as well as individuals in the anti-apartheid movement. After 1994, churches and theologians began to reflect anew upon the role religious communities could and should (or should not) play within a now democratic society. Some theologians do so in discussing the concept of “public theology”. According to South African theologians religious communities do have a distinct contribution to make to the shaping of democracy. Central to such a “democratic vision” is a human rights culture, based on justice, equality, and human dignity. Churches and faith based organisations are therefore seen as members of a civil society that sustains democracy, critically monitors the actions of those in government and participates in public discourse and policy formation.

The legitimacy of religious participation in public discourse, however, depends on a set of conditions such as the acceptance of the separation of religion and state and of the constitution as the founding document for society. It also depends on the acceptance of a set of basic rules that govern such discourse within a democracy: acknowledging difference in opinion, respect for others and a readiness to offer intelligible arguments for one’s position for example.

Case Study

The analysis of the debate on same sex marriage legislation in South Africa in 2006 serves well to show that these basic conditions and values for democratic public discourse, tested against reality, are also contested among some church communities.


In many contemporary societies the question of the relation of religion and politics is an imminent issue. From an ethical/theological point of view it is critical to reflect upon the ways religion may contribute to the functioning of democratic societies in ways that are non-detrimental at worst and constructive at best.


The research is based on academic theological texts as well as historical and contemporary “church” documents as main sources. For the case study submissions of various churches to the Public Hearings on the Proposed Civil Union Bill organised by the National Assembly’s Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs were
analysed and a range of (expert) interviews were conducted.


The thesis was written within a comparative research project on the public role of churches in societies undergoing political transition, steered by Proffs Christine and Wolfgang Lienemann. Other case studies included Brazil, Mozambique, South Korea, the Philipines and Indonesia.