Former Mission Churches Cooperated Against Apartheid

Martti Eirola

This article is a tribute to my late father, Rev. Arvo Eirola, who worked as a missionary in today’s Northern Namibia between 1958 and 1968. From 1963 he was posted in Oniipa as the Head of the Finnish Missionary Society’s (today Evangelical Lutheran Mission, FELM) mission field in Namibia (then South West Africa, SWA). He was a close aide of Bishop Leonard Auala, the first national leader of the Evangelical-Lutheran Owambo-Kavango Church (ELOK, later the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia, ELCIN).

During meetings conducted by Bishop Auala with other church leaders and authorities my father kept detailed notes, diaries and reports. He also corresponded with church officials on various issues. Drawing on this source material, he wrote a very thorough pastoral thesis in 1971 on the relations between ELOK and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in SWA (ELK, later the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Republic of Namibia, ELCRN). The third Lutheran church in Namibia is the German-speaking Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia (ELCIN-GELC, or Deutsche Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche, DELK).

His thesis covers different areas of cooperation between ELOK and ELK up to 1971, as well as the optimistic unification project of the three Lutheran churches in Namibia. The project ultimately failed because of apartheid. In this article I draw on my father’s thesis to summarize the responses of the Lutheran churches in SWA to the South African government’s so-called Odendaal Plan of 1964, which envisaged the partition of SWA into “Homelands”. At the time South Africa administered SWA as a fifth province of the country. This article also illustrates how the former Finnish Mission Church transformed into the ELOK and then ELCIN, thereby becoming a national actor that contributed to the liberation and independence of Namibia. The footnotes and source references used in my father’s thesis are not repeated in this article. The subheadings are my own.One of my father’s last wishes was to get his unpublished thesis translated and published in English, particularly for readers in Namibia. Hopefully one day his wish will be fulfilled.


The delegation of ELOK for the Third All-Africa Lutheran Conference in Addis Ababa departing from Windhoek Airport on 9th October, 1965. From the left: Rev. Arvo Eirola, Bishop Leonard Auala, Rev. Olavi Ojanperä, Mr. Julius Ngaikukwete and Rev. Natanael Sirongo. Rev. Ojanperä, Secretary for Africa of FMS, joined the delegation on his way back to Finland after visiting Namibia. Unlike ELOK and ELK, DELK did not send representatives to the Conference. ELOK and ELK agreed that the representatives of SWA would function as a single delegation, separate from the larger delegation of South Africa. Photograph: Arvo Eirola’s private collection.


Lutheran Churches Critical to South Africa’s Plan to Establish Tribal Homelands

After South Africa became a republic in 1961, President C. R. Swart ordered the Odendaal Commission of Enquiry to SWA Affairs to make recommendations for the further development of the territory. The report of the commission was tabled in the Parliament of South Africa in January 1964.

The commission recommended the establishment of twelve separate “Homelands” for the population groups of SWA, based on the premise that the population was very heterogeneous both physically and spiritually. The commission recommended that the groups should continue to exist separately in their own Homelands and should gradually develop them towards the goal of independence.

Church Leaders Became Worried when the Plans were Published

In February 1964, Nel de Wet, the Minister of Bantu Administration and Development of the South African government, presented the Odendaal Plan to the people of Owambo. Bishop Auala attended meetings in Ondonga and Ongandjera. At the latter meeting he made a very outspoken speech. He thanked the government for all the good things in the plan, particularly regarding economic matters as well as medical and educational work in Owambo. However, he expressed his fear that population transfers and resettlement projects involving about 40,000 Aawambo people working south of Owambo would cause unrest. The bishop also feared that these actions would disturb the good cooperation that had developed between churches in SWA. For example, the churches had their theological seminary  in Otjimbingwe that would be staying within the territory of the white population. Bishop Auala concluded his speech by stressing how the objective of churches was to build peace between different indigenous groups so that “we all would feel at home in our South West Africa”.  The minister rebuked the fear that the plan would hamper cooperation between churches.

The speech of Bishop Auala had a particular importance because he not only spoke on behalf of the Aawambo and ELOK, but also in the name of all three Lutheran churches working in SWA. A joint meeting of the church councils in March 1961 had appointed a committee chaired by Bishop Auala to work towards the further development of the unity of the three Lutheran churches.

Subsequently, the Conference of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in South West Africa was founded in August 1962 at a meeting in Oniipa and a constitution was ratified. The constitution included the idea of forming a federation of churches in the near future. In 1963 the synod of the ELOK “decided that the three Lutheran churches of South West Africa will operate together”. According to the constitution, the conference was to come together annually and be chaired by each head of church in turn. In 1963 Bishop Auala was elected as the chairman of the conference, and in this capacity he delivered a speech in Ongandjera. Bishop Auala also handed over copies of his speech to the minister.

Additionally, the ELK and the ELOK drafted a so-called Memorandum to the government in May 1964. The memorandum addressed the unrest and disturbances in the cooperation between the churches caused by population resettlements. The ELOK church council decided that the memorandum should be submitted to DELK for comments and possible signing, before sending it to the government. The DELK church council proposed that church councils should first negotiate with each other on difficult issues concerning the Lutheran churches before the problems became public.

The synod of  DELK discussed the Odendaal Plan as it also affected the White churchgoers, whose farms were to be sold for new Homelands.

The conference discussed the memorandum, signed by ELK and ELOK, in a meeting in Paulinum in November 1964. However, the delegates at the meeting did not pass the memorandum for the time being, as the government had decided to wait for the outcome of the SWA case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague before forming the Homelands.

The delegates at the same meeting adopted two principles. On the one hand, each church had the right to make their decisions freely; on the other hand, the growing linkage between them increased opportunities for joint decisions. The spirit in the meeting was still optimistic and looked forward to the creation of a federation of the three Lutheran churches.

In 1965 DELK joined three other Lutheran churches, which were comprised of German-speaking white South Africans, and formed the United Evangelical-Lutheran Church in South Africa (Die Vereinigte Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche in Süd-Afrika, VELKSA). The membership of DELK in VELKSA has been seen as a step towards a racially-segragated Lutheran church, for it consisted of white-only churches. ELK and ELOK, however, did not want to move quickly towards a closer federation. Instead, they wanted to wait for DELK to grow and to become more unite-minded.

When the ICJ gave its ruling in 1966 and the South African government was allowed to continue to develop SWA, the question of creating tribal Homelands came up again. Unrest among churches grew.

In a time of uncertainty the church had to fight with the weapons it had. In November 1966 the ELOC Church Council added a prayer for SWA into the common church prayer. It was used in all holy services. In 1967 ELK also started to use the same additional prayer.

Apartheid Separated Lutheran Churches from each other

Most members of the liberation movements in the 1960s were also church members. Thus, churches in SWA could not remain neutral bystanders. The staff of ELK and ELOK, as well as the missionary societies supporting them, were viewed as suspicious by the government. They were seen as being involved in the illegal exodus of men from SWA.

A serious clash between the South African police and guerillas took place in the western part of Owambo in August 1966. A month later guerillas burned the government post of Oshikango at the border between Owambo and Angola. These incidents increased the hunt for the so-called terrorists. The search and interrogation methods of the police forced the churches speak out. Early in 1967 the leaders of the three churches of Owambo – ELOK, the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church – paid a visit to the local police chief in Ondangwa in order to commence negotiations. They gave him a letter in which they complained of the unchristian methods used and asked him to forward their letter to the relevant authorities.

The unchristian methods of government officials once again became apparent in November 1967, when a joint memorandum of ELK and ELOK (known as Ontwerp) was sent to the South African government. It pointed out how uncertainty and even hate towards the government had grown in recent years. The mission of the church was to ensure peace among peoples. It declared that an atmosphere in which justice prevails and dignity is respected was needed. The churches requested serious talks about their grievances in the name of their 250,000 members.The list of grievances included the following four accusations:

1. The unchristian methods of government officials during interrogations.

2. The use of bribery for capturing guerillas, which only resulted in mutual mistrust.

3. The establishment of “Homelands” for different population groups. No forced migration should be set in motion without prior negotiations and the preparation of the areas, so that the decision to relocate would be based on free will.

4. The construction of black-African neighbourhoods and the ensuing problems brought by these areas. People had to pay rent year after year for houses built by the government, but they were never allowed to own them.

The Ontwerp Memorandum commended the government for the good things it had promoted. Yet, it included a request for further talks on the issues mentioned above. The memorandum of 1964 was also included to show the government that these issues had been under discussion among Lutheran churches for several years. The Ministry of Bantu Administration and Development replied in March 1968 that the matters in question did not give any reason for further discussion, as the Odendaal Commission’s plan had already been approved.

The so-called Terrorist Trial of the thirty-two accused started in Pretoria in 1967. A verdict was reached February 1968, whereby nineteen Aawambo people were sentenced to life imprisonment and six were sentenced to twenty years in prison. In March 1968, six churches – ELK, ELOK, DELK, the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church and the Methodist Church – sent  a joint petition of mercy, based on a proposal by Bishop Auala, to the President of South Africa. The petition called for the sentences to be commuted due to the suffering this would bring to the families of the convicted. The churches felt obliged to help their members. However, the petition was rejected.

In October 1969, the synod of the NGK church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk) was asked to support the petition for mercy, but it rejected it on the grounds that by supporting it the church would make itself an “ally of the terrorists”. Along the same lines, anger was felt in South Africa as a result of the decision of the World Council of Churches in September 1970 to give aid to nineteen political organizations, including SWAPO.

In July 1968, the Rhenish and Finnish Missionary Societies, together with many German churches and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, submitted a similar petition for mercy to the South African government. In October, Archbishop Martti Simojoki of the Finnish church received a reply from the South African Prime Minister that the petition had been rejected.

According to my father, the petitions for mercy clarified the boundaries between denominations. The Reformed Churches stayed in their own camp. The Roman Catholic, Anglican and Methodist churches had the courage to cooperate with ELOK and ELK, and DELK was also still involved.

However, the Lutheran faith had to undergo a hard test. In his thesis, my father argues that the Lutheran churches were ultimately unable to display unity under political pressure.


Eirola, A., Evankelis-luterilaisen Ambo-Kavangon kirkon yhteyksiä Lounais-Afrikan Evankelis-luterilaiseen kirkkoon (Reinin Lähetyskirkko). Tutkielma pastoraalityötä varten, Oulu 1.3.1971 (unpublished).


About the Author

Dr. Martti Eirola is Senior Adviser on Africa Policy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland. He has studied African political history and has particularly specialized on Namibia.