Quakers in South Africa
Quakers in South Africa have always been a small group, but with an influence that far outstrips their size. Today they are still actively concerned with justice, peacemaking, development, education and political activism.
The first Quakers in South Africa were Dutch Nantucket whalers who used Cape Town as a base for Antarctic exploration, in 1728.
In 1820, Richard Gush, a British Quaker, settled in South Africa. Isolated from other Friends, he endeavoured to demonstrate that whites and blacks could live peacefully. When his community was threatened with annhilation by Xhosa warriors, he confronted them unarmed. Learning that they were hungry, he fed them and averted the conflict.
James Backhouse and George Washington Walker came to Cape Town in 1838. They founded a school for poor children, both black and white, and provided the first translation of the Bible into the Tswana language.
In 1878, Isaac Sharp and a group of British Quakers established friendly relations with Afrikaans ministers in the Dutch Reformed Church.
In the lead up to the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) South African Quaker, Guy Enoch, met government leaders to try and avert the conflict. In Britain, both George Cadbury and Joshua Rowntree were active in the South Africa Conciliation Committee. British Quakers such as Ruth Fry also supported Emily Hobhouse, who exposed the atrocities of British concentration camps in South Africa. Quakers came to South Africa to serve as nurses in the camps and to distribute food and clothes.
When no newspaper would back the Quaker campaign in support of the Boers, George Cadbury bought the London Daily News as a vehicle for pro-Boer views. When Joshua Rowntree played host to Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner, who came to England to protest against the war, the two of them faced hostile crowds and had to be rescued by police and army.
The visit of British Quaker Francis Fox to the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, urging him to use his good offices to end the war, was a first step towards the Peace of Vereeniging, which ended the war. Afterwards, Quakers promoted home industries among Africaaner women left desitute by the British ‘scorched earth’ policy. They also helped to return Afrikaaner Bibles looted by British soldiers.
In 1906, Cape Town formally became a Monthly Meeting under London Yearly Meeting.
In the 1950s, the ruling National Party began implementing the oppressive laws of the Apartheid regime. Quakers in South Africa participated in activities such as the Defiance Campaign, which used passive resistance as a form of protest. In 1956, Quakers in Natal Province issued a statement rejecting the concept of apartheid:
"We believe that South Africa is not for one people alone, or for any one more particularly, but that every section of the population has come to this land under the hand of God… We believe that as Christians it is laid upon us to do all in our power to draw together the separated peoples of South Africa to the end that we may become one nation…”
Throughout the apartheid era, Quakers opposed forced removals, influx control, the enforcement of group areas, the demolition of squatter housing, extreme poverty and hunger, police violence and torture, conscription, and the military destabilisation of neighbouring black states.
George Rayner Ellis, Quaker cosmologist, co-wrote two books that severely criticised the housing policy in the Western Cape that left many non-whites homeless and in a desperate situation. In the 1980s, the Quaker Peace Centre in Cape Town was founded in response to the forced removals of non-white South Africans from Cape Town to Cape Flats.
Quakers provided financial support for Steve Biko’s Black Communities Programmes and for Winnie Mandela’s home industries for black women – in same town where they had previously supported home industries for Afrikaner women.
For over 25 years, Hendrik van der Merwe was actively involved as a mediator in South Africa. Thabo Mbeki of the African National Congress called him ‘an honest Quaker broker.’ Following the first free elections, he criticised the Peace and Reconciliation process for at times overlooking the need for restitution.
In 2001, in his Backhouse lecture, he wrote, “South African Quakers are now facing new challenges of continuing to speak truth to power and to support those in need.”
Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge is perhaps the only Quaker and pacifist to have found themselves second in command of their country’s defence forces. She is a longstanding member of the ANC, and served as an MP and later in the Ministries of Defence and Health. She currently campaigns against the sex-trafficking of women.