Former director of WCC's Programme to Combat Racism receives highest South African order

Baldwin Sjollema, first director of the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Programme to Combat Racism (PCR), received the Oliver Tambo Order from South African president Thabo Mbeki on 16 June 2004 in Pretoria.

A sociologist from the Netherlands, Sjollema was decorated for his commitment to the South African liberation movement and to the struggle against apartheid in particular.

The Order of the Companions of O. R. Tambo is the highest South African honour bestowed on foreigners, and is named after the African National Congress (ANC) president from 1967-1991, Oliver R. Tambo, who played a central role in the struggle against racism and apartheid. Created in 2002, the order is bestowed annually; this year's special ceremonies marked the tenth anniversary of South Africa's first democratic elections.

Among the other persons honoured this year were UN general secretary Kofi Annan and the former president of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari. Posthumous orders were bestowed on Martin Luther King Jr., Patrice Lumumba, Julius Nyerere, Eduardo Mondlane and Salvador Allende.

The decision to thus honour Sjollema is a formal sign of South Africa's recognition of the WCC’s efforts to support the liberation movement in South and southern Africa since the PCR was founded in 1969.

PCR's main aim was and is to define, propose and carry out ecumenical policies and programmes that substantially contribute to the liberation of the victims of racism. Although it attempted to deal with racism as a world-wide problem, much of its attention and energy during the apartheid era was focused on Southern Africa.

One of PCR's most effective tools has been a WCC special fund to combat racism, from which annual grants are made to racially oppressed groups and organizations supporting the victims of racism. The fund is supplied by voluntary contributions from churches as well as from local ecumenical and support groups all over the world.

In South Africa, the ANC received several hundred thousands of dollars from PCR in support of its educational, social and health programmes during the 1970s and '80s. In total, more than 12 million dollars have been distributed by PCR to anti-racism work around the world since the 1970s.

As significant as the grants were the WCC's ethical and financial decisions. For example, the WCC Central Committee decided at that time to sell the Council's existing holdings and to make no further investments in corporations that were investing in or trading with South Africa; the Council also supported a call for withdrawing money invested in banks and companies which were fuelling the military might of the apartheid regime.

"Was it legitimate for the churches to be concerned about economic and political issues?" Sjollema asks in retrospect, "'Yes' was the answer we gave. Churches and Christians had to be mobilized to make their witness against apartheid and in support of the struggle for justice for all God's people."

The theological basis for PCR’s work is the conviction that, as Sjollema says, "any form of segregation based on race, colour or ethnic origin is contrary to the gospel and incompatible with the Christian doctrine of man and with the nature of the church of Jesus Christ."

PCR's efforts were highly appreciated by Oliver Tambo: "I was at a missionary boarding school in South Africa and I was taught the gospel," he told Sjollema once. "If there is one thing that I have understood, it is that the gospel is about the liberation of people and I feel very strongly that you in the PCR are contributing to doing just that."

From its very beginning, PCR was one of the most controversial among WCC initiatives. While there was strong support from many member churches, there was also criticism, especially over its support of liberation struggles in Southern Africa.

Although PCR became the place where policies and programmes were formulated, the implementation depended to a large extent on churches and Christians in close cooperation with the anti-apartheid movement at the local level.

Thus, the South African Council of Churches (SACC), churches and Christians in Africa itself became the main actors in the fight for radical change while PCR continued to support those who were taking matters fully into their own hands.

"Millions of people were engaged in the struggle against apartheid all over the world," Sjollema says. "Together, we made a small contribution to the overall struggle which was fought first and foremost by the people of South Africa themselves."

With the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, PCR and other anti-racism programmes began to pay more attention to the need for advocacy for the rights of Indigenous People and of racially and ethnically oppressed minorities, like the Dalits in India, around the world.

Baldwin (Boudewijn) Sjollema was born in 1927 in Rotterdam. He graduated in sociology at Utrecht State University and joined the WCC in 1957. He worked first as director of the WCC Refugee Office in Vienna (Austria), then became Migration secretary at the WCC in Geneva before being named as the first director of the newly created Programme to Combat Racism (PCR). In 1982, he left the WCC and to direct the International Labour Office (ILO) Anti-Apartheid Programme. Sjollema is now retired and lives in Switzerland.