Reading Bonhoeffer in South Africa after the Transition to Democracy

Selected Essays

by Nico Koopman (Volume editor) Robert Vosloo (Volume editor)
©2020 Monographs 166 Pages


The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and theology played a significant role in the church and theological struggles against apartheid in South Africa. The essays in this book align itself with this historical trajectory, but especially address the question of Bonhoeffer’s possible message and continuing legacy after the transition to democracy in South Africa. The essays argue that Bonhoeffer’s work and witness still provides rich resources for a theological engagement with more contemporary challenges. In the process, it rethinks Bonhoeffer’s understanding of time, the body, life together, responsibility, and being human.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Dedication
  • Foreword
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 The Reception in Dietrich Bonhoeffer in South Africa: Some Historical and Hermeneutical Remarks14
  • Chapter 2 How Do We Live Responsibly? Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Fulfilment of Dignity in Democratic South Africa76
  • Chapter 3 Bonhoeffer, Our Contemporary? Engaging Bonhoeffer on Time, the Times, and Public Theology123
  • Chapter 4 Time Out of Joint and Future-Orientated Memory: Engaging Bonhoeffer in the Search to Deal Responsibly with the Ghosts of the Past172
  • Chapter 5 Bonhoeffer and the Future of Public Theology in South Africa: The Ongoing Quest for Life Together220
  • Chapter 6 Bonhoeffer’s Anthropology and the African Anthropology of Ubuntu262
  • Chapter 7 Bonhoeffer, the Body, and Health295
  • Chapter 8 Bonhoeffer’s Reformation Day Sermons and Performative Remembering338
  • Chapter 9 Bonhoeffer, Leadership, and the Call for New Authority374
  • Chapter 10 Bonhoeffer in Harlem: Some Lessons for Contemporary South Africa
  • Appendix


The publication of the essays collected here is prompted by the fact that the Thirteenth International Bonhoeffer Congress is scheduled to take place in the Western Cape, South Africa in January 2020. This conference is jointly hosted by the Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch University and the Department of Religion and Theology at the University of the Western Cape. The theme of the conference is “How the coming generation is to go on living?” and this question is drawn from the German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s text “After Ten Years.” In this text, written in December 1942 as a Christmas gift for his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi and friends Hans Oster and Eberhard Bethge, we read in a section “On Success”:

The one who allows nothing that happens to deprive him of his coresponsibility for the course of history, knowing that it is God that placed it on upon him, will find a fruitful relations to the events of history, beyond fruitless criticism and equally fruitless opportunism. Talk of going down heroically in the face of unavoidable defeat is basically quite nonheroic because it does not dare look into the future. The ultimate responsible question is not how I extricate myself heroically from a situation but [how] a coming generation is to go on living? Only from such a historically responsible question will fruitful solutions arise.1

This remark by Bonhoeffer shows a concern for the future and testifies to the need to take responsibility not only for our own personal and communal life in all its complexity and richness but also for the kind of values and society that future generations will inherit from us.2 Bonhoeffer’s question implies a perennial challenge, but its pertinence is felt anew as we experience threats on a global level ←11 | 12→to socio-political, economic and inter-religious stability and solidarity. Within the broader geopolitical landscape there seems to be a rise in neo-nationalism and various brands of populism, often accompanied by an exclusivist and anti-immigration rhetoric, that – according to many – fuels polarization and incites intolerance and violence. And the reality of climate change and ecological devastation implies that the question of how future generations are going to go on living is linked to the fact that we live on a planet in jeopardy.3

Not only globally, but also within the South African context there have been major sea changes over the last 25 years since the first truly democratic elections were held in 1994, and Nelson Mandela was subsequently inaugurated as president amidst a general mood of optimism about the future.

The 2020 conference in Stellenbosch will, however, not be the first international Bonhoeffer Congress to take place in South Africa. In 1996, less than two years after the transition to democracy, the Seventh International Bonhoeffer Congress was held in Cape Town. The theme for this conference, which also took up a question from Bonhoeffer’s text “After Ten Years,” was “Are we still of any use?”4 Notwithstanding Bonhoeffer’s remarkable impact since his martyrdom, the conference theme probed, in the words of the South African Bonhoeffer scholar John de Gruchy (who played a major role in organizing the 1996 conference): “(I)s an interest in Bonhoeffer today anything more than nostalgic loyalty to a remarkable person? Can it be that he has something to say to us today in our many different contexts, often far removed from his time and place?”5 For some, then, the theme also implied the question of whether Bonhoeffer, and those reading Bonhoeffer, is still of any use after the transition to democracy in South Africa.

In the decades preceding the 1996 conference, the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer became associated in certain circles in South Africa – together with that of figures such as Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth, as well as movements such as the ←12 | 13→Confessing Church and documents such as the Barmen Declaration (1934) – with a theological trajectory that was experienced as a valuable resource to understand and resist, in the name of the gospel, oppression and injustice in apartheid South Africa. Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu’s remark on the back cover of Letters and Papers from Prison in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English speaks to part of Bonhoeffer’s influence in this context: “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison has inspired many of us in South Africa and across the world.”6 It is indeed the case that Bonhoeffer’s writings and life, as was also the case elsewhere, served as inspiration for many South Africans, especially as they grappled with the question how to respond theologically to the realities of apartheid, also through acts of resistance.

In the mid-1990s the question of reconciliation and the dealing with the injustices of the past took on a very specific shape within South Africa’s young and fragile democracy, also amidst other larger societal challenges. With the benefit of hindsight, it now seems that the churches and ecumenical bodies in South Africa were not vigilant enough to continue there prophetic role in society. In this regard, the South African theologian Tinyiko Maluleke has suggested in a public conversation that the church after 1994 might have been “outmaneuvered by democracy.”7 And indeed it has been the case that in the decades to follow a growing realism dawned that the transition to democracy did not bring about the just democratic society that many envisioned. Today, 25 years after the elections of 1994, this greater realism has, in many cases, turned into disillusionment and anger.

To pose the question “How the coming generation is to go on living?” cannot therefore ignore the feeling of many in South Africa that the hope accompanying the political transition has grown quite tired in the light of the realities of growing inequality and unemployment, persisting racism, and a declining confidence in institutions and political efficacy. An account of the hope that can speak to African realities, therefore, cannot be abstracted – as the Ugandan theologian Emmanuel Katongole has noted – from protest, suffering, and lament.8

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The essays collected in this volume were all written during the last 15 years or so, and they presuppose that Bonhoeffer’s work and witness still provide a valuable resource for theological engagement with some of the challenges arising out of the South African context, also after the transition to democracy. Both of us authors are associated with Stellenbosch University. Nico Koopman, a previous dean of the Faculty of Theology and current Vice Rector for Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel, has found in Bonhoeffer’s life and theology a resource to think about issues of human dignity, public theology, life together, and the transformation of institutions. Robert Vosloo, a professor in Systematic Theology at the Faculty of Theology, believes that Bonhoeffer’s understanding of temporality and embodiment continues to make his work relevant not only globally, but also for the particular challenges arising out of South Africa’s complex colonial and apartheid past. Although we are aware that Bonhoeffer was not uncritical towards democracy, we share John de Gruchy’s conviction, as expressed in a paper at the International Bonhoeffer Congress in Sigtuna in 2012: “Christianity and democracy cannot be equated, nor does Christianity require democracy in order to survive or flourish. Sometimes the opposite is true. But Christians should be engaged in the struggle for democracy, understood as an open-ended, developing project in which the rule of law, the protection of human rights, and freedom from any form of tyranny is affirmed, and the economic market is transformed in the interest of overcoming grinding poverty and the destruction of the environment.”9

As authors, we are also sensitive to the fact that Bonhoeffer did not live in our time and context, and that we should be conscious of the hermeneutical challenges of reading Bonhoeffer in a time and place that was not his own. Therefore the first essay, by Robert Vosloo, addresses some hermeneutical matters related to interpreting Bonhoeffer in South Africa, proposing in the process what is called a responsible historical hermeneutic. It is also argued that our reading of Bonhoeffer cannot be abstracted from how he was read, interpreted and performed in the past. Therefore the first part of the opening essay makes some orientating historic remarks on some important episodes in the reception of Bonhoeffer in South Africa.

←14 | 15→

The second essay, by Nico Koopman, was first read as a plenary paper at an international Bonhoeffer Congress in Sigtuna, Sweden that focused on “the political” in Bonhoeffer’s thought. Given the dehumanizing effects of apartheid, it is not surprising that the notion of human dignity became also a key political concept in the South African context. In this essay Koopman asks what Bonhoeffer’s ethic of responsibility can contribute to this important discourse.

The next two essays, by Robert Vosloo, addresses Bonhoeffer’s understanding of time and the times against the backdrop of the experience of many that Bonhoeffer can be viewed as our contemporary, given the power of this theology to speak in such a pertinent manner to different contexts and generations. The essay “Bonhoeffer, our Contemporary?” proposed that Bonhoeffer’s “theology of today,” with its emphasis on the moment and movement, puts forward an understanding of temporality that holds promise for a public theology under the sign of contemporaneity. And in the essay “Time Out of Joint and Future-orientated Memory” it is argued that Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the crisis and the hope of the times enables a way of engaging with the past, including the stubborn ghosts of the past, that draws its transformative power from the fact that the past is remembered with the future in mind.

This is followed by an essay of Nico Koopman that furthers the discussion on public theology, linking it to the promise of the notion of life together in Bonhoeffer’s thought. Few questions have remained so urgent, since we are “searching for a grammar of life together,” to use the title of an important recent article by Dirkie Smit. 10 In his article Koopman draws on Bonhoeffer’s understanding of sociality, which is also a leading theme in his next article which brings Bonhoeffer’s anthropology into conversation with African anthropologies of ubuntu.

The next two essays by Robert Vosloo presupposes that Bonhoeffer’s theology not only holds promise for our day given its underlying understanding of temporality but also as a result of its promise for reflecting on the body and embodiment. The article on “Bonhoeffer, the Body, and Health” was first read at a conference in 2005 that grappled theologically with the devastating effects of ←15 | 16→the HIV-Aids pandemic, and reflects on the possible potential of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of “the body” for the way we think about the interface between health, the church, and the body politic. This is followed by an article that was written in 2016 in the context of the upcoming 500th commemoration of the Protestant Reformation. Through an analysis of Bonhoeffer’s Reformation Day sermons, the essay argues that Bonhoeffer did not engage with his Protestant tradition in a static way, but embodied what can be described as “performative remembering.”

The last two essays both speaks to how Bonhoeffer’s understanding of responsibility can speak to public life. Robert Vosloo’s essay on “Bonhoeffer, Leadership and the Call to New Authority,” first presented at the international Bonhoeffer Congress in Prague in 2008, revisits Bonhoeffer’s text of his radio address in 1933 titled “The Führer and the Individual in the Younger Generation” in view of addressing the rhetoric of the need for a leader with reference to examples from public discourse in South Africa at the time. It underlines the importance of Bonhoeffer’s warning against the danger of transferring responsibility to some kind of idealized leader who is imbued with absolute authority. In the final essay, not published before, titled “Bonhoeffer in Harlem: Some Lessons for Contemporary South Africa,” Koopman investigates the lessons that can be learned from Bonhoeffer’s time in New York, and specifically in Harlem. He identifies three sets of challenges for contemporary South Africa, namely the challenge to develop an ethic of interpathy, an ethic of hybridity and an ethic of special solidarity with the most vulnerable.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (May)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 166 pp.

Biographical notes

Nico Koopman (Volume editor) Robert Vosloo (Volume editor)

Nico Koopman is Vice-Rector for Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel at Stellenbosch University. He is a former dean of the Faculty of Theology and professor of Systematic Theology, Ethics and Public Theology. His research focuses on themes like inalienable dignity and people health and wellbeing; healing reconciliation; embracive justice; responsible freedom; equality through equity; as well as the reciprocal and transformative impact of universities on the various spheres of society, including the domains of politics, economics, the natural environment, civil society and public opinion-formation. He is a founding member and former chairperson of the Global Network for Public Theology. Robert Vosloo is currently professor in Systematic theology at the Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and a senior researcher at the Beyers Naudé Center for Public Theology at the same institution. His most recent book is entitled Reforming Memory: Essays on South African Church and Theological History (Sun Media, 2017). His research interests include Reformed theology, 20th century South African church and theological history, philosophical and theological discourses on hospitality and recognition, and the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Title: Reading Bonhoeffer in South Africa after the Transition to Democracy
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168 pages