Peter Storey, I Beg to Differ: Ministry Amid the Teargas (Tafelberg, 2018)

THOSE who lived through the State of Emergency of the 1980s will not have forgotten the Candle of Peace, Hope and Justice, a simple symbol of resistance clothed in barbed wire that originated at Johannesburg’s Central Methodist Church. It epitomises, too, Peter Storey’s decades-long, inner-city ministry both there and in Cape Town’s District Six at Buitenkant Street Methodist Church.

Significantly, his theology lies in Wesleyanism, the early eighteenth-century renewal in the Church of England that promoted works of mercy among the poor and oppressed. Rejecting predestination, it saw the image of God in every human, attacking the class system and race discrimination; and laying the foundation for major reform in Victorian Britain. John and Charles Wesley were crusaders against injustice, condemning systemic socio-economic deprivation. No area of human life was beyond God’s moral authority, fitting a minister like Storey appropriately for inner cities, and opposition to apartheid in principle and practice.

He grew up at Kilnerton, near Pretoria, where his father was in charge, and later had a spell in the navy before realising that his vocation lay in the Methodist Church. Initial Cape Town responsibilities at a very young age made him chaplain to Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe on Robben Island, although ‘our [whole] land was a prison’. He later turned his hand to church journalism and became a founder of Life Line.

Inner-city ministry, striving alongside political dissidents such as conscientious objectors, put him in conflict with both conservative elements of his congregation and the government, although he was scrupulous about the independence of the church. This balancing act required all his many talents. In the 1980s involvement with the South African Council of Churches brought him as a witness before the bruising Eloff Commission, ultimately an unsuccessful government attempt to smear P.W. Botha’s religious critics; and then the even more traumatic trial of his friend John Rees, a victim of the practical and moral minefield of struggle accounting.

This was but prelude to an even greater test, the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela football club scandal, her reign of terror in Diepkloof, and the murder of Stompie Seipei. Storey provides a brutally honest contemporary account of the lies and evasions that obscured her violent criminality and continued through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to her grave, and indeed beyond. He observes that despite the entreaties of Desmond Tutu at the TRC, Madikizela-Mandela’s mendacity was unshaken; and even Albertina Sisulu (whom Storey correctly names as a legitimate ‘mother of the nation’) became forgetful when it came to evidence around the murder of Abu-Baker Asvat, who had examined Seipei.

Storey’s later roles were with Gun Free South Africa and the National Peace Accord; the latter a resounding organisational and practical success during the transition, but predictably wound up by a cynical ANC. The reader gains a sense that like so many other people of principle there was no longer room for Storey in South Africa and he left for a protracted and successful stint in American academia. But he was to return as the planner behind the Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary in Pietermaritzburg, another responsibility not without controversy. The Methodist Church at this time experienced its fair measure of anti-white racism, but Storey gives no real hint of this.

Fifty-three years in the ministry are related via an engaging writing style with frequent flashes of humour and occasional, suitably placed, caustic comment. Storey makes short shrift of young people who disparage the massive achievement of the transition from apartheid; and the chattering classes ‘scratch[ing] delightedly at scabs scarcely healed.’ His legacy is surely a revived SACC speaking up against the Zuma era’s ‘grubby progency of the new cynicism’. And his personal involvement continues in the struggle to defend gay marriage in the Methodist Church.

This is an eminently readable account of a life of significant, but generally obscured, service. Storey’s name may not be as well-known as those of Tutu, Hurley and Boesak. But his life’s work was just as significant and bears testimony to South Africa’s good fortune to have such committed religious leadership in the darkest of times.  Yet this raises a broader historical question about the role of the churches during forty years of apartheid.

A significant number of leaders of varying levels of prominence and their church establishments played a key role in the struggle, one that is now underplayed in the monochrome version of the past peddled by the political establishment. But their congregations continued in the main to vote Nat and support the status quo until late in apartheid’s day: Storey is frank about ‘cowards in our pulpits’. He relates a visit to Cradock at the time of the murder of Matthew Goniwe and three companions in mid-1985 to find only one white family at the church at Lingelihle. His subsequent visit to the church in town was received with hostility

This highlights not only the sheer complexity of the nation’s past; but also the incredible tension for individuals torn between their private and many public roles. Storey’s story is a classic example.