Beyers Naudé was born in Roodepoort, in the then Transvaal, on 10 May 1915. He was named after Christiaan Frederik Beyers, a Boer general who was close to his father, Jozua Naudé. Naudé was one of eight children and was born into a family that was fully committed to the preservation of Afrikaner nationalism. His father was a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) and was a founding member of the Afrikaner Broederbond, a secret society aimed at promoting Afrikaner nationalism.
In 1921, the family moved to Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape. Here Naude matriculated at the Afrikaans Hoër Volkskool in 1931 before following in his father's footsteps by study theology at the University of Stellenbosch. He received his degree in 1939 and completed a Masters degree in languages. He also joined the Broederbond as its youngest member when he was only 25.
In 1940 he was appointed Assistant-Minister at the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) in Wellington, Cape Town. In August of the same year he married Ilse Weder, the daughter of a Moravian missionary.
For the next twenty years Beyers Naudé ministered to various congregations across the country. He followed the political philosophy of the National Party, but the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 brought about a huge change of heart. He had already begun to question the morality of apartheid after witnessing the destruction of Black family life under the South African migrant labour system.
In 1961, Naudé became acting moderator of the Southern Transvaal DRC synod despite his outspoken opposition to apartheid. In April of the same year he was appointed moderator. He was the founder member of the Christian Institute, a nonracial ecumenical organisation that challenged the established the traditional church while providing humanitarian relief. Naudé was also the editor of the Christian Institute's publication Pro Veritate.
Naude was serving as minister, or dominee, in the Aasvoëlkop congregation during this time and experienced intense inner conflict regarding the church's support of apartheid with his own Christian principles. In 1963 he resigned from the Broederbond after 22 years of membership. His real turning point came on a Sunday morning in September 1963. Already considered a traitor for quitting the Broederbond, he braved complete rejection by the Afrikaner community by condemning apartheid from the pulpit.
After completing his last sermon in which he placed “ the authority of God before the authority of man” he removed his robes and left his church. Naudé and his family were completely ostracized by their fellow Afrikaners. He told his wife, “Whatever happens, we will be together and God will be with us.” Naude was embraced by the Black community and joined a Dutch Reformed congregation led by Reverend Sam Guti in Alexandra.
Naudé was forced to resign as minister. His induction as an elder of the Parkhurst DRC in March 1965 caused upheaval in the church community. While addressing youth, he was harassed and forced out of the DRC building in Belgravia. He continued in his position as Director of the Christian Institute, but in May 1965 the Security Police raided the organisation's premises.
Naude was opposed to violence as a means of change and in 1972 he travelled to Europe where he delivered a sermon at Westminister Abbey, London. He became the first Afrikaans Theologian to be honoured in this way. He continued on to West Germany for talks with church leaders there. In September 1972 he was awarded an honorary doctorate in Theology by the Amsterdam 's Free University for ‘exceptional merit for the development of theological science'.
In 1973 Naudé refused to give evidence to the Schlebusch Commission, a parliamentary Commission, which had been established to investigate the Christian Institute, the University Christian Movement, the National Union of South African students and the Institute of Race Relations.
1974 saw Naudé receive an honorary doctorate of Law from University of Witwatersrand. He was also honoured with the Reinhold Niebuhr Award for ‘steadfast and self-sacrificing services in South Africa for justice and peace'. His passport, which had been confiscated, was returned so that he could travel and receive the award at a ceremony in Chicago, United States of America. On his return it was confiscated again.
In October 1975 he was fined R50 or one month imprisonment for refusing to testify before the Schlebush Commission. His was arrested on 28 October 1976 for refusing to pay the fine. After spending the night in jail the DRC minister, Dr. Jan van Rooyen, paid the amount and he was released. In December 1975 Naudé was refused a passport to travel to London to address the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and his speech was presented in his absence.
In October 1977, Naude and his Christian Institute were banned. Despite the continual persecution he established a ministry to council pastors. He was not allowed to leave his house, or speak to more than one person at a time. He continued to speak to other anti-apartheid activists like Archbishop Desmond Tutu on a one to one basis.
Naudé was awarded a prize for reconciliation and development from the Swedish Free Church and an award from the Bruno Kreisky Foundation in recognition of his ‘untiring work in race relations'. In February 1980 Naudé broke away from the DRC and was admitted to theNederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK) in Africa. His banning order was renewed for a further three years in 1980, but was eased. He was allowed to leave his home, but not the Johannesburg magisterial district. In June 1983 Dr. Naudé was awarded an honorary Doctorate from the University of Cape Town.
After seven years Naude's banning order was lifted in September 1984. He immediately threw himself back into the struggle against apartheid. He succeeded Archbishop Tutu as the secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches in 1985. In 1987 he formed part of the Afrikaner group that met with ANC representatives in Senegal.
After hearing F W de Klerk 's speech in 1994, declaring a new South Africa, he said 'Gee, at last! What I had dreamt, hoped and worked for is becoming a reality.'
The demise of apartheid and the move to democracy turned Naude from pariah to hero. President Nelson Mandela called him a “living spring of hope for racial reconciliation” At his 80th birthday, Mandela said,
His life is a shining beacon to all South Africans – both Black and White. It demonstrates what it means to rise above race, to be a true South African ...read more
In June 1999, despite failing health, he opened the inauguration ceremony for President Thabo Mbeki. By the end of the same year he returned to his old congregation of Aasvoëlkop as worshipper.
In 2001 Naude was given the freedom of the city of Johannesburg and one of its busiest roads were named after him.
Naude's contribution in the fight against oppression in South Africa and his challenge to the establishment from which he came makes him one of the country's most courageous heroes.
He is survived by his wife, four children, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren