First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

Jerry Pillay, SA academic labelled by some as ‘anti-J...

South Africa


Jerry Pillay, SA academic labelled by some as ‘anti-Jewish’, elected to top World Council of Churches job

SA academic Jerry Pillay is the ninth general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the first South African to hold the position. (Photo:Dirk Pieters)

The University of Pretoria’s Dean of Theology and Religion, Jerry Pillay, will be leaving to take up the post of general secretary of the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

Earlier this month, the World Council of Churches elected Rev Prof Jerry Pillay as its ninth general secretary, making him the first South African to hold the position. 

“It feels like a full-circle moment for me, because the WCC played a key role in calling for apartheid to be dismantled,” said Pillay. 

The World Council of Churches Programme to Combat Racism was launched in 1969. In the 1970s and 1980s, the programme provided humanitarian support to liberation movements and was a leader in international campaigns for economic disengagement from apartheid.

The WCC brings together churches, denominations and church fellowships in more than 120 countries, representing more than 580 million Christians. 

Pillay also served as general secretary of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa, and president of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. 

The general secretary serves as the WCC’s chief executive officer and leads the Council’s work, including final responsibility for WCC’s work and staff.

The WCC was founded in 1948 and holds its assembly every six to eight years. This year, the central committee, which elects the general secretary, met for the first time in person since their scheduled 2018 meeting. 

Pillay was one of two candidates standing for election to the WCC’s highest administrative post. The other was Dr Elizabeth Joy, the first woman to be shortlisted as a candidate for general secretary in the WCC’s history.

‘Fighting against oppression was an expression of my faith’

Pillay, who is from Durban, said he was an anti-apartheid activist, particularly during his university years when he was studying theology at Durban Westville (now known as the University of KwaZulu-Natal). 

“I was part of the Student Union of Christian Action (SUCA) and I realised that from a faith perspective, God is a God of justice and that we all needed to be freed from oppression,” said Pillay. 

SUCA was started by Christian students “who felt they needed an organisation to help them apply their faith in a practical way to fight the government’s un-Christian actions”.

“Fighting against oppression didn’t contradict my faith… in fact, it was an expression of my faith,” said Pillay. 

In the 1980s, religious leaders and groups played a pivotal role in fighting for apartheid to end. Now, with hunger, unemployment, violence and poverty blighting the country, the challenges in today’s South Africa are different. 

In terms of what the role of religion is in post-apartheid South Africa, Pillay said: “Religion is about making sure the world is a better place, where there is justice and dignity for everyone.” 

Speaking on Pillay’s appointment, WCC central committee moderator, Dr Agnes Abuom, said: “You and the ecumenical movement are making history – and forming a future in which we can live out God’s love for one another and for all.”

Anti-Jewish claims ‘mischievous’

However, some Jewish organisations have not welcomed the news of Pillay’s appointment. In 2016, Pillay and other religious leaders went to Israel to find out more about what was happening in that country and Palestine. 

When the group came back, Pillay wrote an academic article in which he called Israel an “apartheid state”. The UN Human Rights Council has also described Israel as an apartheid state. 

“I wrote about my experience and the Israeli aggression and occupation of Palestinian land that I saw. The conservative Jews hit back and said that I was anti-Jews,” explained Pillay. 

The South African Jewish Report wrote that the general manager of South African Friends of Israel, Pamela Ngubane, had said her organisation was “alarmed at the controversial appointment of Pillay. Pillay holds a hostile and divisive anti-Israel ideology that attempts to disconnect the Jewish people from the land of Israel. 

“It’s a travesty and we call upon this appointment to be reviewed and challenged.” 

In response, Pillay said: “I respect all religions and I will speak about injustice. My article was from a biblical perspective and it was about injustice. I’ve worked with all people from all faiths… their accusations are mischievous.” 

Pillay, who has been the dean of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Pretoria for the past five years, starts his new job on 1 January 2023. DM


Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 2

  • Any public figure who calls out Israeli injustice is labelled anti Jewish, self hating Jew etc. It has been this way for decades and usually works a treat. Why are Daily Maverick playing along and framing this story with a heading with a take home point entrenching an untested slur against Jerry Pillay?

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted