WHO I AM AND MY LIFE IN A NUTSHELL
I was born the 24th of June 1953 and grew up in the Northern Cape on a farm close to a very small village called Tadcaster, about 100 km from Kimberley. The village had a church, a post office, a café, a filling station, a farmers’ cooperative and one or two shops. My dad was a cannoneer in the Allied forces’ artillery in Egypt and Italy during World War II. After the war, returning soldiers could buy land in the Vaalharts Irrigation Scheme with a loan from the Government. My dad had to work very hard to clear the land and build up a farm from scratch, and it took quite a time before a living could be made from the land. My mom therefore got a job in a Jewish shop to put food on the table, and I was left in the care of black nannies. I grew up, surrounded by black workers and their families on the farm every day, and only have good and pleasant memories of my childhood years. My parents were just and fair and taught us to respect all people. I therefore loved and respected black people all my life, and racial discrimination grieved me ever since.
I got my primary school education at Andalusia Primary School and secondary education at Vaalharts High School in Jan Kempdorp. After school I was called up for military service, first at the Air Force Gymnasium in Pretoria and afterwards at an Airforce base on the West Coast, near Saldanha Bay. I received my tertiary education at several universities: A Bachelor’s degree in Town and Regional Planning at the Potchefstroom University, an Honours degree in Economics at the University of Pretoria, a Masters degree in Economics at the University of Port Elizabeth, a PhD in Economics at Vista University, a D Com degree in Economics at the University of Pretoria and a diploma in Economic Impact Assessment from the Molde University College, Norway.
I spent most of my career doing research in Local Economic Development (LED), poverty alleviation and Economic Impact Assessment (EIA). Apart from that I also lectured in Economics, first for undergraduates and later mostly for postgraduate students. Most of my research was conducted in poor communities, trying to find solutions for unemployment and poverty, and to measure the impact of a change in economic conditions (e.g. the restructuring of the steel industry) on the local economy, household income, employment and levels of poverty. I published around 60 research reports and journal articles, and acted as promotor / supervisor for 21 Masters and 7 PhD students.
I met my wife Gertrude Hulsman in 1973 while studying Town and Regional Planning (we both studied for the same degree). Gertrude had immigrated with her family from The Netherlands to South Africa when she was eighteen. By the time we met she was about 20 years old and still very new in the country. We both came from different cultural and religious backgrounds and challenged one another’s views on life and way of thinking, which was quite different in the beginning. For the first time in our lives we had to think about things that we had never thought about before and answer questions like: “Why are you doing this? Why do you see it this way?” We both discovered that many viewpoints and things that would go through as “normal thinking” among those we had grown up with, had no true and solid foundation. The only “common ground” that we could eventually find was what is written in the Bible. In this way we both became more and more free from our own culture and upbringing.
A DRAMATIC CHANGE
Telling you this may seem so wonderful and successful…. But this was only my life on the outside. On the inside, I felt poor and miserable, and had since my childhood longed for something that I myself did not know what it was. There was an emptiness deep in me that nothing in this world and none of these accomplishments were able to fill. All these accomplishments were only like shining soap-bubbles that you blow in the air - until you grab it, then you are left with nothing but air! It could never fill the emptiness deep inside me!
One day, after I reached the lowest and darkest point in my life, this emptiness came unexpectedly to an end! Jesus Christ came into my life and started to fill this emptiness deep inside me! Since then all the outward glitter and accomplishments became like nothing, like wind to me! I would like to write about these things that happened to me, that brought this change in my life and that brought a deeper inner rest and peace and joy over the years since then. I would like to share what I have seen and heard and tasted and experienced of this life in Christ, both from my own life and from people who I have met over the years, who live a life in Christ, who have allowed Jesus to be their only Lord and Master. My only purpose with this blog is to be a true witness of these things that I have heard and seen and tasted. I Joh.1:1-4.
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A CHRISTIAN
Gertrude and I started working as Town and Regional planners for the government in Pretoria in 1977. It was in this time that somebody gave us a booklet to read, titled, “What it means to be a Christian,” written by Elias Aslaksen. Reading the book, I realised that Christianity goes much deeper than I had ever understood. This booklet kick-started a huge change in my life. I repented and received power to come out of bad habits like, for example, smoking - something that I never could stop by myself, in my own willpower. My interests and purpose in life started to change. I no longer longed to have a successful career and become something great in this world, but a strong desire was stirred up in me to live my whole life for Jesus as a true Christian, as written in the booklet of Aslaksen. I also read a book by Lloyd Douglas (“The Robe”) and this strengthened the longing in me to live a simple, practical life as Jesus lived, being good and able to do good and help and bless others, no matter in what circumstances I would end up.
With this longing in my heart I quit my job in 1979, and Gertrude and I (with a one-year old child, Krisja) joined a missionary outreach in Austria for a month. Afterwards we spent time in several other places, doing different jobs like working in a bakery in Holland, working for a farmer in Michigan, USA, teaching at a private school in Canada and travelling around all-over in between. It was in this period that I learned to know myself thoroughly. My attitude of mind was only to be good and to do good and help and bless others - in line with the longing that Jesus planted in my heart. But the more I tried, the more I saw how horrible and ugly I was on the inside! I was easily irritated, easily offended, had a terrible temper, etc.
I had accepted the position at the private school in Canada, not because I needed a job, but because I wanted to be a blessing and to show the life of Jesus to the children. But I could not handle the lively and mischievous kids at all! I lost my temper many times. No matter how hard I tried to overcome it and to remain good, I just could not manage. I came home from school many times defeated and discouraged.
Added to this, I had read in this time some UN reports about the discrimination in South Africa and a book that was banned in South Africa under Apartheid, titled “Steve Biko”, written by Donald Woods. Reading these accounts and Nelson Mandela’s defence in court, I was faced with the horrors of Apartheid that were hidden from our eyes by the Apartheid regime. My confidence in the Apartheid Regime was shattered into pieces. I was no longer proudly South African. I felt that we were deceived by the church, by the political leaders, by teachers, and a mistrust came into my heart towards all those that I had esteemed highly in my youth.
With no victory in my own life and a very confused mind, I resigned my job at the school and we returned to South Africa – I myself as a defeated person, scared of myself, and in my own eyes very far away from the life of Christ that I had read about and longed for!
THE END OF THE BEGINNING
Living in Canada in winter (with temperatures, including the wind chill factor, of up to minus 400C) and some scary experiences, driving an old VW Combi with rusted-through heater boxes, getting lost in a snow storm and almost freezing to death, I longed to be in the sun the rest of my life. As I grew up on a farm, I thought of going into farming and just live a simple life. The longing in my heart to do good and bless others was still there. But I did not trust myself anymore, I was afraid of myself. I could imagine how I’ll lose my temper and get mad at those around me that I want to bless. I prayed to Jesus to take control of my whole life and steer it, for I myself was only able to destroy it.
I then experienced how Jesus changed my mind! The last thing I ever wanted to do in my life was to end up working in an office. No! I wanted to be in the sun! I wanted to farm. On our way to search for a farm in the Western Cape, we drove through Port Elizabeth. There I looked in a newspaper and saw a post advertised for a person with exactly the qualifications I had. It was for a researcher at a Research Institute at the University of Port Elizabeth. Out of curiosity I paid a visit to the Institute and met the person who resigned from the job. When I saw him sitting there behind his desk, I said to myself: “You will be a fool if you ever end up here!”
But then something strange happened to me that I had never experienced before. While travelling around in the Western Cape, viewing farms for sale, my thoughts more and more went back to this position that I did not want, and the more I thought about it, the more positive I became about it. And I decided to apply for it! At the same time, my desire for farming became less and less. I did not know the verse in Phil.2:13 that time, where it is written that it is God who works in us both to will and to do for His good pleasure. I gave Him the leading of my life, and that is what He did! He started to direct my thoughts according to His own plans for my life. In Ef.2:10 it is written that we are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. God has led me into the works He had prepared for me. He knew me better than I knew myself and He wanted to use me where He thought it the best. And for that I am forever thankful that He has taken the steer of my life, even if it meant that, at times, I also had to walk through the valley of the shadow of death… But it was always with Him at my side! (Ps.23:4).
The position I got at the Research Institute was not a dance on roses. I had to do research and build a model with which one can calculate the impact of changes in the Port Elizabeth metropolitan economy and make predictions (Input-Output Analysis). For this I had to get data from industries about all their inputs used to manufacture products and of all the outputs produced by them. To provide such data to a researcher was the last thing busy industrialists, accountants and businesspeople were interested in, and they treated me like a dog at times. Many times, I was so discouraged that I just did not know what to do and how to go further. But Jesus helped me up and through, and I could complete the project. (Not knowing at this point in time that the experience that I gained with these models would later in my life give me a competitive edge that made my work-life very easy. I don’t know what would have happened later in my life if I had just quit at the time when it was so difficult.)
I also did a Masters degree in this time, which my supervisor did not want to accept because it exposed a lot of the Apartheid Regime’s policies that grossly benefited whites while putting heavy burdens on the already poor black population. My boss, an older Professor at the Institute, was a good man. He was prepared to spend time with me, trying to understand my radical and against-the-stream viewpoints. He decided to send my dissertation to a Professor at Rhodes University to get an objective opinion from another university. The professor at Rhodes University then defended my right to express myself, and I finally got my degree despite the opposition of my supervisor. I became even more negative about the Apartheid Regime and all those who supported and defended it, and to a certain degree was getting bitter against white people in general. In my effort to fight for what is right, I once joined a meeting of the most liberal political party possible to join, as the ANC, Communist and Pan African Parties were all banned. But when I noticed the hypocrisy of these “white elites” who were fighting from their heights for the rights of these “poor blacks” - I left and was tempted to become the most radical communist ever that would overthrow everything.
But one day while talking to a black friend of mine, God started showing me how much of that very same hypocrisy was in myself. I saw myself, still so afraid of “what will they think of me associating with blacks,” and that showed that I was not free from this myself!
Although on the outside it seemed to go well with me, that I could manage my work, accomplished things, could express myself boldly - on the inside I felt more and more miserable and empty and desperate than ever. Gertrude thought I was overworked, and we took a holiday and drove to Hogsback Forest in the Eastern Cape. Here I one day cried out to God in my need and said to Him, I just cannot live any longer like this! And that He should rather take my life. Or give me / show me the way to the life I had read about in book of Elias Aslaksen. (“What it means to be a Christian”). I was well aware that I had absolutely nothing of this life in me! I don’t know how I came to these thoughts, but I said to God that I will give it a last try: I will obey and do everything He wants me to do – what is written in the Bible. And if it brings no life in me, it will be a proof that the Bible and what is written in it and Christianity all together is just nonsense and fables and fake! And I will then throw away my Bible forever!
A God-fearing man, Johan Oscar Smith, who lived in the beginning of the 20th century, wrote several letters to his brother between 1898 and 1919. He wrote in one of these letters:
“I will not boast of myself; God shall have all the honour — He who pulled me from the mouth of death and out of the pit of darkness. He turned my mind from folly and set my feet upon a rock. Of myself I know nothing, for I am more stupid by worldly standards than most people. What I have, I have received from God — without works and without payment.
According to the flesh I am evil from the sole of my foot to the top of my head. My best works are swollen with egotism; my love overflows with self-admiration. My “Christianity” only accentuates all the outward splendour that is used to gather all honour into the unfillable barns of self.
This way of life became repulsive to me. I realized that I was saturated with the leaven of malice. I said to God: Surely, I’m not a Christian. My life is an abomination, and I fall short in every area.
From that moment, Christ became my life. I came to understand that He is the life. From that moment, I saw myself as a wreck. I hate my life in this world, because it is evil, and I will never again try to make something of it.”
(From: Letters of Johan O Smith, 2nd of August 1908).
I agreed 100% with these words! These words became very precious to me in my life and are a foundation in my life up to today. And I never get tired to hear it and read it. Jesus is my life, and if He is not through His Spirit prompting me to do something, nothing will ever come from my life! And as it is Jesus who is leading me also in all practical things, He will get all the honour forever for what He has accomplished in me and could accomplish through me. Like Paul I can say: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” II Cor.3:5,6.
After acknowledging that I could not live like a Christian by myself, and that I myself needed Jesus to help me come free from the mindset that whites are superior which was planted so deeply in us - I could not keep bitter feelings towards others any longer. And I stopped trying to change other people.
What happened to me that day at Hogsback was therefore not the end, it was only the end of the beginning. God brought God-fearing people on my way who could help me understand how to get rid of things like anger, bitterness, jealousy, thinking that one is better than others because of the colour of your skin, your race, culture, etc.
I learned that I can only show others the life of Jesus in the degree that I do His will instead of my own. Only then He lives in me. For the one whose will you are doing, that one is living in you! If I give up my will to do the will of somebody else – then that one is living in me! We know that so well, for example, if somebody is always thinking and doing things like his dad – then we say: “He is just like his dad!” Exactly the same happens when we start doing the will of Jesus. He said in Mat.11:29, “I am meek and lowly of heart.” How can I show His life if I always think I am superior and when I am so full of myself? But if I can get rid of such thoughts, then people can see His life, His meekness and lowliness of heart in me!
These are the things that have captured my mind and my thoughts since that day in Hogsback – the way that I took for the rest of my life. And Jesus has never disappointed me! He gave me His Sprit shortly after that day and made the words in the Bible living to me, so that I can understand what to do in the different situations of life! The Bible has become His living Word to me, and I will never ever throw it away!