Wolfram Kistner, pastor, theologian, and anti-apartheid activist was born on February 19, 1923 in Hermannsburg, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. He was the son of a German missionary couple from the Hermannsburg Mission Society. He studied history at the University of Pretoria and the University of Groningen in Holland. After receiving his doctorate in history in 1948 he studied theology at various universities in Germany. He was ordained in 1952.
In 1955 the Hermannsburg Lutheran Church, a South African Lutheran church in which Kistner had grown up, entrusted him with the leadership of the Hermannsburg School and the Hermannsburg School Hostel. He worked from 1955 to 1965 at this German speaking institution rooted in the tradition of the Hermannsburg Lutheran revival movement in Germany. His father before him, as pastor of the white Hermannsburg Lutheran congregation, had devoted three decades to overcoming the decline that the school and its hostel had experienced in the wake of the First World War and to developing it as a Lutheran educational center.
From 1965 to 1969 Kistner served as the general superintendent of the Hermannsburg Mission Society, overseeing its work in South Africa.
From 1969 to 1972 Kistner worked as a parish pastor in Neuenkirchen, a village in Germany, located between Hamburg and Hanover. In 1973 the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa, which represented mainly German-speaking congregations at that time, hired Kistner as a lecturer at its theological training centre at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg.
Kistner lectured until he was appointed director of the Division of Justice and Reconciliation of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) in January 1976–a post he held until 1988. This was a dramatic turn in his life. He was driven to this unexpected decision by his deep conviction that he must make the struggle against racial discrimination and the associated violence suffered by the majority of the South African population an absolute priority before all other duties. This decision led him to new and unfamiliar ways. Although not all friends and colleagues understood or approved his decision, Kistner followed the call of his conscience. His input was of equal importance in its theological and political implications. In his new vocation, he listened to the persecuted, helped the political detainees, started Bible studies, brought the displaced back into their communion, assisted the relocated and strengthened their resistance, questioned the laws concerning land issues, dialogued with SACC member-churches, and cooperated with other similar institutions. He became one of the most prominent Lutheran theologians to call for the abolition of the political system of racial separation in the South African Republic. His friends soon dubbed him the “advocate of the weak” and the “brother to those who are suffering.”
In November 1981 the President of the Republic of South Africa appointed the Eloff Commission of Enquiry to look into the South African Council of Churches. From the viewpoint of many Christians involved in the ecumenical struggle for justice, peace, and reconciliation, this commission was devised to silence the critical voice of the South African Council of Churches. During the public hearings and the cross examination which took place in the Veritas Building in Pretoria in May 1983, Kistner responded openly to the questions, presented his theological thinking, defended his actions, and reiterated his Christian convictions. On June 27, 1986, after the conclusion of the National Conference of the South Africa Council of Churches, Kistner was detained at Kratzenstein, imprisoned for a week and thereafter banned for half a year. These measures were a direct result of his clear remarks and decisions to stand up unambiguously for the dignity and the right to life of the black people in South Africa.
His life was determined by the conviction that the Christian has to show through concrete action that he or she believes in defending the rights of fellow citizens suffering from discrimination. In this lies the true test of one’s own integrity, both in relationship to God and to one’s neighbor. This conviction gave Kistner no other choice, than to resolutely call the obvious injustice of apartheid by name and to actively work for the dismantling and abolition of racial discrimination.
With his own particular strength of conviction he consistently reiterated what the church of Jesus Christ and each individual Christian owe to those who are outcast and deprived, affirming their need to be defended. That Kistner did not give up his “hope in crisis” encouraged others in their own controversial struggles.
After his retirement from the SACC in 1988 he started the Ecumenical Advisory Bureau together with his friend and fellow activist, Dr. Beyers Naude. For eight years (1988-1996), working through an ecumenical network, they helped many church groups with whom they had contact. This included many overseas visitors, especially young people from the U.S.A. and Germany. They had to confront a number of challenges, including the question of poverty and economical sanctions, worldwide economical and ecological discrepancies, issues concerning unjust land distribution, justice, and reconciliation. They also gave interdenominational consultations.
After the closing of the Ecumenical Advisory Bureau in 1996, Kistner continued to be active in his retirement. He tirelessly called attention to the problem of poverty and discord in South Africa and addressed the dangers of promoting a type of globalization that widens the gap between the rich and the poor and threatens human survival through the reckless exploitation of irreplaceable resources.
Kistner was married to Adelheid née Elfers and the couple had five children, of whom one daughter has passed away. He interpreted his old age as an opportunity for theological reflection. He turned to some fundamental Christian questions, such as the concept of the Trinity. Where do we find God in the destruction of his creation and in other religions? How do the cross and the resurrection help to free those bound by sinfulness to find a communion that transcends individual churches? He saw the Holy Spirit working in small Christian groups but also in the worldwide church. 
Kistner died on 4 December 4, 2006 at age 83. In April of the same year, he was awarded the presidential Order of the Baobab in silver–one of South Africa’s highest awards–in recognition of his “contribution to the fight for justice, equality, and democracy in South Africa.” World Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Samuel Kobia paid tribute to Kistner. “He has been one of the clearest voices, articulating biblically and theologically why as Christians we had to support the struggle against apartheid which violated the very values he stood for…. Working as director of the Division of Justice and Reconciliation of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) from 1976 to 1988, he became the most prominent Lutheran theologian to condemn and de-legitimise the apartheid regime,” noted Kobia, a Methodist from Kenya. 
This article was adapted from an article by Dr. Volker Faigle, Germany, “Advocate of the Weak - Brother for the Suffering: in Recognition of the 80th Birthday of Dr. Wolfram Kistner.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, Number 116, July 2003, p 5-7.
Information and quotes from the notice entitled “Lutheran Theologian Helped Voice Anti-Apartheid Message” in Ecumenical News International (ENI-06-0961, Geneva, December 6, 2006).
Many of Kistner’s writings have been collected in English in: Hans Brandt, ed., Outside the Camp - A Collection of Writings by Wolfram Kistner (Johannesburg: SACC, 1988).
A collection of his writings in German (translated) is to be found in: Lothar Engel, ed., et al, Wolfram Kistner, Hoffnung in der Krise - Dokumente einer christlichen Existenz in Südafrika - zum 65 Geburtstag (Wuppertal: Peter Hammer Verlag, 1988).
A “Kistner Collection,” his life’s work collecting materials especially in response to the South African challenges during the Apartheid era, is housed in the Lutheran Theological Institute Library in Pietermaritzburg.
Additional sources on Kistner, Wolfram:
- N.a. “T Wolfram Kistner,” The Presidency: Republic of South Africa, n.d. https://www.thepresidency.gov.za/national-orders/recipient/t-wolfram-kistner-1923 (Accessed 23 August 2023).
- Kobia, Samuel. “Wolfram Kistner,” World Council of Churches, 2006. https://www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/wolfram-kistner (Accessed 23 August 2023).
- Faigle, Volker. “Advocate of the Weak - Brother for the Suffering: In Recognition of the 80th Birthday of Dr. Wolfram Kistner.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, no. 116 (2003): 5-7.
Rev. Georg Scriba, is a lecturer in the History of Christianity at the School of Religion and Theology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, a DACB Participating Institution, and is on the Faculty of the Lutheran Theological Institute.