Arch­bishop Hur­ley’s fight against apartheid

The book, A Life in Let­ters: Se­lected Cor­re­spon­dence of De­nis Hur­ley, will be launched in Durban on Fri­day, the 103rd birth­day of the late Arch­bishop De­nis Hur­ley. Part 2 is an ex­tract from the book, to­gether with iconic pho­to­graphs of his life


THE first ar­ti­cle in this series ended with De­nis Hur­ley re­turn­ing to South Africa in 1940 and swiftly ris­ing “through the ranks” – from be­ing the youngest priest at Em­manuel Cathe­dral to be­ing ap­pointed su­pe­rior of a sem­i­nary in 1944 at the age of 29.

He was also ap­pointed bishop in 1946 at the age of 31, the youngest Catholic bishop in the world, and had be­come the first arch­bishop of Durban in 1951 at age 35, also the youngest Catholic arch­bishop in the world.

In that same year, he was elected to lead the SA Catholic Bish­ops. Lit­tle won­der he felt he was “in a lift that was go­ing up”.

His anti-apartheid stance at this time was largely in­tel­lec­tual and grad­u­al­ist, though his contacts with the Gandhi fam­ily and his read­ing of In­dian Opin­ion, the news­pa­per they edited, be­gan to put him in touch with black opin­ion in a new way.

As a bishop con­stantly in con­tact with black parishes, he be­gan to see that some­thing more than state­ments and a very grad­ual process of change were needed.

The Sec­ond Vat­i­can Coun­cil, from 1962 to 1965, en­cour­aged him to speak out on is­sues of jus­tice and to be in sol­i­dar­ity with those in­volved in lib­er­a­tion strug­gles.

Over the years, he be­came in­creas­ingly an anti-apartheid ac­tivist. Much en­cour­age­ment came from ac­tivists like Mewa Ram­gobin.

We see this new ac­tivism in 1968, when he led an in­ter-church ef­fort to prevent ma­jor forced re­movals in north­ern Na­tal, which caused him to send a tele­gram to min­is­ter MC Botha: “Com­mit­tee of Church rep­re­sen­ta­tives (are) deeply con­cerned about peo­ple to be moved Mon­day. (It) Ap­pears heart­less to lodge fam­i­lies with lit­tle chil­dren un­der tents.

“Sum­mer storms (are) likely, health en­dan­gered, fur­ni­ture un­pro­tected, sup­plies and ba­sic ameni­ties, pre­car­i­ous. Be­fore God, how can you bear the re­spon­si­bil­ity?”

When an out­raged Botha nev­er­the­less went ahead with the forced re­moval from Meran to Lime­hill in north­ern Na­tal, Hur­ley and Fr Cos­mas Des­mond OFM, the lo­cal par­ish priest, to­gether with other civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions, as­sisted the com­mu­nity to erect tents as their first homes in the new area.

Fr Des­mond was moved by this forced re­moval and many oth­ers that fol­lowed to study care­fully and mon­i­tor the whole re­moval process, about which he wrote The Dis­carded Peo­ple.

The gov­ern­ment swiftly banned both the book and au­thor.


“Nusas has taken up the cud­gels in your de­fence, mag­nif­i­cently. I read in the press about the protest meet­ing in Jo­han­nes­burg, which seems to have been very im­pres­sive. We are to have our meet­ing here is Durban on Fri­day, and I am happy to have been cho­sen to ap­pear on the ros­ter of speak­ers.

“It must be very dif­fi­cult to ad­just one­self to the very re­stric­tive con­di­tions im­posed on you. How are you mak­ing out and how do you fill in your time?

“Be as­sured of my good wishes, sym­pa­thy and prayers. You are do­ing more than your share for the great cause and shoul­der­ing more than your share of the suf­fer­ing. Please God, your ex­am­ple and ded­i­ca­tion will con­trib­ute to get­ting more ac­tion out of the Church in par­tic­u­lar, and Chris­tians gen­er­ally, in the very near fu­ture.”


At this time there was also much con­cern about de­ten­tion with­out charges or tri­als and espe­cially about deaths in de­ten­tion. De­nis Hur­ley was ap­proached by Pro­fes­sor Fa­tima Meer to re­quest that Mo­hammed Timol, brother of Ahmed Timol who had died in de­ten­tion, be al­lowed to at­tend his brother’s fu­neral.

“Thank you for your let­ter of the 19th March, which came through Mrs Fa­tima Meer. I was very touched by what you wrote, though I am most con­scious that our poor ef­forts were very in­ad­e­quate to match up to the de­mands made of your fam­ily.

“Please ac­cept the ex­pres­sion of my deep­est sym­pa­thy on the death of your brother in those tragic cir­cum­stances. Please com­mu­ni­cate it to your fam­ily as well. Please God, there are bet­ter days ahead.”


Some years later, when Prof Fa­tima Meer was her­self in prison, she heard that Arch­bishop Hur­ley’s home, 408 Innes Road, Durban, now the res­i­dence of the con­sul-gen­eral of In­dia and known as In­dia House, had been petrol bombed.

“I have just picked up The Star, de­liv­ered to me in my cell and read about the at­tack upon your home, which I see as di­rected per­son­ally upon you. I was an­gered and then pained. My anger and pain re­main.

“Who­ever did the deed, may God for­give him/them; and I know that you in your com­pas­sion have al­ready done so. It was hor­ri­bly mis­di­rected. But, we live in vi­o­lence and it is there­fore hardly con­ceiv­able that we should es­cape it though our pas­sion­ate com­mit­ment is to peace.

“PS, Mrs Noel joins in her con­cern and dis­tress over the at­tack on your home. You have two de­tainees here who stand solidly be­side you. She sends her love and greet­ings to you.”


By this time, there was an­other group of peo­ple in de­ten­tion that the arch­bishop wanted to be in sol­i­dar­ity with.

These were young men, who re­fused in con­science to serve in the apartheid army.

“Your let­ters from 25th July through to 27th Au­gust make very in­ter­est­ing read­ing and help an out­sider to get some­thing of the feel of be­ing sub­jected to de­ten­tion bar­racks con­di­tions. I un­der­stand that a verdict is ex­pected shortly in re­gard to your re­fusal to wear the brown uni­form and that this is likely to see you suf­fer­ing the same fate as Charles Yeats, that is, a year of civil­ian im­pris­on­ment.

“These few lines will serve to as­sure you that I too am among those who re­mem­ber you prayer­fully and thank you for your splen­did wit­ness. Since you are well-known to all the bish­ops, I shall men­tion you and your let­ters at the next meet­ing of the ad­min­is­tra­tive board that takes place in mid-Oc­to­ber. We’ll of­fer a spe­cial prayer for you and have a spe­cial re­mem­brance for you at the masses we con­cel­e­brate.

“May the Lord be good to you and sus­tain you as you un­dergo your pe­riod of trial for his sake and for the sake of his peo­ple.”

Copies of A Life in Let­ters can be ob­tained from Kear­ney by call­ing 031 201 3832 or email­ing pkear­

ARCH­BISHOP Hur­ley was the first per­son in Na­tal to sign the ‘Mil­lion Sig­na­tures Cam­paign’ op­pos­ing the Tri­cam­eral Con­sti­tu­tion, which gave sec­ond-class votes to In­dian and so-called coloured peo­ple and no-vot­ing rights to the African ma­jor­ity, ex­cept in the home­lands. Look­ing on are Archie Gumede and Mewa Ram­gobin, lead­ing fig­ures in the United Demo­cratic Front (UDF) 1983.


ARCH­BISHOP De­nis Hur­ley with Pro­fes­sor Fa­tima Meer after their meet­ing with Colonel Steenkamp, head of the se­cu­rity po­lice in Durban, to in­form him about the anx­i­ety of par­ents whose sons and daugh­ters had been de­tained with­out trial. This was at the time when Ahmed Timol had been tor­tured to death in Jo­han­nes­burg.

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