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.
LETTER TO COS DESMOND, DATED AUGUST 2, 1971:
“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.”
LETTER TO MOHAMMED TIMOL, DATED APRIL 7, 1972:
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.”
LETTER FROM FATIMA MEER TO DENIS HURLEY, FROM THE FORT, JOHANNESBURG, DATED OCTOBER 6, 1976:
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.”
LETTER TO NEIL MITCHELL, DATED SEPTEMBER 17, 1982:
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 email@example.com.
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.