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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

06 Jul 1985: Hurley, Dennis

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DH     I am Archbishop Dennis Hurley of Durban, speaking in Durban to friends who have come to chat to me about those of you, dear workers of Dunne Stores, who were recently on a visit to our country. I am very sorry you didn't get beyond the Jan Smuts Airport. It would have been a pleasure to meet you even here in the city of Durban. I understand that you had quite a reception at Jan Smuts Airport, not many visitors to our country are honoured with a reception by 22 security guards with guns at the ready, so you may be headlines in that respect and have achieved international fame.

     I understand the situation arose out of the strike at Dunne Stores which in turn arose out of your refusal to handle South African goods. In that you gave a wonderful example of witness to justice and a desire to see justice done. I know that there are different opinions about trade boycotts in regard to SA but one must admire courage and witness to justice when one sees it. Hearty congratulations to all of you, dear friends.

     As regards our country you would have come during a very turbulent time. Since August last year at least there has been great unrest and great turbulence because our black people, and especially our young black people, are determined that conditions cannot continue as they have been in the past. They are determined to destroy the policy of apartheid and so they demonstrate and hold protest meetings. Unfortunately, our police react very violently and great numbers have been killed as a result of these protests and demonstrations, but many of us think, all of those I think who really know the South African situation, are convinced that what is going on now cannot be stopped, that it will result in some quite significant changes.

     So you, yourselves, have made your contribution, and though I say there are different opinions about trade boycotts, you have made a wonderful demonstration in favour of justice and in opposition to apartheid.

POM     Your Grace, you know we talked earlier about how the three of us have wondered why there has not been a greater level of political violence given, almost, the total oppressiveness of the apartheid regime. Why do you think this is so?

DH     Well violence of one kind or another, or rather strong opposition to apartheid in one form or another has been conspicuous over the last forty years and reached a high point in 1960 with the Sharpeville event that I think is known to many people and with the subsequent arrest, trial and imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and his companions. Then there was a bit of a lull but during that time of the lull a development called Black Consciousness under Steve Biko emerged and grew very strong and this then resulted in the 1976 unrest in Johannesburg, Soweto Johannesburg, which spread all over the country and resulted in 700 deaths of people whose demonstrations and protests were stopped by the police forcibly and violently.

     So there has been a good deal of sporadic violence but not organised violence. I imagine that for organised violence you've got to have the ability to be able to recruit people, train them, organise them into revolutionary forces and that has not been possible in SA.

POM     Why not?

DH     If you take, for example, the classical guerrilla warfare situation that depends on men being able to leave the country, find hospitality in a neighbouring country where they can train, organise themselves and from which they can infiltrate back into the country and that is not possible in SA because the surrounding countries, the neighbouring countries like Botswana, like Zimbabwe, like Mozambique are too weak. The SA security forces will hit back far too hard for them and so they can't possibly risk providing hospitality for would-be guerrillas fighting against SA.

     What has happened now is infiltration by people who undertake sabotage and that is pretty general in the country as you know. The aim of this present campaign seems to be to make SA ungovernable and in that way force the hand of the white government until it's ready to make substantial enough concessions to indicate to black people that apartheid is well and truly on the way out.

POM     You mentioned earlier that you thought that the black people now had the government on the run. Could you elaborate a little bit on that?

DH     Yes, for the last few years the government has been making concessions and the present State President, Mr PW Botha has said that his policy is one of reform. I think that reform in a situation like this must be one of the most difficult political programmes to undertake because specifically treating of SA, the policy of the government is apartheid although they never use that word themselves, they talk about separate development and so on because the word apartheid has too many connotations to be used by the government itself. But their policy is about apartheid.

     Now they dare not tell their followers that they have renounced apartheid because they fear that most of the voters would cross over to more right wing parties. There are two very right wing parties in SA, the Conservative Party under Dr Treurnicht and one that is called a purified or re-established or renewed National Party under a certain Mr Marais. These two parties would attract the voters if the present government said it had moved away from the essentials of apartheid. So the government has to pretend or actually maintain the essentials of the policy while making changes marginally, cosmetic changes or even more than cosmetic changes but on the margin of apartheid.

     For example, some time ago it repealed the laws dealing with racially mixed marriages and racially mixed sex offences and it was more than cosmetic because these laws were among the first laws of what is known specifically as apartheid in 1948/49 so they had symbolic value for the Afrikaner people and to repeal them took a little courage on the part of the government but of course these laws don't change the substance of apartheid. The substance of apartheid exists in laws that discriminate against equal education, against freedom to live where you like, against freedom to seek work where you like and all those other basic human rights.

POM     I suppose my question to you as one of the leading churchmen in the country would be, I've got two in fact, one is can you in fact reform a system that ought to be dismantled?

DH     I wouldn't know about that because as you begin to reform on the margins and cosmetically and those who have been suffering under the system begin to see that concessions are being made, obviously they're going to apply more pressure and they're going to be animated more and more by the rising expectations. And so I'm not good enough an historian to know if anybody has ever successfully conducted a retreat of that nature. I believe that Wellington once said that any General can attack but it takes a very clever General to retreat and in SA I think that remark has to be applied. It's going to take a very clever white government to retreat to the point where it can make substantial changes in the policy and in due course wind it up completely.

     I suppose most people would say it's impossible. Humanly speaking it's possible that the conflict will grow, the clash will grow and it will be a pretty tragic situation. But as Christians we go on hoping that significant reform can occur within a reasonable time.

POM     My second question was going to relate to that. In the last number of years there has been a significant change in the role of the churches in SA with regard to the whole system. What has accounted for the changing role of the church and in particular the changing role of the Catholic Church?

DH     The churches have been involved in opposition to apartheid for many decades but it began largely in the sphere of statements and pastoral letters and I think we all had a somewhat naïve faith in the ability of statements and formulas to change people's hearts. We realise now that that doesn't happen.

     One must admit that the strongest church in opposition to apartheid in the late thirties and throughout the forties and fifties was the Anglican Church. They certainly put up a good deal of opposition in those days and one of their great figures was Bishop Trevor Huddleston, whose name I think is fairly well known around the world. There was also Ambrose Reeves and Bishop Joost de Blank and quite a few people like that.

     The Catholic Church was rather withdrawn from the whole struggle in those days, apart from making these statements and declarations. We fought very hard to retain our Catholic schools when they were threatened by change in government policy, suppressing subsidies to African schools. We did things like that but I don't think we're anywhere near what the Anglican Church was doing then.

     Later on the two bodies that were most conspicuous in the battle from 1963 on were the Christian Institute founded by Dr Beyers Naude who is a Minister of the Dutch Reform Church and who went through, I think, an agonising conversion from what he believed as a young man and as a middle aged man to the convictions he came to about 1962/63 after Sharpeville. He became the founder of the Christian Institute and South Africa's greatest Christian opponent of apartheid.

     About the same time the SA Council of Churches became more vigorous, it was re-organised, revitalised and when the Institute was suppressed in 1977 the SACC remained to battle on under the leadership of first of all a Methodist layman, John Rees and then the Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu. It certainly took some very radical positions. The weakness of the SACC is that it is not a church itself. It can pass resolutions and formulate programmes for the churches to implement but they seldom do it. That is a weakness of the SACC. It's very prophetic but it's not evangelising, it doesn't evangelise enough. It leaves it to the churches themselves and normally they feel unable to respond to the magnificent suggestions and proposals of the SACC.

     As a church the Catholic Church became more prominent from about the early seventies. We began by examining our own conscience on certain matters and reforming from within. For example we suppressed our segregated seminaries. To our shame we had these until the early seventies. We made the decision anyway and it began to be implemented from 1976, the same year that the decision was taken to throw open all Catholic schools to children of all races and from then on we have become more and more involved. For example, we sent a delegation to visit Namibia and published a rather devastating report on Namibia which caused quite a shock in SA. We also got involved with the SACC in publishing a report on population removals which was taken all round Europe and America and, I think, played a big part in getting the government to suspend population removals.

     We had a word to say about the new constitution that came out last year, most of the English speaking churches opposed it and we did too. Then in November last year we published a rather devastating report on police conduct during unrest in townships in the Transvaal. So we have been more specifically and more concretely involved in these last few years and I would trace it back to the changes that came into the church, to the Second Vatican Council.

     The Second Vatican Council I think brought about a change in Christian thinking that I would consider the greatest in all the history of the church and that is the church is a servant of the world, the church is having to serve the world in bringing into the world the values of the kingdom of justice and truth and love and compassion. So this, I think, inspired us to get more involved in the SA situation and also the very straight remarks and submissions that were made to us by or own black priests who said it's all very well your issuing statements against apartheid but aren't you allowing a good deal of it to fester within the church itself. We realised the truth of these statements and began to work from within and so we're very much involved now.

POM     You mentioned earlier I thought something that was a significant statement and that was that, I referred to it earlier, that the blacks now had the government on the run, they had developed a new sense of confidence in themselves. What do you think has accounted for their developing this new sense of confidence?

DH     Yes, they were battling very hard in the 1950s. All that came to a stop after Sharpeville with the clampdown that followed after Sharpeville and then the ANC opted for a policy of limited violence, of sabotage where no damage would be done to persons. As a result Nelson Mandela and his colleagues were arrested and imprisoned for life. Then there was a lull and during that lull certain members of the black community, and Steve Biko in particular, developed a sort of ideology of Black Consciousness aiming at making black people confident of their own dignity, their own worth, their own equality on the human scene and over a period of six or seven or eight years they built this up. That did result again in the unrest in 1976 and since then I think we've just lived with unrest in SA. So you might say that the present development has resulted from the growth of Black Consciousness from the late sixties to the middle seventies and it has given black people a sense of their humanity, their dignity, their equality with other people and their right to participate fully in all that happens in SA, its government, its culture, its education, its industry and its commerce and nothing can stop that now.

POM     Is there something that might be called the dilemma of the white 'liberal' in this country, the white person who would oppose apartheid but still is part of a system that is a system of apartheid?

DH     Oh yes, it's a very uncomfortable position to be in because normally the white liberal is a person whose reflexes and instincts have been shaped and formed in the white racist society of SA. Nobody ever realises the total extent and scope of his own instincts and reflexes. He may think himself into certain liberal positions, he may accept them in principle, but as the working out takes place and as new situations are presented to him he suddenly realises that he hasn't really changed all that much in his emotions and his attitudes and that he doesn't quite understand or doesn't fully understand or doesn't understand at all the point of view of the black person.

     You see the white liberal, it may never occur to the white liberal that it's a standing offence to the black person to compare his black poverty with white opulence and the white liberal doesn't think of that. It has to be brought home to him through some painful conversion. So I think that the white liberal is like any other well like any Christian. A Christian accepts the faith in principle and lives it out in certain parts of his life but he's always finding that he needs to be converted throughout his whole life to new acceptances and new applications of the Christian gospel. So with the liberal, it's always going to be an uncomfortable process of conversion, finding out more and more what his liberal principles demand of him and some accept it and they're brave enough to follow through and others can't accept it.

POM     Do you think that the Afrikaner in his heart of hearts knows that the end is somehow coming and that part of their reluctance to make meaningful accommodation is their sense that there may be a sense of divine retribution? That what will be done to them will be how they have treated blacks?

DH     I would say that some, I would say at this point a minority, realise in their heart of hearts that the change is occurring but I think a great block is still utterly convinced of the position of the Afrikaner people in SA, that it's a divinely ordained and historically sanctified and consecrated position in SA and they're not even considering the possibility of it breaking down. So as the turbulence grows I think they get more and more determined to suppress it, to control it with whatever means are necessary.

POM     So in a sense this can only lead to greater violence. It would appear to me that there is no step by step process that can work.

DH     Oh I wouldn't deny that there is entirely no step by step process. I just say that at present, as I've described the situation, I believe it to be true but nothing is beyond the wisdom and power of God and the grace of God and SA's change may be one that may be a long, painful agony of twenty years or of ten years or it may happen in five years. Nobody knows. If it's going to be twenty years then the change is going to occur more slowly and during that time even the most hard-headed white South Africans, I say white South Africans purposely because many of the English speakers are just as convinced as the Afrikaners of their right just to be white supremacists in SA, it will just take all that longer and be more painful and agonising.

POM     I know we've all been struck as we've gone through fairly small towns where there's a street or two of relative opulence where the white population live and then you move 20 metres away and you're in shanty town. Do you think that the people in towns like that, who live really in such close proximity to a black population, ever think of the black population as people?

DH     No, they don't think of them fully as people. I suppose they think of them as people but they just think of two different categories of people, the white and the black. I imagine that it's something like the old class distinctions, although class distinction still exists, it would be like those class distinctions where you do accept the humanity of the other class lower than yourself but it just has no right to enjoy the things you enjoy. It's quite incredible. What could happen, for example, is that one day a black man could be drowning in a dam or a river and a white supremacist would come along and he'd try to rescue him and he may be drowned himself, but in that moment he will recognise fully the humanity of the black man. But in ordinary commonplace living out of live he wouldn't.

POM     Again, in Afrikaner country where we were two days ago we were surprised by the number of people who came up to us to introduce themselves and to impress upon us that they were not bad people. Do you think deep down they have an enormous sense of suppressed guilt?

DH     I wouldn't be able to answer that one. I'm not enough of a psychologist or a social psychologist to pontificate or speculate on that one. I know that the Afrikaner himself is just an unfortunate sort of person who's in the wrong country. In himself he's a very likeable person with a wonderful family life and an extraordinary practice of his Christian faith in the Calvinist religion. It's just so sad that with the blinkers of apartheid he can't see that his Christian faith should be applied to his social relations with black people and all other groups. It's a very sad situation because we know the Afrikaner, he or she is a very likeable person.

POM     One final thing, and this is maybe a message to the people of Ireland, north and south, maybe particularly to the people in the north, drawing upon your experiences here. What message would you give to them?

DH     The message I would give I suppose must bear on the tragedy of human division, how it occurs in Ireland, as it occurs in SA. We haven't found the answer to it in either place. It has led to violence in both places and as a church leader I would say that we are moving into an epoch in the life of the church where we are paying far more attention to those aspects of Christian behaviour or misbehaviour, what you might call the social aspects of sin, the social aspects of the values of the gospel. I would hope that out of all the turmoil and pain and suffering we're going through, the church itself will grow immensely in its ability to influence people, to help people to fully understand what Christ said about the law of love and about Christian justice and to live it out. I think these painful experiences are part of our growth both in Ireland and in SA. We've got to go through those Gethsemanes and those Calvaries, but please God, in the end the church will be the better for it and the family too.

POM     Thank you very much, Your Grace.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.