Barney Pityana: Denis Hurley Lecture 2015


Beyers Naudé and Denis Hurley for our Times.[1]


N Barney Pityana GCOB

Consultant: Thabo Mbeki Foundation 


The Great South African War (1899-1902) ended in a great betrayal for the indigenous peoples of South Africa. What it became was that two European settler communities shared the spoils of a war in which the owners of the land were not party to and whose interests were not a factor in the war in the first place. Boer and British parceled out the land and wealth of the country among themselves and the Africans were no consideration in the constitutional arrangements agreed to at the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging, in other words the peace was between Boer and Brit, and the African indigenous people were never to be at peace with the invaders. Arguably the Boers, though, they may have lost the battle, won the war. They got to retain political power under the British Empire on terms that specifically excluded Africans and Coloured people from the franchise. That arrangement became the substance of the Union of South Africa in 1910.

But to some Boer generals this was a hard pill to swallow because it meant that the erstwhile Boer Republics were no more. Insurgencies ensued, and the bitterenders with their ‘never-say-die’ determination under Generals de la Rey, de Wet and Beyers mounted rebellion in the Western Transvaal up to 1914. General CF Beyers was the commander under whom JF Naudé, the father of Beyers Naudé, served in the war, deeply religious and conservative as they come, resentful of the bullying by the British, and determined to restore the dignity of the Afrikaner, preserve their culture, establish their language and, in time, assure self determination for the Afrikaner volk. He it was after whom the infant Christiaan, Frederick Beyers Naudé was named by his parents when he was born on 10 May 1915.

One of the great schemes of Lord Milner at the end of the war, and one upon which the Treaty of Vereeniging was presumed, was that there would be massive British immigration to South Africa that would  counteract the dominance of the Afrikaners in the British colonies as well as in the former Boer Republics, and thereby change the political dynamics of the Boer Republics and the new Union of South Africa at large. In general, British immigrants were hardly the cream of society. They were there to relieve Britain of the burden of unemployment, social misfits and gold diggers. They were hardly the material on which British influence and power in South Africa was to be built. As it happened that flood of immigration never materialized and dominance of Afrikaners remained in tact. It may well be that had Alfred, Lord Milner, the Governor, been realistic about the prospects of his plan, he might have looked at an alliance with the native populations differently!

For years, the Afrikaners were suspicious of Catholics as Roomsche gevaar, and it is fair to say that Roman Catholics continued to suffer discrimination in the stratified Cape social hierarchy. It is doubtful that the British Occupations in 1795 and 1806 until the British established a permanent settlement at the Cape in 1812 as a sequel to the Napoleonic Wars, changed much in Dutch laws and social and religious arrangements. Roman Catholic missions and immigration was never encouraged. When Denis Hurley was born on 9 November 1915 he would have been born into a climate of discrimination and suspicion against his Irish Catholic immigrant family. His father was the keeper of the Light House at Cape Point – a lowly, humble and lonely occupation if ever there was one – but critical for the safety of the maritime system in the busy routes around the Cape.

It is the irony of our times that it was to two such unlikely personalities that South Africa and the church owe so much as in Beyers Naudé and Denis Hurley. Unlikely because they were drawn from the opposite ends of the spectrum: class and privilege, religion, language and culture, as well as the geographical divides with all that that meant for attitudes and for political assumptions, Cape Liberals and Transvaal Afrikaner nationalists. Yet both were children of war-time South Africa, a country thrust into the war in defence of the Empire with deeply divided loyalties.  The first of the socalled World Wars was a war against Germany, and the Union of South Africa, as part of the British Empire, was thrust into active participation in the war.  Three events are worth noting as contemporaneous with the birth of these great South Africans.

In 1912 the South African Native Congress was formed. It was to be the vehicle for expressing the demands of the African peoples of the new Union, whose voice was never sought in national affairs and whose rights had been bargained away by the settler community. No sooner was Congress formed than the new government enacted the Native Land Act 1913 giving legal effect to a history of incremental dispossession of African people from land ownership, as well as creating reserves or territories into which Africans were to be horded. Those who sacrificed most in the war were the African troopers who enlisted in the war encouraged by the emerging leadership of the fledgling struggle in the hope that the political claims of the African people would be addressed sympathetically by the British Empire. On 21 February 1917, 607 troops of the South African Labour Corps perished at sea aboard the SS Mendi steamship en route to the frontline in France. They received no recognition, no medals and no mention for bravery. A great injustice was done to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

It was into such a society that these figures of South African history came to life. They would have been immersed in the contradictions of their time; a society deeply divided along racial lines, and a privileged class of white European heritage that was for ever at war with itself; a society in Africa but to varying degrees never quite comfortable about being African or embracing the African identity. In Africa and yet preoccupied with fighting the unfinished battles of Europe on African soil. At the margins of all this were the African people. They were not the centre of concern, but their subaltern presence and being could never be ignored. Indeed, in time, it was to be proved that South African governance and politics were dictated by conflict about the “Native Problem”. Both Beyers Naudé and Denis Hurley were ordinary white South Africans – lived a life of separation where prejudice across all societal divides was predominant, and whose competing interests somehow had to be reconciled, or were under constant challenge.

Through the lens of these two great South Africans I propose to take a snapshot through 100 years of Christian social witness for justice in South Africa. I ask the question that with all the changes that have happened in our country what prophetic witness is appropriate or called for for the church of our times.


Beyers Naudé was a man of Afrikaner stock through and through. His father Jozua Francois Naudé was a dominee in the Dutch Reformed Church, of Voortrekker lineage, saw service in the Boer war and served the church dutifully. The desire of the family was that their children would be the pride of their family and truly embrace the Afrikaner identity and consciousness. Beyers Naudé himself imbibed these ideas dutifully, graduated from Stellenbosch, ordained a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church and served the church in various capacities. There are perhaps two significant character traits that were to define the destiny of Beyers Naudé: he was a man of faith, and he was perceptive and discerning. Once he came to faith, faith took over. It was faith that dictated his life. It was difficult to move him once he came to an understanding of Faith as God’s will. It was in that regard that he was rooted in the Reformed Calvinist theology and spirituality that viewed the Bible as the inerrant Word of God. Whatever anyone disagreed with Beyers Naudé his unshakeable belief in the God of the Bible was readily acknowledged. It was because of his belief in God that he embraced the aspirations of the Afrikaner people, and he imbibed the biblical theology of Afrikaner nationalism.

The second characteristic is that he was perceptive and deeply thoughtful. It is not suggested here that he was in any formal or intellectual sense a deep thinker, otherwise he could be regarded as calculating and cautious. He was not. He was sensitive enough to discern deeper with the eye of faith what went below the surface and beyond the obvious. His sensitivity was such that he asked questions, awkward questions, of himself, of his teachers and of God. To that extent he was an anxious and a restless enquirer. His curiosity was such that nothing was taken for granted, or went beyond probing. Even when he was quiet, his mind was at work cogitating on what some might simply have passed by as irrelevant. My contention then is that for Oom Bey conversion was never a “sudden experience”. It is the culmination of years of questions and doubt, and tentative exploration of ideas – a kind of chewing the cud!

For many of us it was Sharpeville – but that does not explain why Sharpeville made such an impact given the propaganda he would have been subjected to, and the responsibilities as a pastor he would have had to counsel his own congregation during times of tension in society. Some say that it was through the questions his young missionary pastors posed to him out of their own pastoral situations in the daughter churches. But why would he have taken any interest in their questions given what the church was teaching? Evidently questions arose for him because his mind was at work testing the biblical evidence against the social and political context he was confronted with.

Archbishop Denis Hurley refers to Beyers Naudé as a man of conversion. We sometimes talk about conversion as a Damascus Road experience, a bolt from the blue, a sudden, paralyzing encounter with God. Conversion, however, arises from one’s faith experience and an honest engagement with all the questions that it raises. It also requires a will and a mind that trusts God and is obedient to God. It requires courage of one’s convictions and a sacrificial self-giving of oneself.  To this extent Beyers Naudé could have drawn inspiration from Pope Benedict XVI’s often quoted dictum that,  “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

For Beyers Naudé it was the study of scripture that informed his ideas about God who dictated one’s actions and life. That was the reason he could not, in good conscience, withdraw his initial and informed endorsement of the Cottesloe Statement, even as some of his fellow delegates, one by one, were put under pressure to do so. As Moderator of the Southern Transvaal Synod, he had the courage to stand alone at synod, and refuse to denounce the Cottesloe Statement in the absence of any Biblical evidence to the contrary for doing so.

That is the reason he could face up to his Moderature who demanded that he resign as editor of Pro Veritate; and that was the reason he was graceful in accepting the authority of the church even as he disagreed with it, and resigned his calling as a minister of the church at Aasvoélkop Kerk, and he symbolically disrobed himself when he had preached his valedictory sermon to his congregation in 1963. That is the reason he opted to continue as Director of the Christian Institute rather than face life as a caged bird in relative comfort within the church. The truth that Beyers Naudé’s life portends up to this point was that of obedience to God., hence Acts 5:29 was his text for his valedictory sermon at Aaselvoélkerk gemeente.  His diligence in searching the Scriptures led him to the discovery that the theological claims of Afrikaner nationalism were false. This laid the foundations for the eventual collapse of the Afrikaner theological myth on which Afrikaner nationalism was predicated for so long.

But God was not done with Beyers Naudé. He was outside the church of his birth, but it never left him in his being and consciousness. His convictions about the reformation inspired by John Calvin were unshaken. That remained his guiding light through difficult times. He was able to apply that faith in his ecumenical work, especially his recognition of freedom in the spirit. What it also did was to free him to understand more deeply the plight of the Black people in South Africa, and to work within the church for justice.

The Christian Institute became a key structure of the ecumenical movement in South Africa alongside the South African Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church. As a body of individual participants the Christian Institute brought Christians and enquirers together around the study of the Bible, across all racial, and language divides, without having to defer to any ecclesiastical dogma, but guided only by the Christian convictions of the participants. It became, in the words of Liberation Theology, a base ecclesial formation or cell. It could help develop communities to become prophetic voices in their own communities, to develop into change agents as part of a vast developmental Network.

The Christian Institute soon became an attraction to many, especially from the Dutch Reformed Churches, not least because evidently everyone was treated with respect and equally. Its programmes also expanded embracing the vast community of independent or indigenous churches that had been marginalized for so long among mainline churches. It also grew to develop work among women and rural communities. The Christian institute was also in support of the activities of anti-apartheid organisations especially among students like NUSAS and SASO.

For me, though, there was nothing significant about all that. The true revolutionary work of Beyers Naudé was at the time that the struggle was intensifying and repression was at its worst. It was then that Naudé and the Christian institute were banned, and it was then that Naudé perhaps experienced the worst forms of oppression that identified him with the oppressed, the enemy of Afrikanerdom – and that must have cut deep! He was the one who understood the message of Black Consciousness when many were skeptical or afraid. He opened his heart to those who were banned like he was, and in time, he could serve as contact for the underground operatives who trusted him. As General Secretary of the SACC he continued the work that Archbishop Desmond Tutu had started: the Dependents’ Conference in providing material support to the families of political prisoners and families of detainees, as well as the work that his friend Dr Wolfram Kistner undertook in the Justice and Reconciliation Desk, who undertook painstaking research and documentation, information gathering and dissemination on apartheid and its effects on human rights and justice for the poor.

At the times of internal conflict he stood with those who sought to overthrow the apartheid system. He was never neutral. He also supported conscientious objection to military conscription by young white men who faced conscription into the apartheid armed forces, and, in the end, he was ready to make overtures to the ANC in exile because he was confident that there could be no solution to the political crisis in the country without ANC participating on its own terms. Thus it came as a surprise to many that Nelson Mandela included Beyers Naudé in his delegation to meet the South African government at Groot Schuur, and event that produced the Groot Schuur Minute. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.”

My most abiding memory was when in May 1987, the PCR held a consultation in Lusaka, Zambia. The Consultation brought church leaders, solidarity movement and the liberation movements together to consider proposals for the resolution of the South African Conflict. In effect it was a gathering between the churches in South Africa with the liberation movements. Other churches and the solidarity movement were also in attendance. Oliver Tambo was the main speaker. I remember how uncanny it was that in the midst of reading his paper Tambo stopped, took off his glasses, and recognized Oom Bey seated on the front seat. He put his paper down descended to approach Beyers Naudé to greet him – and these two men embraced – to the applause of the conference. The two men had never met before, but they recognized the significance of that moment. The conference adopted the Lusaka Statement, which was a ground-breaking statement on the legitimacy of the apartheid state and the legitimacy of armed struggle. But most memorable to many was the encounter and recognition between these two great South Africans.


There is an uncanny resemblance between these two characters of the South African church, and yet some contrasts. Archbishop Denis E Hurley OMI was a man of the church through and through. He was to have an important role to play in the indigenization of the Roman Catholic Church in South Africa, in a hostile climate and a church so dependent on immigrant missionaries from Europe. He was identified very early on as one among South Africans who would provide leadership to the church. His progress through the ranks was rapid. At the early age of 31 he became the Apostolic Vicar and Bishop of Durban, a see later elevated to an Archbishopric.

My early memories of Archbishop Hurley as Archbishop in Durban where as a group of friends, Steve Biko included, got to know and trust him I guess from Marianhill days and from NCFS. He was a regular speaker at the conferences of the UCM. I found him gentle, with an easy and relaxing smile, and yet reassuring in the interest he showed to your business. I recall that at about this time he was President of the South African Race Relations Institute and he took some interest in what we were saying. I have no idea how he received what we had to say, nor do I understand now whether, as a leading liberal, he was comfortable with our propositions about liberals and their negative impact on the aspirations of our liberation struggle.

Fr Smangaliso Mkhatshwa[2] remembers him as a very pastoral bishop, strong in guiding the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in its statements against apartheid, but did not do enough to advance Black priests in the church. Though he was known to be independent-minded and was critical of the record of the church on social issues especially apartheid, he remained till the end a very loyal prelate of the church, ready to defend the church’s record against critics within and without. And yet he was strong in engaging and debating with the church activists insisting on order against disruptive behaviour. In that respect he was never patronizing towards Black radicals. He challenged them, including Mkatshwa, pressed the case of the church against its critics. He caused them to argue their case, listened attentively and explained in a manner that they would understand and accept. In that respect  Hurley was an unlikely advocate of the church – to some that could undermine his credibility, but it never did so.

To that extent therefore it is fair to say that Vatican II was for the Archbishop of Durban a conversion experience, as much as it was for the Catholic Church. The wake-up call, though, came both through the events from Sharpeville 1960 to Soweto 1976. This was a time of enormous turmoil and repression by the apartheid state, it is referred to in his collection of papers edited by Denis Philippe, a time of crisis. In the 1980s the campaigns of ungovernability put the church in a place where it could no longer be detached from the struggles of the people and had to make some uncomfortable choices. The rising deaths in detention meant that the pastoral resources of the church were in demand, and so was its prophetic voice.

I believe that Vatican II did two things that were indispensable for the church in South Africa. First, it liberated the church to understand its evangelical mission as a community of faith in the world. Archbishop Denis Hurley called this the conversion of the church.  “The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World”,  Gaudium et Spes, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on December 7 1965 right at the end of the Council opens with the magisterial words that seemed to speak straight to the heart of the pastoral conditions then prevailing in South Africa:

The joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”

The Theology of Vatican II became, for Archbishop Hurley, his principal pastoral and teaching duty in his episcopate from then onwards. It informed his thinking about the world, and the church, and it shaped his bias to the poor, and his increasingly voluble campaigns against apartheid. It surely could have been no mean act of bravery to make a silent witness outside the main Post Office in Durban on 15 December 1976 with a placard to draw attention to deaths in detention, and to those in detention without trial, or his advocacy of a signature campaign to draw attention to the evil of detention without trial in 1984. It was to place his arch-episcopal authority to awaken conscience about injustice and the church as standing with those who suffered persecution for righteousness’s sake. Elsewhere Liberation Theology advanced rapidly and a great deal of theological contextualization and experimentation became possible, though never explicitly welcome in the Roman curia, due to some anxieties in sections of the hierarchy of the church about the possibility of maintaining authority over the teachings of the church. Gaudium et Spes gave to the church the armoury of the socio-analytical method in theology, that the “signs of the times were to be interpreted in the light of the gospel.”

The Vatican Council and Gaudium et Spes brought about the recognition of the church as a universal instrument of salvation. That meant that the church recognized that salvation came to God’s people in their language and culture and in their own circumstances or contexts. In this the church was freed to reckon with the place of culture in the propagation of the gospel. This also set in place a movement of inculturation and it resulted, especially in Africa, in a fresh look at African ways of being and believing that had been eclipsed for far too long by Western notions of knowledge and faith practice. Archbishop Hurley was no Colenso, and in that regard does not appear to have played much of a role in the acculturation movement although he was one of the prime movers in the Liturgical Renewal in the Catholic Church.

My final observation is the one that brings the two subjects of my paper together. In his tribute to Beyers Naudé, Archbishop Hurley combined in Beyers Naudé the notions of the world, catholicity and the gospel. He notes that Naudé was faithful to the gospel, and yet he was rooted in the world that was yearning for justice. His words in his Chapter, “Beyers Naudé: Calvinist and Catholic” are apposite:

… the church has a mandate to promote good behavior and right relations between people which are woven of justice and love. The church, without aspiring to political power, has the responsibility of promoting ethical standards in politics and economics as in all other aspects of human behavior. (Peter Randall:

He feared that the church was getting out of touch with humanity.

This concern about the church that is cloistered, and out of touch with its soul and with the world in inhabited and was surrounded by, meant that the church was incapable of proclaiming the gospel to any effect. Part of being “out there” meant that the church had to take risks and abjure any quest for security and certainties. Second, the church had to be courageous in her convictions in obedience to Christ, trusting only in the God of all life.

I imagine that that was what lay behind Archbishop Hurley’s advocacy for ecumenical cooperation especially in all social matters and in the witness to justice in the world. Thus it was that the Good Friday Procession of Witness in Durban became a common statement of the churches to this day about the churches’ common proclamation of the good news. Thus it was that Diakonia Council of Churches was established in KZN to bring the churches together to be a common sign of the life we live together in Christ. Archbishop Hurley always advocated for the Catholic Church’s involvement in the South African Council of Churches, first as an observer, but later as a full member.

What Archbishop Hurley had to say in his tribute to Beyers Naudé applied equally to him:

Beyers Naudé – an important sign to the churches – a sign of conversion to Christian love in its most demanding dimensions, a sign of justice and transformation, a sign of Christian collaboration across denominational barriers, a sign too of what it means to be both Calvinist and catholic, a sign of the Cross of Christ and Hope of the Resurrection.


I trust that I shall not be making an outlandish statement, that seems totally alien to your ears were I to observe that we live in very difficult time in our country for church and society. For one thing it is observable that we are in a Season of Discontent whichever direction one turns. Whether it be communities, or sections of communities, protesting the installation of electricity meters in Orlando, Soweto, or elsewhere, and demanding to pay a flat rate for the utility, much against policy and indeed, much against common business practice; or the people of Malamulele ot Bekkersdal, or Matatiele, or Herschel demanding their own Municipality regardless of the processes for demarcation of boundaries by the Demarcation Board; or communities aggrieved by one thing or another, setting buildings on fire in a destructive rage, or holding their children back from attending school just because they are demanding that a tarred road be built in their village. Researchers tell us that South Africa has earned a reputation as the protest capital of the world, with at least three protest marches in different parts of the country on any one day, drawing a large number of participants.

All these point to a break-down in relations between the governed and those who govern. One can note painfully the social malaise that engulfs our society:  the escalating instances of women who die at the instance of their husbands or partners, or children, especially girl children, who are victims of sexual abuse at the hands of their own fathers or close relatives, or the prevalence of rape, sometimes of the elderly women at the hands of young men or even boys; or witch hunting directed against elderly women or widows. Crime everywhere has just become unmanageable and the criminal justice system definitely is not coping. The ostensibly privileged who are university students are engaged in campaigns for transformation and dialogue against University Management that appears to be ineffectual or that has broken down The prevalent culture of South Africans these days is one of demand, violence and shouting, rather than dialogue, communication and listening to all points of view. South Africans no longer speak the language of dialogue, or listening or hearing, or appreciating one another’s points of view. The predominant theme is one of anger, suspicion and rejection.

Thus it is that we have been experiencing wave after wave of xenophobia and attacks against immigrants who live among communities in the townships or villages and who share a common life with the people. The inability to form community, or unwillingness to find a neighbor in the other or a refusal to express Ubuntu in our daily dealings with others, is a matter of deep-seated contradiction to what we purport to believe. I have heard sentiments of surprise and outrage at this development. In reality it is not surprising. It is a curious fact indeed, that these events occur at predominantly among those who are on the fringes of society, among the poor and the unemployed, where there is contestation over scarce resources, and where crime and the fear of crime is rife. That explains that at the drop of a pin, large crowds gather whenever there is commotion, that is because large hordes of people are idle, unemployed, resentful and angry. In a sense, therefore, it is not about a strategic assault on foreigners, except that among the powerless and marginalized, they represent an even higher form of vulnerability than the locals.

Sociologists will perhaps tell us that South African society has reached a point of anomie. That is when society and individuals in society are no longer certain about themselves and their sense of belonging. They find that the rules of society that they had believed in no longer apply or they no longer apply to their benefit as had been expected. Social relationships are fragmented and no longer offer security. To that extent society loses meaning to their lives. Emille Durkheim, the 19th Century French sociologist to whom this theory is attributed, then tells us that when the situation deteriorates to this extent, we have the makings of social change that is inevitable and already underway. The causes of the state of anomie are inevitably those who control the levers of power whether it be government or business. They have power and the means to impose their will for a time and are not immediately targets of popular anger or revolt. The immediate targets are the vulnerable, the poor, women and children, the alien in our midst or any at the lowest strata of society. By its nature anomie is inarticulate, disorganized and un-strategic. It represents frustration short of attributing judgment on the powerful and those with means.

Sadly, in South Africa we have failed to read this sociological analysis. We are targeting the inanimate statues (out of a very partial reading of history and unmindful of the continuing value of learning from history!) rather than address the source of the problem; or the migrants who are vulnerable and share the same socio-economic spaces with the victims; or women and children who are without power. In reality anomie itself is not revolution. It is unlikely to result in meaningful and lasting change. One never addresses power by attacking those without power. The 2013 Apostolic Exhortation by Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium captures for me the kind of situation we find ourselves in in South Africa today:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless.

Put this way, the challenge of our society today is a challenge for the church. That must surely explain the obscene materialism, selfishness and greed that blinds around our country alongside abject poverty and inequality; or the excessive debt that so many South Africans are prey to, or the violence and crime that is about grabbing and killing for that which someone else has; or the continuous and insatiable desire to have more and more (often without deserving) is at the root of so many of our social Problems.

Stellenbosch theologian Elna Mouton situates this societal malaise in postmodernist thinking – that elevation and privileging of the individual to the exclusion of everyone else. In her view this “leads to a breakdown of the hegemony of truth claims. Instead of celebrating the richness of plurality and complementarity, of sharing one another’s identities and stories of joy and pain (which I believe is what postmodern thinking is about), the postmodern attitude for many becomes synonymous with a certain disintegration, with a loss of orientation and cohesion, the loss of a collective moral identity, memory and destination, and consequently, the loss of a corresponding (corporate) ethos of dignity and respect for life, of responsibility and involvement, with a general attitude of “who cares?”. For many, this means a loss of trust in all forms of leadership – including church leadership. Due to such detached and disinterested attitudes, extreme postmodernist thinking necessarily fails to cultivate a sustainable agenda for transformation.” That is a wake-up call. It means that society in general has lost trust and confidence in all those pillars of life together in society – church and politics. Authority is under challenge because leadership has failed the people. Looked at that way, the real subjects of popular anger are not so much the poor and vulnerable, but the powerful and resentment against those who occupy leadership. This has the makings of both an authoritarian state and the makings of revolution, as Hannah Arendt points out.

Likewise, one can tune in to the Existentialism associated with French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre and recognize that far from the modern people being confident about themselves and taking charge of their lives, there is a sense of and fear of drift and formlessness. It is a disorienting thing not to know where to turn, or to find familiar solutions elusive. Commenting on this condition Ernest Gellner observes that Existentialism was at its most pervasive when times were complex and confused, when there was a sense of crisis and “intellectual depression”. It is when the anchors of belief systems of authority or certainty no longer provide confidence and one can’t fall back on it (that is, belief systems that are confident and certain) one may well rebel. Looked at that way, it is only fair to say that as South Africans we surely suffer from a sustained collective madness – of a kind that is no different that for so many years suffocated us in the madness of apartheid.

To summarise, the challenge South Africa faces is bad government and poor leadership. Somehow we have managed to breed a generation of angry and resentful South Africans, and we do well to take heed to their voices.


One of Pope Francis’ memorable sayings is that he yearns for a church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been on the streets, rather than a church concerned with being at the centre, and then, ends up being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures” (Evangelii Gaudium). That is exactly where Beyers Naudé and Archbishop Denis Hurley OMI felt comfortable. The public proclamation of the gospel in word and deed was for them the imperative. Dr Beyers Naudé was forced to work outside of the formal structures of the church, and Archbishop Hurley had to work with patience within the church of his time. For both, however, the idea of missionary discipleship held sway. In South Africa we are very uncomfortable with the idea of a church that is poor however much we may preach about being the church of the poor. This reminds me of GB Shaw’s play, Major Barbara where he says that it is not the idea that we live with poverty, so that we should continue to have relevance. For Bernard Shaw, poverty was the worst of crimes. It is rather that as long as there are poor in our midst our apostolic calling is to be in solidarity with the poor and to struggle with them and in their midst for life. It also means that we have to address constructively all the reasons and structures responsible for that poverty and marginalization that is dehumanizing of the great majority of the people of God. Poverty does not just exist as of right, it is caused by unjust structures of society.

It is often the case that whenever the church gets preoccupied with herself and with her minutiae she loses touch with her missionary discipleship and becomes obsessed with order and discipline, often resulting in internal conflict. When the church does that it gets lost and no one takes any responsibility. When the church is at the market place preaching the gospel it is in touch with its own essential nature, with her humanity. When that happens then the church becomes prey to opportunists within and without – political leaders who seek only homegrown palace prophets who prophesy according to the dictates of the Master; or who, in a materialistic world, may get bought and traded in a transactional relationship to the highest bidder with the rich and the powerful, then the church has lost her soul. When she loses courage to preach the good news she loses zeal for the House of God and God’s people become prey to ravenous lions, all because the shepherd has abandoned her calling.

In our country I believe that we need to recover that analytical capacity and theological depth that marked the contributions of Beyers Naudé and Archbishop Hurley to national dialogues. We should specifically have the courage to say that the economic trajectory that our country has chosen is a dangerous delusion towards a market oriented oblivion. More determined steps are needed to change the way in which this society and its economy are arranged or organized. This economy of exclusion and privilege for the few must be challenged, and at the moral level, reiterate the four NOs that Pope Francis inveighs against with such effect in Evangelii Gaudium: No to the economy of exclusion; No to the idolatry of money; NO to the financial system that rules rather than saves; No to inequality that spawns violence. There is need for a more compassionate and moral ethic that does not sacrifice the lives of ordinary citizens at the altar of capital and greed. I believe that we can have no gospel to proclaim unless and until we ourselves in the church actually live the gospel we proclaim. That is what our two centenarians bequeathed to us, our church and our Society.

What I fear most about our society today is a culture of compromise with evil, a failure to challenge wrongdoing because we have become too comfortable in it and cannot imagine a future without, and fear to let our voices be heard and truth is blunted. I fear that we are being herded like cattle into a state of dangerous acquiescence. It is the rebel in Beyers Naudé and Archbishop Hurley that we should draw inspiration from, that we may have the courage to interrogate received wisdom, make those in power accountable, articulate our constitutional values and make evil uncomfortable in our midst. Oxford philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin has prescient words for us:

… . If the imagination is to be stirred, if the intellect is to work, if mental life is not to sink to a low ebb, and the pursuit of truth (or justice, or self-fulfillment) is not to cease, assumptions must be questioned, presuppositions must be challenged – sufficiently,.. to keep society moving.

That is the reason that our country is in dire need of an ecumenical vision for social justice, and ecumenical leaders who cannot be corrupted or bought off, and a church that is resilient in the face of harsh challenges from erstwhile friends.



  1. Randall, Peter (Ed): Not Without Honour: A Tribute to Beyers Naudé, 1982: Johannesburg, Ravan Press.
  2. Ryan, Colleen: BEYERS NAUDE: Pilgrimage of Faith; 1990, Cape Town, Davod Philip.
  3. Denis, Philippe (Ed): Facing the Crisis: Selected Texts of Archbishop DE Hurley; 1997, Pietermaritzburg, Cluster Publications.

[1] Dr Beyers Naudé and Archbishop Denis E Hurley OMI Lecture to mark the Centenary of the Birth of the two stalwarts of the church in South Africa, Denis Hurley Centre, Durban, 10 May 2015.

[2] “That Man, Hurley” in                               pp 103-107


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