South Africa


Is the Memory of Father Trevor Huddleston Fading?

Is the Memory of Father Trevor Huddleston Fading?
(FILE) A file photo dated 23 June 1991 of Founder of the African National Congress (ANC) Oliver Tambo (L) sitting with anti-Apartheid activist Father Trevor Huddleston (C) and Nelson Mandela (R) at a press conference in Maraisburg, Johannesburg, South Africa. EPA/STR

Exactly 20 years after his passing, it seems appropriate to take a look at one of the heroes of the anti-apartheid Struggle, even as Trevor Huddleston’s memory seems to be fading away in the face of new battles over who did more to vanquish an iniquitous social and political system.

God bless Africa
Guide our children
Guard our leaders
And give us peace
For Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

Trevor Huddleston’s Prayer for Africa

A full embrace of all those who played crucial roles in ridding South Africa of its apartheid shackles continues to be divided by a contested ideological – and sometimes racial – terrain, with squabbling among supporters over whose candle burned the brightest. There continues to be, for example, a heated public debate over how the role of the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (let alone that of the late Nelson Mandela, or even the very much still-living Jacob Zuma) should be evaluated and cherished.

Instead of a growing common consensus over South Africa’s version of its “Founding Fathers (and Mothers)” v2.0, the competition sometimes seems like one where, as soon as one name is offered as someone to be embraced without reservation, another name is counter-proposed as having been still more important, more central, more crucial to the outcome, or less compromised. And then the first figure is derided as someone compromised by his or her antagonists, just as anti-apartheid forces were on the cusp of victory.

In recent years, particularly as so many of the anti-apartheid Struggle’s most noteworthy figures have slowly slipped away, one name, that of Father Trevor Huddleston, increasingly seems to have become lost in the shuffle in the two decades since his passing. Recognition of the direct impact of his legacy seemingly is becoming increasingly faint, like one of those old sepia-toned photographs left in the sunlight too long.

Father Trevor Huddleston passed away two decades ago, on 20 April 1998, at the age of 85. Back the early- and mid-1950s, when he had already become an internationally recognised figure at the forefront of the push for fundamental change in South Africa, the still-newly-in-power National Party government often saw Huddleston as one of their most feared, most articulate, and most powerful antagonists.

Captive apartheid propagandists like Alexander Stewart wrote glibly argued volumes designed to pick apart the priest’s arguments and thus diminish the power and impact of his principles, but to relatively little effect. In the communities he moved in, Huddleston’s very appearance, a tall, imposing figure, usually dressed in an Anglican priest’s cassock, striding along Sophiatown’s streets or in Soweto, was enough to give the timorous and frightened a strand of hope, and the oppressed at least a moment of reassurance that they were not entirely alone, even as he gave the oppressors’ hoplites a realisation that their diktats had somehow fallen short of frightening Huddleston.

At the height of his influence, and even at the time closer to his passing, Huddleston remained a deeply respected figure, but his role in the struggle against apartheid has now slowly faded from view. Even his powerful Prayer for Africa seems to have slipped from regular Anglican usage, replaced by less powerful texts.

Huddleston was solidly English, with an acknowledged lineage that reached back to the reign of King Charles II, where a Huddleston Roman Catholic ancestor had helped the king flee from a battlefield defeat. His own father had been a very senior figure in the British Indian navy. And his family’s status and connections in class conscious Britain would have fixed Huddleston’s place as lower-middle-upper class; a slight twist on George Orwell’s self-description of his place in England’s class system as “lower-upper-middle class”.

Following studies at Oxford, he studied for the priesthood, and as a young priest-monk he joined the Community of the Resurrection, a kind of Anglican version of the better-known Catholic order, the Maryknoll Fathers, with their social and economic activism. His posting to South Africa, however, was largely an accident.

When fellow priest, Raymond Raynes, returned from South Africa to be the leader of the full Resurrection community, Huddleston just happened to be on kitchen duty. Raynes became ill and so Huddleston took Raynes’s meals up to him in his bedroom for a week and, once there, the two men had talked at length. Based on those conversations, Raynes soon decided the young priest would be the right person to take over Raynes’ post as priest-in-charge of both the Sophiatown and Orlando (in Soweto) Anglican missions and so he left for Cape Town at the beginning of World War II. Almost immediately, Huddleston became immersed in the initial phases of his opposition to racial prejudice, segregation and the antecedents of formal apartheid, even before moving on to Johannesburg.

After two years in Cape Town, Huddleston joined the Community of the Resurrection mission station at Rosettenville in southern Johannesburg. There were three churches, seven schools, and a number of crèches while in South Africa, serving some 6,000 children. (At that time, education for Africans in South Africa was largely in the hands of and the responsibility of the various churches.) During Huddleston’s time, he also established the African Children’s Feeding Scheme and raised money for the Orlando Swimming Pool – the only one in Soweto.

In the ensuing dozen years or so of his time in Johannesburg, Huddleston earned the nickname Makhalipile or “the dauntless one” for his resolute stance against white racial hegemony. However, despite his leading opposition to the forced removals that were to take place in Sophiatown as part of the new Group Areas and Population Registration Acts, these removals began on 9 February 1955.

While he served in Johannesburg, Huddleston had responsibility for St Peter’s School in Rosettenville. And some of his students and friends such as OR Tambo and Fikile Bam (later the head of the Independent Elections Commission) became enormously influential in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But perhaps one of the most famous pupils whose life he touched was the late Hugh Masekela. Huddleston, worried the teenager was about to ruin his life, found a way to purchase a trumpet for him, putting him on the road to global success as a musician and composer.

His stance against racial segregation quickly became so total that, soon enough, Huddleston came into conflict with the Anglican bishop of Johannesburg. And the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, told Huddleston he was “entirely wrong in the methods you are using to fight this situation”. As if in response, Huddleston argued later that his own Anglican Church had not faced the problem of apartheid, which he had said was “fairly presented to the conscience of the Christian world. It is not that white Christians are bad. It is simply that they fail to see the relevance of their faith to social problems.”

The grumbling from his church elders probably just reinforced Huddleston’s view that he was on the right pathway. Or as he once told an interviewer:

I had to declare myself in fully supporting the resistance movement of the African National Congress. I felt as a Christian priest that was what I had to do.”

Six years after his arrival in South Africa, he became the head of his church community – until he left South Africa in 1955, where it is said of him that only his priestly vow of obedience had led him comply with that order, so committed had he become by then to the struggle against apartheid. In fact, had Huddleston not left the country when he did, it is widely believed the authorities would have arrested him. Accordingly, his superiors had decided the rigours of a South African prison would have been no place for Huddleston, given his diabetes.

Back in Britain, it was not a happy time for him as he was, effectively, grieving for the country he had just left, and the one he had made his own. He had a variety of church positions, but also carried out a voluminous correspondence and responded to invitations to speak about his experiences that came about because of his 1956 book about South Africa, Naught for Your Comfort. Eventually, he was appointed the Bishop of Masasi in Tanganyika, prior to that nation’s independence, up until 1968. During that period he drew close to the Roman Catholic Julius Nyerere, who dubbed Huddleston “our bishop”.

Brought back in 1968 to be the bishop suffragan of Stepney in London, Huddleston found such administrative and managerial tasks frustrating, although with the growing racial tension between white Londoners and Pakistani residents, where he was seen by his church leaders as the right man for the time. Eventually, he was appointed bishop of Mauritius and archbishop of the Indian Ocean for five years – 1978-83. From there it was supposed to be retirement.

In that “retirement”, he became a trustee of the Runnymede Trust, provost of the Selly Oak colleges, and – in a kind of vicarious return to his efforts in South Africa – he became president of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, the body that did the public campaign against apartheid, as well as chair of the International Defence and Aid Fund. The latter organisation raised funds for the legal defence of many South Africans, particularly needed during that period with its proclaimed states of emergency and frequent mass arrests.

Looking back at Huddleston’s active, engaged relationship with South Africans through a long lifetime, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, thinking of those early years, has said of Huddleston:

I was in hospital for 20 months with tuberculosis, and, if Father Huddleston was in Johannesburg, he made it a point to visit me at least once a week. I was just a nonentity, 13 years old, and yet he paid so much attention to me. You could have knocked me down with a feather when this man doffed his hat to my mother. I couldn’t understand a white man doffing his hat to a black woman, an uneducated black woman.”

Years later, in 1995, Tutu was by then Archbishop of Cape Town. Rising to a vigorous defence of Huddleston, whom it had been said had inappropriately touched several boys many years earlier in one of his stints as a priest in England, wrote Huddleston had been “an enormous thorn in the side of the apartheid regime and was effectively the real spokesman for the anti-apartheid movement for a considerable period.

No one did more to keep apartheid on the world’s agenda than he and therefore it would have been a devastating victory for the forces of evil and darkness had he been discredited…. How ghastly to want to besmirch such a remarkable man, so holy and so good. How utterly despicable and awful.”

And the Bishop of London, Gerald Ellison, who had been in that office during Huddleston’s time as Bishop of Stepney, insisted Huddleston’s political enemies had been out to get him with this baseless charge.

Ellison said:

I want to make it absolutely clear that I have seen no evidence that Bishop Trevor was ever guilty of a criminal act. He undoubtedly had many enemies in South Africa and England who wanted to denigrate him, indeed, to destroy him.”

(It would not have been the first time such a thing had happened to an opponent of apartheid.)

As an honorary South African, Huddleston had been given the right to vote in the country’s first democratic election in 1994, and then, late in life, he returned briefly to South Africa, but because of his health and growing fragility, he eventually returned to the UK.

Despite that less than happy experience, back in England he helped with the establishment of the Living South Africa Memorial, Britain’s memorial to all those who had lost their lives under political violence, located at St Martin in the Fields Church.

In addition, he took up the cause of fundraising for education in South Africa and eventually even campaigned for new investment into Southern Africa, arguing:

It takes more than a vote to get over apartheid.”

After his death, in 1999, the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre in Sophiatown was established in the neighbourhood he had been so drawn to – once again called Sophiatown in place of its apartheid-era name of Triomf – and his ashes were placed in the garden of his beloved Christ the King Church.

Huddleston should also get recognition for the first concrete efforts to push for the sports and cultural isolation of South Africa because of apartheid. Beginning with a 1954 newspaper article, and then made the case more extensively in his 1956 book, he had written:

I am asking those who believe racialism to be sinful or wrong … to refuse to encourage it by accepting any engagement to act, to perform as a musical artist or ballet dancer…”

(Earlier Huddleston had cajoled visiting international artists to perform for integrated audiences at his church in Sophiatown, as with the visit of violinist Yehudi Menuhin, whose recital there had had people listening in a vast crowd surrounding the church, as well as in every seat inside it. But Huddleston eventually reasoned that the more direct action of an international boycott would be more effective than piecemeal efforts to badger visiting artists into include the whole population as a blow against apartheid.)

In recognition of the increasing severity of apartheid and in response to the push begun by Huddleston, a growing number of British cultural organisations determined their members should not perform in South Africa, beginning in 1961 with the British Musicians Union. Two years later, 45 British playwrights instructed their literary agents to refuse performing rights, “where discrimination is made among audiences on grounds of colour”.

In subsequent years, a growing number of American, British, Irish and European cultural groups adopted similar policies. This prevented the works of playwrights of the stature of Arnold Wesker, Arthur Miller and August Wilson from being seen in South Africa until the 1990s.

In fact, the seed Huddleston planted led to slowly increasing international pressure to restrict South Africa’s international sports participation as well. This began with its exclusion from the Olympics Games in 1968, after South Africa’s refused to allow Basil D’Oliviera, the formerly South African Coloured cricket star now living in the UK, to tour South Africa as part of the planned Marylebone Cricket Club’s 1968 tour.

After learning about Huddleston’s passing in 1998, President Nelson Mandela said of him:

Father Huddleston was a pillar of wisdom, humility and sacrifice to the legions of freedom fighters in the darkest moments of the struggle against apartheid. At a time when identifying with the cause of equality for all South Africans was seen as the height of betrayal by the privileged.”

Mandela added that Huddleston had “forsook all that apartheid South Africa offered the privileged community. And he did so at great risk”.

In an interview published after Huddleston’s passing, Archbishop Tutu said of him, Archbishop Huddleston was “one of those white people who enabled us not to feel embittered, so we could look at him and say, ‘Not all white people are the same.’ ”

Archbishop Tutu went on to say that if “I had to choose one person who got the anti-apartheid movement onto the world stage, that person would be Archbishop Huddleston without a doubt. The world was a better place for having had Trevor Huddleston.’’

Amid all the battles about which hero was tougher on apartheid, perhaps we should be speaking a bit more of Huddleston and how his deeply moral message connected to very real efforts. And here again, the country might consider how best to commemorate his memory. DM


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