Albert Nolan — truth-teller, visionary, underground operative and revolutionary
An edited version of Horst Kleinschmidt’s tribute to the priest, theologian, writer and anti-apartheid activist Father Albert Nolan that was delivered during the virtual memorial service on 20 October.
When the horror of apartheid reached its inevitable crises in the 1980s, it also in response produced some of the finest women and men who made their mark in opposing the racist tyrant.
Father Albert Nolan was one such individual and we celebrate him today for two complementary reasons: he taught and lived the universal ethics that gave sustenance to those who suffered and equally and especially provided sustenance to those who set out to fight and end the evil system of white racism.
The second reason we celebrate his life is that his values, his beliefs, his theology, were not abstract, but demanded that for this to be authentic, he joined those in the trenches of struggle against the tyrannical system that ruled.
My admiration for Albert Nolan is not that of being a Christian believer, but as someone who found in common with him a commitment to values, morals and the imperative to continue to act on the side of those denied justice and equality.
I had the honour to be connected to Albert through the Struggle years, first when I worked for Ds Beyers Naudé in the Christian Institute and then, when in exile, I was privileged to serve, throughout the 1980s, when I was the operative link between the external movement and the internal liberation Struggle.
As an activist, I was privileged then and am immensely thankful today to know that there were, besides political theory and the burning anger in my stomach, next to me persons who taught me compassion, who lived humbly and did this without aspiring to the trappings of power or the pursuit of riches. It was Fr Albert Nolan — and in my instance, my colleagues like Beyers Naudé — who, acting for the common good, made real, made true, the caring for others. Yes indeed, we need kindness in our society. Oh, how much more we need all of these attributes today!
Young, angry activists today, I urge you to study the writings of Cde Albert — discuss his books and hone within you qualities that unfortunately too many Struggle veterans of my generation traded for riches and power.
We need great thinkers — any and all struggles for justice and equality need those who guide and underpin the actions of those in the trenches of battle. Activism in the field needs a firm foundation built on the imperatives of public ethics.
Involvement in the Struggle
Allow me to relate a little vignette, never made public before today. It concerns Fr Albert Nolan’s involvement in the Struggle.
I went into exile in 1976 and there became the secret link and confidante of Ds Beyers Naudé. Ds Beyers was the link for a remarkable group mostly based in Soweto and in Mamelodi that guided and acted and led the struggle against apartheid in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.
Those with Fr Albert included Moss Chikane and Rev Frank Chikane, Fr Smangaliso Mkatshwa, trade unionist Rita Ndzanga, Rev Castro Mayatula, the indefatigable revolutionary Jabu Ngwenya, and some 20 others. Fr Albert was among them.
For nearly 11 years they smuggled communication out of South Africa to the movement outside, and in turn, it was Oliver Tambo and Thabo Mbeki who, directly through a connection I had with Oom Bey, sent messages inside the country.
Yes, the SBs (Security Branch) did not succeed in breaking this link. There is now good evidence to make public such a statement: the SBs knew something was brewing, but they could not find it. Their own records show this.
And just to whet the appetite of the veterans and young activists today, I can reveal today for the first time that Albert Nolan was known as Operative A4. After Black Wednesday (19 October 1997) and from 1981 onwards he was Operative 42. The numbers “4” and “2” were scrambled into texts and figures — and the SB never found the key to this messaging.
But let such operational details not detract from the thinking to which Albert introduced us.
Operational matters hinged on smuggled letters, none of which were ever intercepted; call-box to call-box calls that changed location each week; and the swapping of money that made any evidence in bank records impossible.
Let me return to what the memory of Fr Albert resonates with to this day.
He told the truth — he was an unconditional truth-teller — about oppression and racism, and about the values that should guide the society we hoped for, whatever the risk of the punishment or the exclusion or the isolation this might have meant for him.
He understood and supported the message of black consciousness. Coming from the white oppressor community or class, Steve Biko taught him and taught us that the measure of our solidarity was only credible if such action faced up to the same risks or punishments by the oppressor as those which the oppressed exposed themselves to in their struggle for liberation.
Thirdly and vitally, he acted truth. Acting truth followed inevitably from speaking truth. For Fr Albert, this meant active involvement, whatever the risk to himself.
Truth-telling, unconditional solidarity and truth-acting made Albert Nolan the revolutionary that he was. Call him a socialist if you like, or a follower of Christ before Christianity (I borrow the latter words from the title of his famous book). That is what I learnt from him.
Injustice, ongoing inequality, old and new racisms, gender inequality, sexual orientation discrimination and violence, and environmental criminality are causes to fight for and overcome to this day. Albert Nolan is the inspiration who motivates us each day again in the face of the travesties we face in our country right now.
He spoke, lived and acted when the odds seemed much greater. His passing has led me to reread his seminal book, God in South Africa.
Young compatriots today: we do not have to be slaves to the super-rich project that the ruling party, with its allies, is pursuing.
The struggle for which Albert Nolan provided the ethics, the morality and the action in the trenches needs fighting for in every generation.
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There are those among the young in South Africa who have picked up the baton that Fr Nolan now passes on. Let us applaud them, let us always test their sincerity; let us not fall victim to false prophets: those who do it for their ego, those who do it for their personal glory or those who use it to gain power and then forget those in whose name they sought power.
If such honest voices are absent at this moment, let us waste no time to proudly and strongly speak the truth, act for the truth, and live in solidarity in a way that those marginalised, demoralised, alienated and disaffected can hear and gain real hope from.
Without compromise, let us stand for the ethics and the stand that Fr Albert took; justice and egalité can never be a race war, for it obscures the reality of the charlatans who today are millionaires and billionaires who gained power and wealth on the backs of the poor.
The memory of Fr Albert Nolan is a challenge to us all today. Yes, apartheid laws no longer govern this country, but elitism is arguably now more toxic than ever before. Albert Nolan challenges us to face up to the truth that we are the most unequal country in the world.
The neoliberal dispensation that rules our economics, the politicians who clamber for power in order to enrich themselves, the never-ending ANC politicians who manipulate “stand-aside”, are a travesty without compare.
A party that is governed by those who do not stand aside, nearly stood aside, and those too noble to in fact stand aside, is an abomination.
Fr Albert Nolan, if he was young now, would stand up against this. DM
After going into exile in 1976, Horst Kleinschmidt became the director of the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, based in London. In 1992 he returned to SA to be director of both the Kagiso and Mvula trusts and later headed the SA Fisheries Ministry. He was awarded a Knighthood by the King of Sweden in 1999 (the Order of the Polar Star, First Class, for his role in aiding political detainees and prisoners in southern Africa), and the 1991 Bruno Kreisky Prize (Austria) for services to human rights.