Politicsweb: “Five minutes to pray – and then leave”


“Five minutes to pray – and then leave”.
Paul Trewhela
23 November 2009

Paul Trewhela on the Diakonia Council of Churches and the Kennedy 13

“Five minutes to pray – and then leave”.

This was the order of the station commander of Sydenham Police Station in Durban, Senior Superintendant Nayager, to the Diakonia Council of Churches last week, when it requested permission to visit 13 impoverished members of the shackdwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), to pray with them.

The Diakonia Council accuses the Sydenham police of having stoof idly by when a xenophobic pogrom gang associated with local ANC political authorities in the Durban area attacked the AbM community at Kennedy Road on 26 and 27 September, killing four people, destroying houses, causing thousands to flee in terror, seizing property and setting themselves up as unelected dictator over the residents.

Police from Sydenham Police Station allowed the murderers to flee unscathed, and then arrested 13 of the residents who had been attacked.

In a subsequent statement, issued on Saturday 21 November, the Council acccused Sydenham police of having once again stood idly by last Friday when the same semi-fascistic gang – reminiscent of Hitler’s Brownshirts – was permitted freely to attack and demolish houses of AbM residents at Kennedy Road all over again.

The Kennedy Road 13 have been refused bail at the Durban Magistrate’s Court on six separate occasions, most recently on Wednesday 18th November, when more than 30 clergy, headed by Bishop Rubin Phillip, Anglican Bishop of Natal, held a prayer service outside the court to stand by the detainees. (See “Church and state collide at Kennedy Road”, here).

Describing the incarceration of the 13 as amounting to “detention without trial”, the trial itself as a “political trial” and the court a “kangaroo court”, Bishop Phillip called for “people of conscience outside of the state” to join him and fellow clergy in setting up “an independent inquiry into the attack on Kennedy Road on 26 September; the subsequent demolition of the houses of Abahlali baseMjondolo members, the ongoing threats to Abahlali baseMjondolo members, [and] the role of the police, politicians and courts in this matter.”

The Diakonia Council of Churches described Superintendant Nayager’s attitude in limiting access to pray with the 13 in his police station to five minutes as “hard and callous”, reflecting a “blatant disregard for human rights”.

In its statement of 21 November, the Council said that despite many phone calls to the Sydenham Police Station to intervene, not one person had been arrested for last Friday’s attacks.

The Diakonia Council of Churches states that it “condemns these ongoing attacks in the strongest possible terms. The Council furthermore condemns the inaction of the police, and the silence from our government on this issue.”

The silence of the government of President Jacob Zuma on this basic issue of constitutional governance suggests at least toleration of these criminal attacks on what ANC political structures in KwaZulu-Natal clearly view as an intolerable affront: the successful mobilisation of the poor by what they view as a rival source of authority.

With justice, the Council believes that what is at stake is “the preservation of our democracy”.

The Council began in the 1970s when the late Archbishop Denis Hurley sought an ecumenical organisation to work for justice in the Greater Durban Area. He was motivated by awareness that the church should have been doing much more about apartheid: but how could churches which were themselves divided have any impact on the problem, unless they first overcame some of their own barriers? Archbishop Hurley looked to Durban to take the lead in setting up an inter-church structure that would concentrate on the sufferings of ordinary people: “Working together to alleviate suffering and to humanise society is perhaps the most promising and exciting opportunity for ecumenism”, he said.

Archbishop Hurley started discussions with the other church leaders in Durban, looked for the right person to head up this work, and founded Diakonia – using a Greek word which means serving the people. This was in March 1976 and the person was Paddy Kearney, who continued to serve Diakonia until 2004.

Since the first democratic elections in 1994, the work of the Council has increasingly focused on poverty.

Membership of the Diakonia Council includes:

* Anglican Church of Southern Africa (ACSA)
* Dutch Reformed Church (DRC)
* Ethiopian Episcopal Church
* Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (ELCSA)
* Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (Natal-Transvaal)
* Orthodox Church
* Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA)
* Reformed Church in Africa (Observer Status)
* Religious Society of Friends
* Roman Catholic Church
* Salvation Army
* United Apostolic Church (UAC)
* United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA)
* United Methodist Church
* Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa
* Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa

All political parties, civic organisations, law associations and academic institutions should take up this issue, following the lead set by the Diakonia Council.

Citing a “severe threat to the credibility of South African democracy”, a seminar was held at the premises of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) in Johannesburg on 4 November, under the heading: ‘Democracy under threat? What attacks on grasssroots activists mean for our politics”. Organised by the Centre for the Study of Democracy, based at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg, the seminar was addressed by Steven Friedman (CSD), Pregs Govender (SAHRC) and Andile Mngxitama (Foundation for Human Rights), as well as by representatives of AbM including its chairman, S’bu Zikode, who had to go into hiding after his house was wrecked and looted in the attacks on 26/27 September.

The silence of most of the mainstream press is, however, a scandal.