Early tomorrow morning the Diakonia Council of Churches will host their annual Good Friday service, beginning at the Durban Exhibition Centre before proceeding in silence to the Durban City Hall. The service is attended by thousands of Durbanites, who come out in support of the Diakonia, and the principles that it stands for. But there was a time when Diakonia was so reviled that it couldn’t even find office space to rent. Rumours during apartheid saw members of the organisation making bombs, with landlords being reticent to rent to a group that was perceived as being so dangerous. In truth, the Diakonia, an interfaith organisation whose name translates as ‘service’, served a largely supportive role, offering advice and assistance for people affected by the system of apartheid.
Yet, the Diakonia was of great interest to the apartheid government, and when they finally managed to secure offices at 20 St Andrews Street in Durban (now Diakonia Avenue), the South African Police Service’s Special Branch rented offices in the building next door, with listening devices permanently aimed at the Diakonia. People working for the Council were routinely harassed, with their phones frequently being tapped. As supporters of the workers’ unions, the offices at St Andrews Street would sometimes be barely functional as helicopters flying low overhead drowned out the voices of the union members inside, who were offered the offices as a place to host their meetings. In a 2014 article, Paddy Kearney, founding Director of the Diakonia Council of Churches, recalls the 1986 State of Emergency:
Who can forget June 12, 1986, when about 60 security police took over the Ecumenical Centre at dawn in terms of the state of emergency declared that day. No tenant was allowed to enter the premises until the police were forced by court order to let us into our offices at about 5pm. Soldiers pointed rifles at the centre from Caspirs parked in St Andrew’s Street. Dramatic photos of this scene went around the world and even appeared on the front page of the New York Times and London Times.
Some forty years later and the Diakonia Council of Churches is still fighting for the rights of the disenfranchised by offering a space “where people of every race, culture, class, age, nationality, language and religion should feel welcome and at home, confident that their human dignity is valued and honoured”.
The offices of Diakonia are located at 20 Diakonia Avenue, Durban, and form part of the Durban Liberation Heritage Route.
Images courtesy of www.sahistory.org.za