This past year we have celebrated the lives of some of our country’s greatest leaders, and we end off the year commemorating the life of yet another fallen comrade, Paddy Kearney, who passed away unexpectedly last month.
Paddy Kearney was an unassuming individual whose peaceful demeanour disguised the strength of will and character that served him and his community so well for so many years. From a young age Kearney was exposed to the work of Archbishop Denis Hurley. His letters opposing apartheid were read out in Kearney’s local church when he was a boy. It was the beginning of a lifelong relationship that saw Kearney work hand in hand with the Archbishop at the Diakonia Council of Churches, which they co-founded in 1976.
Prior to establishing Diakonia, Kearney was a brother in the Marist order for a number of years, as well as working as a teacher at Marist Brothers, and later at the Inanda Seminary School, where he would expose learners to thought leaders, such as Reverend Beyers Naudé and Mewa Ramgobin, who he invited to speak at the schools.
Having left teaching behind Paddy headed up the Diakonia, which brought together people from different denominations to work towards a common purpose. In the 1980s that common goal was to oppose the mechanisms of apartheid and offer support to its victims. As leader of Diakonia, and as an executive member of the Natal United Democratic Front, which operated out of Diakonia, Kearney’s work soon came to the attention of the security forces, who arrested him in August 1985.
Kearney spent two weeks in detention at CR Swart (now Durban Central Police Station) in terms of Section 29 of the Internal Security Act, which prevented detainees from accessing lawyers, or being visited by friends and family. Upon his release Kearney was greeted by Denis Hurley and a number of Diakonia staff, who were waiting for him. “I thought they had arrested the whole lot,” Kearney said, but in fact Hurley had been fighting tirelessly for his release. It was the first time that a person was released from Section 29 detention as the result of a court application.
Upon stepping down as the Director of Diakonia, where he served for more than 30 years, Kearney continued his work as a social justice activist. Prior to his death he was the chairperson of the Gandhi Development Trust, as well as serving a number of other organisations, such as the KZN Christian Council, the Active Citizens Movement, and the Premier’s Commissions on Social Cohesion and Xenophobia. Kearney also initiated the construction of the new Denis Hurley Centre, a R32 million structure which he oversaw the building of, as well as sat as chairperson for the first four years of its operations.
Earlier this year Paddy Kearney was awarded the Benemerenti Medal by Pope Francis for his service to the Catholic Church. With typical humility Kearney commented:
It seemed to be given to very holy people, and I don’t regard myself as being very holy. It was a pleasant surprise to be honoured by Pope Francis, who is a great guy.”
Paddy Kearney passed away suddenly on the 23rd November 2018 having suffered a fatal heart attack. On reminiscing on the life of Kearney, who has been described as one of the most influential religious leaders in South Africa in the second half of the twentieth century, Mail & Guardian columnist, Paddy Harper, had the following to say:
Perhaps two words best describe Kearney. Kind. Resolute.”
Simple words that speak to the essence of Gerald Patrick Kearney. May his soul rest in peace.