November 9th marked 105 years since the birth of Durban’s Archbishop Denis Hurley. He was a long-celebrated and fierce opponent of the apartheid regime and was known for his commitment to social justice and the ideals of freedom, truth, and equality. Perhaps more than anything, he was known as a guiding beacon of hope during the darkness that was apartheid. His father was a lighthouse keeper and, as such, famed writer Alan Paton dubbed him the guardian of the light. His life’s work did indeed shine a light on the injustices of apartheid, and he used his prominent position within the Catholic Church to vocally and publicly oppose the violence of the system. He was a pivotal figure in Durban’s fight against injustice and, in honour of the anniversary of his birth 105 years ago, it’s worth remembering his poignant and powerful message and using it to ensure that we continue to fight for justice.

Pamphlet from a 1985 “Free Our Leaders” mass meeting

A Fierce Opponent of Injustice

Hurley was born in Cape Town in 1915 to Irish parents and joined a missionary congregation when he finished school. He was ordained as a priest at the age of 24 after studying in both Rome and Ireland, and astoundingly, became the youngest bishop at the world in 1931. By 1951, he became the Archbishop of Durban. It was in this same year – when he was the chair of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference – that he wrote a public letter condemning the apartheid regime. He noted that it was the antithesis of religion, denouncing it as “intrinsically evil” and “blasphemy.” By the early 1960s, he was invited to be a part of the commission on the Second Vatican Council. This body sought to explore the relationship between the Church and the modern world, and Hurley continued to meditate on this link throughout his life. Hurley used his position within the Church to courageously fight for freedom, and this marked a departure from many religious leaders at the time. As Anthony Eagen writes;

“Prohibited during Dutch rule, coolly tolerated by the British, and treated with intense suspicion after the Union of South Africa in 1910, the Church was (unsurprisingly) cautious in challenging apartheid. With the majority of its clergy foreign-born and thus vulnerable to deportation, it was encouraged even by the Vatican to ‘play it safe’ after the 1948 National Party election victory. But Hurley, a white South African by birth … thought differently.”

It was this difference in thinking and action thereafter that made him one of the most wanted opponents of the apartheid state. By the 1970s he was engaging in daily protests, most notorious of which was his daily silent protest at Durban’s central post office. He stood up against the inhumanity of the system and displacement of people due to evictions and chose this central location to do so. By 1984, he was charged by the state of ‘contravening the police act’ when he published information about atrocities that had been committed by the South African military in Namibia. During this time he was victimised, placed under house arrest, and subjected to death threats. Three bombs also went off near to his residence. However, the state later dropped the charges when it was clear that his statements were true and could be proven. He continued to vocalise his opposition to state brutality and also helped young men who did not want to join the SADF on account of matters of conscience.

Denis Hurley and religious leaders at Freedom March, Durban, September 1989

The Hurley Case and Amplified Activism

Hurley was a critical component in the release of anti-apartheid activist and founder of the Denis Hurley Centre, Paddy Kearney. Law professor, Tony Mathews, notes that the case “Hurley and Another vs the Minister of Law and Order” was “the most important civil rights ruling for several decades [and] is still taught in law schools today.” After this, Hurley’s activism grew. He would often visit communities on eviction days and, in instances where children tragically died during the removals, he would record their names and release them to the public. He thus shone a light on the clandestine actions of the state and ensured that silence did not triumph over truth. In his struggle to gain greater support against apartheid from the Church, he also formed his own, ecumenical social justice agency, known as the Diakonia Council of Churches. In response to his activism, he was given the Zulu nickname Mehl’emamba (Eyes of the Mamba) by those who appreciated his efforts. 

Hurley retired in 1992 and became the University of Natal’s chancellor from 1993-1998. He remained a pivotal figure in the community until he passed away at the age of 89, in 2004. The Denis Hurley Centre forms part of the Liberation Heritage Route and strives to honour Hurley’s legacy through its continued work with local communities. Hurley highlighted the ways in which allies can use their positions of power to do good. He utilised his popularity and global presence to illuminate the brutality of apartheid and speak out against the human rights abuses it endorsed. He certainly was a bringer of light, and his legacy reminds us that we all have a part to play in ensuring justice. In his own words:

“Those of us who fail to do our share to ensure that these rights are respected are guilty, not merely of failing in kindness and compassion, but also of failing in justice.” 

May his legacy remind us to always choose justice. 

Images courtesy of South African History Online, OMI, and Twitter.

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