Cosmas Desmond: human rights activist
Today, April 26, is the occasion of a memorial service in London for human rights activist Cosmas Desmond who died last month, so I thought it might be a suitable occasion to write something about him, and some of the issues that he was concerned with, so that those who knew him can be helped to remember, and those who didn’t know him can learn something of how he, as a Christian, worked for human rights.
I first met Cosmas Desmond in September 1968, when I saw a friend, Shirley Davies, sitting with him at a table on a busy pavement in Eloff Street, Johannesburg. They were collecting signatures for a petition against population removals. Shirley introduced me to Cos, saying he was a Roman Catholic priest from the Diocese of Ermelo, which covered northern Natal and what was then the south-eastern Transvaal. That was an area where there had been a lot of forced removals, as part of the ethnic cleansing that took place in the implementation of apartheid.
It was when he was based at the Maria Ratschitz Mission, between Dundee and Ladysmith, that he became concerned about the forced removals. The Maria Ratchitz mission was an an area that had been proclaimed “white”, but had lots of black tenants who lived there and farmed. One of the mission practices in early days was to establish such farms, which were settled by early converts to Christianity, where they could be close to the church. It was a transplantation to Africa of the idea of a medieval European village. But now the area was “white”, and so the black tenants had to go. It was a “black spot” in the white area on the map, which must be rubbed out.
I joined Shirley at the table while Cos went off for a well-deserved cup of coffee. And over the next few weeks I got to know him better. The government took no notice of the petition — it never did, but at least it made them aware that not everyone accepted their policies.
At that time the focus was on a resettlement area called Limehill, which was in Cos Desmond’s parish, and it was the place to which people from Maria Ratschitz were being moved, not only from church-owned farms, but from other places that had been declared “blackspots”, such as freehold land that had been bought by black syndicates before the Natives Land Act of 1913 prohibited such purchases.
I was familiar with the removals that were taking place because a few years before, in 1964 and 1965, as a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, I was a member of the Liberal Party, which had been very active in fighting the blackspot removals, especially in Natal, and many of the party’s members were themselves under threat of removal. The Liberal Party had been forced to disband in May 1968, because of the passing of the Improper Interference Act, which prohibited multiracial political parties, and even interracial political discussions. Perhaps the government thought that that would be the end of resistance to its ethnic cleansing programme, but scarcely had the Liberal Party disbanded when Cos Desmond came on the scene, publicising the removals and the misery they caused.
In the same week that I met Cos Desmond the Message to the People of South Africa came out, and when a Zulu version became available we went on a tour of northern Natal, visiting some former members of the Liberal Party, and some of Cos Desmond’s former parishioners, distributing copies of the Messagewith its attack on the ideology of apartheid.
We drove to Ladysmith on 30 Septermber 1968, and spent the night at the Franciscan Priory there (Cos was at that time a member of the Franciscan Order), so it was on that trip that I really got to know him.
The next morning (1 October 1968) after breakfast at the priory with the other Franciscans, we went to see Elliot Mngadi. He had been the Northern Natal organiser for the Liberal Party, and chairman of the Northern Natal African Landowners Association, and was very active in opposing the removals until he was banned in 1964.
I will describe most of the rest of the day as I wrote it in my diary at the time. Though the description is quite long, it can also give a glimpse of what the time was like:
Cosmas and I went out to Roosboom to see Elliot Mngadi. We showed him the Message, and he glanced through it, and said he thought it very good, and that he was glad to see that the church is at last doing something. We explained the hope we had that it could be distributed among the laity and that they would put pressure on the church leaders to support it and put it into practice. He said he would help us in whatever way he could, but at present he had to go to see about a dead friend’s estate, as he was one of the executors of the will, and as that meant much counting of cattle, and waiting for a boy to run and fetch the cattle, he suggested that we come back in the afternoon.
We agreed to do that very thing, and decided to go off to see Neil Alcock, and drove to Maria Ratschitz, a Roman Catholic Church farm, which was near Lyell-Meran, where people were even now in the process of being moved out of the black spot to the rural Bantu city of Limehill.
Cosmas told me that Church Agricultural Projects, while it was a step forward, was still very much of a capitalist venture. The people who owned cattle were encouraged to pool them in the venture, but it was more like investment in share capital, because the people who contributed cattle were very often families whose men were working in the town so the actual work on the farm was done by people who were paid wages to do it.
When we got there, the Alcocks were out, so we talked to the African bloke who worked in the office. We gave him a copy of the Message to read, and he too said it was about time that the church said this, but he thought it was too late, and that it was a waste of time distributing the Zulu version, becuse only the whites had the power to change the situation. He said he wasn’t prepared to do anything about it himself, because he didn’t want to end up on Robben Island. We tried to convince him that he could put pressure on the church, but having been brought up in an authoritarian church tradition, he said he thought the clergy must give the lead and tell the laity what to do, and not the other way round.
Another bloke there, a Methodist who was a health educator, seemed to have much the same ideas — scared to stick his neck out — and he said you could ask any of the people at Limehill whether they liked living there, and they would all say yes, and that they are satisfied, because they knew it would be the worse for them if they didn’t, and they would only get into trouble.
We left some copies of the Message for Neil Alcock and Creina, and asked them to distribute them around the place. Then we drove on through Meran, and the government lorries were still coming through to take people over to Limehill, and the hills around were all over broken and abandoned houses. We went up to Inkunzi, and called at the house I had been to some three years before for a Liberal Party meeting, which had had to be cancelled because the car had broken down and we had arrived after dark. I wasn’t sure if I could remember the place, but it was the right one.
There was an old man sitting on the stoep, and we gave him a copy, but he did not seem terribly keen on it. The women, however, seemed quite interested. They said they knew of Peter Brown and Mike Ndlovu, but they had been told that if they ever had anything to do with that lot, they would be arrested. We explained that this was nothing to do with the Liberal Party, but was put out by the churches, and they turned out to be Anglicans, attached to St Chad’s.
Cosmas, who speaks Zulu well, asked them if they would like to take some more copies of the Message to distribute, and the women said they would, but the old man said no, they would just take the ones they had, and show them to selected people. They seemed very timid. We said goodbye and left.
At Elandslaagte we turned off onto a farm road, which went through several gates, which were mostly open at this time of the year, but in summer when the crops are planted they are closed to stop the cattle wandering in the fields. At the end of this road lived a school teacher Cosmas knows, and we went to see her, but she had gone into Ladysmith and would not be back till 2:00.
We went on to St Chad’s, a few miles nearer Ladysmith. The new rector is Arthur Reynolds, and I don’t know him at all, but his wife is supposed to be some sort of relative of mine. There were a number of small children, one being fed by a nanny, and there seemed to be a whole army of servants running the place. Mrs Reynolds came out, a plump and dreamy sort of woman. She did not invite us in to discuss anything, but said her husband might be interested in the Zulu version of the message, and Cosmas said that she might as well take some, seeing they are easier to get rid of than they are to get. She said that the Krafts had moved to Zululand it it had been terrible for them because there had not been a house for them, and they had had to live in two rooms. Cosmas said to me afterwards that that was probably a good thing, since most of their parishioners had to live in two rooms too.
We had promised to meet Mngadi at 3:30, and it was now only 2:00, so we went back to see the school teacher, Margaret Kunene. She was still not back, but we waited and had tea, and she then arrived on the bus. We showed her the Message, and she was quite pleased with it, but she said she found it difficult to understand since the Zulu translation was so bad. But she took a few anyway, and said she would distribute them. She had been a teacher at Ratschitz, but said she was now going to teach at a community school somewhere near Volksrust, and tried to persuade Cosmas to come next weekend to give her a lift there. and eventually he lent her the money for the transfer, reckoning that it would be cheaper than coming to give her a lift.
. We then went back to Ladysmith and through to Roosboom, where we fetched Elliot. He said that he is secretary of his church, the Christian Catholic Church, and he might be in a position to get them to accept the Message. We drove first of all to Acton Homes, to see old man Mbele, who was out drinking beer with a neighbour, but came running when he saw us, and was overjoyed to have visitors. We went inside out of the wind, which was blowing very strongly, and sat down to discuss the Message. Elliot explained it to him, and then he read a bit, and he was overjoyed by that too, and said it was just the thing he had been waiting for.
Elliot went on explaining but old man Mbele sat there with a faraway look in his eyes, not taking anything in, but busily planning how he would distribute it, and the meetings he would call. Elliot explained that we were not reviving the Liberal Party, but that the Message came from the churches. Mbele waved his hand impatiently, “I know, I know, we’re just calling it a different name.” He said he would go to the local minister (he and most of the other people in Acton Homes are Methodists). He also said he would distribute it in Hambrook and Green Point as well.
Elliot said it would be unwise to call big meetings, because the SB would suspect that the Liberal Party was reviving. So Mbele said no, he would discuss it with people in small groups, over tea, and read it out and see what could be done. We explained about the “Obedience to God” groups in Johannesburg, and suggested that they might start similar groups here. Mbele was so keen to go out delivering that we felt if we hadn’t been there, he would be off on his bicycle already. So we took a couple of photographs, and saw a couple of his friends, and left.
We went on to Rookdale, where Mike Ndlovu lives, arriving there at sunset. Mike was not yet home from work — he is a foreman at the creamery in Bergville — so we sat waiting for him for a while, and his wife composed tea. At 6:30 he had still not arrived, so we left, but left behind some of the copies of the Message, and Elliot said he would write to him or go to see him to explain what it was all about. We called at the creamery on the way back, but found that Mike had knocked off at 4:30, so I suppose he must have been visiting friends. We took Elliot back and dropped him at Roosboom, and then headed for Maritzburg. [End of diary entry]
We slept that night at the flat of my cousin Jenny Growdon, and talked to John Aitchison, who was till banned, and had been very active in campaigning against the blackspot removals until he was banned in 1965 (John and Jenny were married a few months later). We talked about the possibility of starting a Christian kibbutz or commune. The next morning we tried to see several people in Pietermaritzburg, including Peter Brown, the banned former chairman of the Liberal Party, but all were out. We went to Edendale to see the Anglican priest there, Fr Richard Masemola.
More diary extracts, Wednesday 2 October 1968
We went out to Edendale to see Fr Masemola; he wasn’t in, but his wife was, and she gave us some lemon squash. We left her some copies of the Message, and she said she would give one to Mr Rakabe, who is one of their parish representatives to Synod. She spoke of her children, one of whom has just finished matric and is hoping to go to Cambridge. She said her mother had been moved to Limehill, and is living there in a tent.
We left and called on Selby Msimang, but he too was out. We left some copies of the Message there for him, and went on our way. It was now quite cool, having got overcast. The road down the Umkomaas Valley had altered out of all recognition. It has been replaced by an altogether new road, cutting out all the bends and ups and downs. Rather sad in a way — the old one was more fun to drive along. The other side of the river was still as it had been, however, with the road winding steeply up the hill.
When we reached Bulwer it was about midday, and we stopped for petrol and had lunch at the hotel and a couple of beers also. Quite pleasant, really. We went on, and beyond Bulwer found the road had been widened. At the Pevensey turn off we came across a woman wearing the uniform of Mnguni’s church, and stopped to see if we could give her a lift, but she was going the other way. We gave her a copy of the Message, and she said that she couldn’t read, but would get someone to read it for her. She also said she knew and remembered me.
We went on to Swamp, the little village near Pevensey, and there called on Mrs Keswa, who had been a leader of the Liberal Party around there. We first saw the old granny, who went off to call her daughter Emily. They were Anglicans. We gave them copies of the Message and explained it to them. The young Mrs Keswa said she had been kicked out of the church, because she had started practising as an isangoma, which is why she now goes around with no shoes on. She had always had these powers, she said, but now her grandfather and grandmother (who are both dead) have told her to use them, and she even helps white people. And even though she had been kicked out of the church, she still believed, and they seem quite willing to distribute the Message. and call meetings to discuss it.
Then we left and went on to Mnguni’s place. At first I didn’t recognise it, and thought that perhaps they had been moved, because there was a whole new system of buildings and fences, making his house inaccessible by car, but then we saw Mnguni, making a fence. He was very pleased to see us and came and sat in the car while we explained about the Message, and he too seemed to think it a good thing. We asked about Miya and Duma, and he said Miya was in Lesotho, but he would be seeing Duma on Saturday, and would give it to him then. I gave him the R10.00 that John had given me.
Then we left, and Fr Desmond drove back to Ladysmith via Nottingham Road. We had run out of money by this stage, so at Ladysmith we called in at the friary to get some, and the nuns gave us supper. They are all Franciscans there, like Cosmas himself, and run practically the whole area between Ladysmith and Ermelo. When we were on our way back to Joburg he asked me how serious John and I were about this kibbutz and printing press idea, and I said we were fairly serious about it, and hoped it would come into being some day. He said a number of their order had only come here on the new one-year permits, and they were just now having to apply for renewals, and if they were not granted a number of them might be interested in trying to set up some sort of Christian kibbutz community in some neighbouring country.
The trip back to Joburg was largely routine and a bore. I took over halfway, and drove the rest of the way back home. When I arrived Mum said the SB had been to visit, saying they had a document for me from the Department of the Interior. She was convinced it was a banning order, but I told her the Department of the Interior issues passports, not banning orders, and they probably wanted to confiscate my passport. [end of diary entry]
Though the diary entries are rather long, I’ve included them because I believe that that trip may have helped influenc Cos to become a full-time campaigner against the forced removals. Up till then he had been concerned primarily as a parish priest whose parishioners were being moved, and he saw the conditions in the places that they had been removed to. On the trip he met others who had earlier been involved in the campaign against removals, and who had been banned as a result. Soon afterwards he was given funding to engage in research on the removals, and so he travelled around the country gathering information that was eventually published as The discarded people. And, as a result, he too was banned.
The picture shows a group of Natal Liberals who had been banned, gathered to celebrate the lifting of John Aitchison’s second 5-year banning order. Cos Desmond was the only one who had not actually been a member of the Liberal Party, but he belongs in the picture because he too had taken up the fight against population removals, and he too had been banned as a result.
Part of the subsequent campaign against the removals was based on something said by the then South African Prime Minister, John Vorster, in another context, “You must not try to take a man’s home away from him.” The saying, and Vorster’s picture, were printed on thousands of posters, because of course that was precisely what Vorster’s government had been doing. At the end of that particular campaign, there were a lot of surplus posters, and Cos and Elizabeth Davies took great pleasure in burning them in a bonfire.
While he was travelling around collecting material for his book Cos often stayed with the Davies family in Johannesburg. John Davies was the Anglican chaplain at the University of the Witwatersrand, and his wife Shirley was an active member of the Black Sash, a women’s group that also campaigned for human rights. Their children, Mary, Mark and Elizabeth, also appear with Cos in some of the pictures below.
Cos eventually left the Franciscan order (OFM), and married Alethea (Snoeks) McLagan, and they had three children.But even after leaving the Franciscans, he kept the name he had used in the Order, Cosmas, rather than reverting to his baptismal names, Patrick Anthony.
After his ban was lifted they went to the UK, where Cos took a broader interest in human rights by becoming the director of Amnesty International, which is concerned to care for political prisoners.
He returned to South Africa in the 1990s, when apartheid was ending.
This blog post is partly a kind of “in memoriam” for Cos Desmond, with my most vivid memories of him, but it is also to commemorate those others who were involved in the same stuggle against apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and the forced removals that took place to implement that grotesque ideology — Elliot Mngadi, Enock Mnguni, Mike Ndlovu, John Aitchison, Chris Shabalala, and others.
For more on Cosmas Desmond himself, see the excellent Guardian obituary here.
May his memory be eternal!
Back in the 1960s we did not use the term ethnic cleansing. We used terms such as “resettlement”, “relocation”, “blackspot removals”, “forced removals”. The term ethnic cleansing came into use in English during the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession in the 1990s, but it accurately describes what was going on in South Africa between 1950 and 1990, so I have used it in this article. The definition of ethnic cleansing is “the planned deliberate removal from a specific territory, persons of a particular ethnic group, by force or intimidation, in order to render that area ethnically homogenous.”
The main human rights, or rather violations of them, dealt with in this post are included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
- (1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
- (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.
As for the theology of human rights, I’ve gone into that more generally in my other post on Theology and Human Rights.
But for the theological take on these specific violations of human rights, see the story of Naboth’s vineyard in I Kings 21.
Isaiah 5:8 Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!
Deuteronomy 27:17 Cursed be he that removeth his neighbour’s landmark. And all the people shall say, Amen.
 Neil Alcock was a farmer who started Church Agricultural Projects, the aim of which was to encourage church-owned farms like Maria Ratschitz and St Chad’s to develop into cooperative farms. He married Creina Bond, a former journalist who had written several stories on population removals for the Natal Daily News.
 St Chad’s was an Anglican mission farm, similar to Maria Ratschitz, east of Ladysmith.
 Ann Reynolds was in fact my second cousin, and it was my grandmother who had told me that we were related, though this was the first time I had met her. The Krafts were the Revd Richard Kraft and family, who had been at St Chad’s for nearly five years, before Rich Kraft was asked to be Director of Christian Education in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. He later became Bishop of Pretoria and died in 2001.
 Enock Mnguni belonged to the UkuKhanya Presbedia Church, which had broken away from the Presbyterian Church in Africa. The women wore very distinctive red and green uniforms. It had been founded by Timothy Cekwane in 1910, inspired by visions after seeing Halley’s comet. The leaders and ministers made a great thing of being strictly non-political, which made Mnguni himself something of an anomaly, as chairmman of the local branch of the Liberal Party. The Security Police (SB), knowing this, tried to get the clergy of the church to put pressure on Mnguni to leave the Liberal Party, but they did not succeed. Mnguni did not bow to the pressure, and he was too valuable a member of the church for them to kick him out.
 The SB called back the next day and confiscated my passport.
This post is part of a synchroblog on Theology and human rights. The topic was suggested by Phil Wyman, the originator of the synchroblog concept, but I’ve already said most of what I want to say on the theological basis for human rights in an earlier post here. Links to the other posts in the synchroblog are posted below. If you have a post in the synchroblog, please copy the list , and paste it at the end of your post. The list will be updated if other entries are received.