The organisation for all the people
There was a time when anyone in Durban suffering as a result of the actions of the apartheid government would be told: “Go to Diakonia: they’ll help you.” And help would be found.
At about the same time, those who supported the apartheid government, or who belonged to organisations opposed to the United Democratic Front (UDF) or the African National Congress (ANC) (banned at the time) would describe Diakonia as a terrorist organisation. Rumours went around that bombs were made at Diakonia in St Andrew’s Street, (now Diakonia Avenue).
Luckily for those who worked at Diakonia or who supported their aims, life was far too busy to worry about either of these extremes of opinion. There was work to do, lots of it, and one just had to get on and do it.
How Diakonia started
In the 1970s the late Archbishop Denis Hurley shared his vision of an ecumenical organisation to work for justice in the Greater Durban Area. He was motivated by his 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? He wanted 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.
It was a dream that the church would become more than a pious club for the middle-class and return to its roots as a radical organisation with its focus on those at the bottom of the pile - the ordinary workers, rural peasants, unemployed, homeless - what came to be called the “anawim’ or “little people” of the world.
So 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. The time was March 1976 and the person was Paddy Kearney, who continued to serve Diakonia until 2004.
A radical way of working
The main task of Diakonia has always been to help people in the churches to get involved in issues of injustice and human rights violation.
When people are suffering, the churches often respond well to the immediate need - many local churches run soup kitchens, collect blankets in winter, pack food parcels for the poor and those affected by HIV/AIDS.
But the challenge of Diakonia is deeper. It has tried to help people in the churches think through to the root causes of the problems that so many suffer. It has required that the question “Why?” be asked, if necessary over and over again. And it has helped the churches to really link their actions with the faith they proclaim Sunday by Sunday.
The struggle against apartheid
In the 70s and 80s the root cause of most problems in South Africa was the apartheid system based on previous racist, unjust socio-economic systems inherited from colonial times.
So Diakonia became involved, for example, in supporting those struggling with housing issues and the threat of forced removals. Its staff worked with other allies supporting the right of the people of Clairwood not to be moved, by publishing an illustrated pamphlet describing the situation and encouraging churches to offer support to what was a successful effort to stay. Churches in the Pinetown region became involved in protest again the forced removal of people from St Wendolin’s, starting a petition for church people to sign, holding services, and taking part in the marches and meetings that culminated in the threat of removal being lifted.
Social Action Groups were a way of people at a local level in the church organising themselves to work locally on the problems of their own area. Training in setting up and effectively running Social Action Groups was a key method used by Diakonia as the struggle intensified in the 80s.
“Black” church groups became involved, for example, in supporting the emerging trade unions in their struggles for a living wage, or raising awareness about the need for an efficient, affordable transport system for people removed far from their workplaces. “White” groups became involved in the End Conscription Campaign, trying to end the forced fighting of young white men against their own fellow South Africans, or campaigned for a “No” vote in the white election for a tri-cameral parliament.
Groups set up in what were then “black” areas met from time to time with those set up in “white” areas to work out joint strategies for action. And across the divided race groups Diakonia mobilised support for those held in detention without trial and organised church services protesting against those killed in detention.
Inevitably this work attracted the close attention of the security forces. Diakonia offices were raided several times, three Diakonia staff and several Council members and close supporters were themselves detained. Staff got used to having their phones tapped and being followed. It became part of the price to be paid for working for justice.
Moving towards democracy
As the 80s drew to a close it became clear that the end of apartheid was inevitable. Diakonia started thinking more concretely about the shape of the future. A key conference was held at Botha’s Hill in 1989 that laid the foundation for the work on democracy that Diakonia has been doing ever since.
But as this happened, violence in this province was escalating. Internecine fighting, with the security forces involved, was taking a terrible toll. Over the years of what came to be known as the ‘Natal violence’ thousands of people were killed and tens of thousands driven from their destroyed homes. The churches, encouraged by Diakonia, became deeply involved in monitoring and in endeavours to bring people together for efforts at reconciliation and peacemaking.
By the time of the dawn of democracy and the first free election in 1994, Diakonia, its members churches and its ecumenical allies had organised the training of thousands of people in voting procedures and basic understandings of democracy. Diakonia had also successfully motivated for the signing of a Code of Conduct for the elections between all political parties, which has subsequently been organised at every election held since then.
The new South Africa
The nearly twelve years since April 1994 have seen Diakonia continue to get the Durban churches involved in the issues that affect those at the bottom of the pile.
In spite of the efforts and achievements of the first democratic government, the backlog of people living in poverty has remained huge. The growing wealth of the country is largely held in the hands of a “rainbow” elite, while the “rainbow” middle-class struggles with debt and with an expectation that it must join in the trend to “shop till you drop”.
Diakonia’s work has increasingly been focussed on poverty, and helping church people to understand the global policies that are making it so difficult for the government to successfully help people get out of the poverty trap.
At the same time, the environment has become a major concern. Diakonia set up a programme to help the churches to act to correct key environmental problems, while at the same time asking the question “Why” and discussing how to take action on the underlying causes.
The pandemic of HIV and AIDS which overshadows all developments in South Africa continues to be a major concern of Diakonia and its member churches. Persistence with awareness-raising campaigns has resulted in almost all churches now being able to discuss the issue, and many local congregations have excellent programmes and projects getting their people involved in various ways. Efforts have deepened to include campaigns for the right to access to anti-retrovirals. The work goes on.
Work on reconciliation between people having difficulty coming to terms with South Africa’s wide diversity has continued and will, it seems, be needed for many years to come.
South African is a country with many traumatised people. The years of apartheid, the fighting and violence in which so many people living in KwaZulu-Natal were involved, the high levels of domestic violence and other crime, as well as the effects of HIV and AIDS, have left many with little capacity or strength to empower themselves to live meaningful lives. Diakonia’s Stress & Trauma Healing training has been running for several years and will continue to address these needs.
NEVER AGAIN WILL HUMAN RIGHTS BE FORGOTTEN
From Sunday 19 to Saturday 25 March 2006, the Diakonia Council of Churches marked its 30th Anniversary.
This great week of celebrations was a significant milestone to look back at our history but also to build relationships for the vibrant future that lies ahead. More importantly, a significant moment to look at the present and at what needs doing to take us into a future which assures that human rights are available to everyone in a good society.
Essentially, the 30th Anniversary celebrations looked back in gratitude for the fundamental changes that have happened in our country, and more importantly looked forward in hope to continue to work for justice, equity and reconciliation. A week-long series of events was organised on each day of the week catering for a wide range of people from all walks of life.
To mark our 30th Anniversary, a week of celebrations was enjoyed in March 2006 commencing with a Thanksgiving Service in the afternoon of Sunday 19th March.
A series of events attracted different sectors of church and community. such as a film festival and art exhibition with a focus on human rights; a celebration of 21st March as National Human Rights Day with music and programmes for children and young people at the Diakonia Centre; and the renaming of St Andrew’s Street to Diakonia Avenue.
Our key programmes of economic and environmental justice were highlighted through the launch of “The Oikos Journey”, a significant challenge to church and society on the issue of the economy. Other focus areas included the basic human right to water, as part of National Water Week and World Water Day on 22nd March.
The week culminated in a Gala Dinner on the evening of Saturday 25th March, when significant figures in both the history of Diakonia and the leadership of both church and state gathered to celebrate and commit to working for justice and human rights for all.