There’s nothing out of the ordinary happening outside the Diakonia Centre. I’m soaked in sweat, despite shorts and flip-flops.
The wall of humidity in the air has slowed passers-by down, but they’re on the move. There are four whoonga-heads wobbling towards Albert Park for a fix, a few hundred metres south along Diakonia Street past the Metro Police base.
There are two pupils from the Durban music school trying to make it past them with their instruments. A few residents of the mass of high-rise flats along Diakonia Street have braved the heat and moved downstairs for air. At the gate, a few clients of the centre are waiting for assistance from one of the many human rights organisations Diakonia has housed since it was opened as the Ecumenical Centre in 1983.
It’s a beautiful old red-brick building, physically and spiritually, a caring place that’s existed in the middle of Durban’s inner city forever. Since the Ecumenical Centre Trust took over, the place has been synonymous with social justice, activism and human rights.
From the street, which runs parallel to Margaret Mncadi Avenue and the Durban Yacht Mole, Diakonia, as it has been known since day one, looks like a school. It started off as one — Convent High School — in 1914 and later housed the St Joseph’s Primary School for a decade from 1962 before the Ecumenical Centre Trust took over in 1983.
After the centre opened, it became the home of a number of anti-apartheid and human rights organisations, alternative media organisations, a resource centre and the Legal Resources Centre.
Affiliates of the United Democratic Front operated out of the office space at Diakonia, and the hall served as a venue for countless protest meetings, anti-death-penalty rallies, campaign launches and the like.
Survivors of attacks by Inkatha hit squads came there for legal assistance and a safe place to sleep; so did the families of political detainees desperate to find out what had happened to their loved ones.
It’s also where the late Njengabantu Sithole famously clouted Captain Hunter of the Security Branch with a brick — giving the comrades that Hunter was after time to flee —and taking a serious beating and a lengthy spell in detention for his efforts.
Diakonia was a special place where followers of Karl Marx and Jesus Christ were equally welcome and comfortable, along with those who followed neither but shared their belief in social justice.
It still is.
I’ve made a small detour on my way to the high court, literally around the corner, on another unsuccessful mission to get former president Jacob Zuma’s affidavit, to pay my respects to Paddy Kearney.
Kearney, the founding director of Diakonia and the centre, died last Friday at the age of 76. He was a special man.
Kearney, like his mentor Archbishop Denis Hurley, was responsible for making Diakonia happen, for ensuring that it survived and that it kept its doors open to the victims of apartheid. This place was a huge part of Kearney’s life, so saying goodbye here makes perfect sense.
I first met Kearney in about 1986 when he was running the centre. I was attending a briefing by a support group for the families of political detainees. Kearney was talking on behalf of the Diakonia Council, a soft-spoken, precise man who described the ordeal detainees were going through with candour, without raising his voice, but with great intensity.
Afterwards he was particularly open and helpful, and gave me his time — a sincere man with no desire to promote himself.
Over the years we became friends, my obvious lack of religious belief and reputation for antisocial behaviour no obstacle to Kearney, whose friendship I and countless others are better off for having experienced.
Kearney had this gentle, almost fragile physical aura about him, but he was an incredibly strong and brave human being. He was a spiritual, almost holy guy, but with no-holier-than-thou side, no judgment or pettiness about him.
He was a kind person who showed no bitterness, despite what he saw and his own detention in terms of section 29 of the Internal Security Act. He was a devout Christian and Catholic whose sense of belief allowed him to accept and respect those of other people, rather than be threatened by them. He also believed that actions spoke and that failure to act in the face of injustice was not an option.
I last saw Kearney about a month ago at the Spar.
As zen as ever, he stopped for a quick chat before going about his business.
Perhaps two words best describe Kearney.