/ 23 February 2020

Bishop Emeritus Rubin Phillip: The guerilla priest

Rubin Philip (1)
Bishop Rubin Phillip, theologian, anti-apartheid activist and a close friend of Steve Biko. (Photograph by Mlungisi Mbele/New Frame)

One balmy Sunday night in Durban in 1970, Steve Biko and Rubin Phillip went to the beach. Along with other student activists, they had spent the early evening debating politics. Biko’s contribution had been to surgically dismantle the liberal traps that lurked on the opinion pages of the Sunday papers. It was time to let off some steam.

“We drove into town and got some bunnies and drove to the beachfront, opposite the hotels,” recalls Phillip, who was a theology student at the time. Later he became the first Anglican priest of Indian descent to become Bishop of Natal — and one of the city’s most unswervingly pro-poor community activists. 

“We kind of knew we shouldn’t have been there because it was a white beach,” he says. “So we sat close to the road, on the pavement just behind the wall. And we had our bunnies and a couple of beers, and then some cops came along and swore at us and said, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’

“And Steve stood up and said, ‘Now, sir, you’ve got this wrong,’ as only Steve could have said it. ‘Do you know the name of that sea?’ he asked, pointing to the waves. I was a bit puzzled. ‘It’s the Indian Ocean,’ he said.

“So Steve points at me and says, ‘Ja it is, and you see this guy over here — he has given us permission to be on this beach!’ The cops were furious. But they just swore at us and stalked off.”

Phillip tells me this anecdote with unalloyed delight. He is talking me back into the early 1970s from a tiny admin room at St Aidan’s Anglican Church in Greyville, Durban. The church secretary has supplied a pot of tea and a bag of samoosas.

It took me a while to convince Phillip to agree to an interview; he is a quiet timer who lives and works below the media radar. But he’s not as soft as his benign vibe suggests. As you’d expect of any close comrade of Biko, he doesn’t flinch in the face of power — or in the face of a beer on a warm Sunday night.

The hitchhiker’s guide to freedom

Phillip is much more than a close comrade of Biko, of course. In the 44 years that have passed since the black consciousness leader’s murder, Phillip has been one of the bravest voices of pro-poor conscience within the edifice of mainstream South African Christianity — both during the Biblically manichean struggles of the 1980s and then in the far more complex moral thickets of the democratic era.

But Phillip sees Biko as increasingly significant to South Africa’s political moment — first, because of the resurgence of Biko’s intellectual legacy, and second, because that resurgence has been marred by what he sees as a crudely essentialist mutation of black consciousness, most obviously in the rhetoric of Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters.

Biko’s vision of liberation was broad, argues Phillip: it held that white oppressors also needed mental liberation, and that blackness was measured by racial subjugation, not by the texture of your hair or the continent on which your grandparents were born.

That ideological breadth was underpinned by a radically open political style, a willingness to debate, if not to compromise, with one’s enemy. Exhibit B is another of Phillip’s stories about Biko circa 1970. Soon after Phillip was elected deputy president of the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) and Biko president, Biko asked Phillip to join him on a drive from Durban to Pretoria, where he would meet some activists in Mamelodi.

“It gave us time to talk, and we shared the driving in his Toyota. At one point on the N2, I was driving at the time, and he said to me: ‘Look, there are some army hitchhikers there, let’s pull over and give them a lift.’ And I said ‘No, come on!’ He said: ‘We need to talk to these chaps.’

“So reluctantly I stopped, and they got in the back. And I think they were very sorry that they did. Steve really grilled them. Eventually, about two hours later, they asked to get out. Steve said: ‘But this is not where you wanted to go.’ And they said ‘No, it’s fine, we’ll get out here. We’ll be okay here, we’re going to see somebody!’ 

“Steve was at heart an extremely kind person, who was genuinely interested in other people and wanted to know what they thought. So he said to them, in Afrikaans: ‘It’s nice we could give you guys a lift. But why are you in the army? [This was before the introduction of conscription for young white men.] You guys are killing us black people. Killing our mothers and our children.’ So they felt a bit uncomfortable. I really felt sorry for them. He wasn’t nasty to them, but they were in an awkward position. They responded in very short sentences. They were out of their depth, and I bet it got them thinking, but we’ll never know. And that wasn’t unusual.”

When Biko wasn’t challenging Phillip intellectually, he was physically tackling him — on the rugby field. They both played at No. 8 in the University of Natal Medical School (black section) league — on opposing sides, much to Philip’s dismay. “Steve took a fancy to really bashing me on the field. And I said to him one day, ‘Is this personal?’ And he said ‘No! I just love it!’ Bastard!”

“So I said to the ref, if I’m going to play rugby, I need to be on the same side as Biko. And Biko objected strenuously, but I insisted.”

A waiter’s son

For Phillip, hard knocks of the metaphorical kind were nothing new; his route to St Peter’s Theological College was a rough one. “I grew up in Clairwood. For many years, we were in abject poverty. My father was a waiter and later he tried his hand at business, opening a little restaurant, which was a dismal failure — he was far too generous. He would just give away things, even if we needed them.

“He was a very gentle person, who never lifted a finger against us. We were a largish family — six of us — but we had very kind, very generous parents. And they had a real consciousness of what was going on at the time in the country. That wasn’t always the case among most Indian people, who tended to close ranks against black, as in African, folk — and to some degree that still happens, I think. Part of that has to do with Indians being such a minority group, being protective of their culture and ideas and race.

“My mother was baptised Catholic but later became Anglican, and my father said we were all crazy to be religious. He said to us: ‘I’m an atheist and that’s how it’s always going to be.’ And we said, ‘Yeah, sure, dad. That’s fine.’”

Phillip went to Clairwood High School, and during his school years became involved in Anglican church social action programmes, which hooked him on the potential of the church to change lives. “At home, my experience of poverty was simply an emotional thing. I remember going to school with my pants torn and feeling very embarrassed by it. Making sure to lengthen my tie to cover the tears. I would say to my mom, ‘Why do we have to live like this?’”

At the seminary, Phillip made his first real friendships outside the Indian community, mainly with African classmates at St Peter’s, several of whom later became struggle leaders. “I met Stanley Ntwasa from Kimberley, who was a great social activist, and he was beaten up by the police on so many occasions. Also Drake Tshenkeng and a whole bunch of people who had come from places of abject poverty and suffered at the hands of the security police.

“Ntwasa was a legend: a tall, awkward guy who drank too much and smoked too much and everything else. But he had the best political brain I’d ever known, and he taught me so much about connecting theology and poverty, theology and the struggle. At first we asked the question: ‘Surely this is a white thing? What are we doing here in the first place? It’s a white God who has brought the Afrikaners to this country and certainly they saw it as a divine mandate to come here.’”

Enter Biko, stage left. He helped establish a SASO branch at St Peter’s, and saw the church as a problematic ally of the black consciousness project.

“Biko was an Anglican, having grown up in an Anglican family,” says Phillip. “He went to church occasionally, he wasn’t ‘anti’, but he wasn’t wildly ‘pro’. He was hugely critical of the church and rightly so, because of its detachment from the pain and oppression of South Africa, and because its entire theology was lacking in any kind of liberation aspect.

“But he was able to see the connection — or lack of connection, at the time — between faith and our liberation. He played a very critical role in meeting with church leaders, who tended to follow rather than lead when it came to the struggle. In many ways, he saw the church as a Western invention to dull our minds, but he also understood that it was where black people drew their inspiration and strength. That was Steve. He was sharp enough not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but to say ‘What’s good in this?’”

“For example, having broken away from Nusas [National Union of South African Students], he would still maintain a very good and healthy relationship with Nusas. There would be meetings with them.”

Shades of liberation

The art of retaining babies and removing bathwater — of managing paradox and contradiction — would also come in handy for Phillip on his intellectual journey. In his student days, he had devoured Frantz Fanon and then the key texts of black theology by African-American thinkers such as James Cone, which sought to reinterpret Christianity as an intellectual and emotional force for black liberation.

But by the time he did his Master’s degree in New York in the early 1980s, his research was leading him onward and southward to South America. The Peruvian Dominican priest Gustavo Gutierrez and the Brazilian philosopher Paolo Freire both introduced a Marxian lens to Phillip’s understanding of Jesus Christ as liberator.

He did his Masters at the Union Theological Seminary, affiliated to Columbia University — and his teachers included Cone and Cornel West.

“I was particularly interested in working with Cone, because of the very sound relationship he had with the Latin American liberation theologians. They really complemented each other. That was my problem with black theology – that it just focused on race alone. Of course that had relevance here in South Africa, because the problem was essentially a race one here. But the Latin American liberation theologians, like Gustavo Gutiérrez, were saying ‘What about class?’”

Later, Phillip attended a meeting organised by the World Council of Churches in Geneva, “Where I met Paulo Freire. He just sat and listened. It was very disarming. He just listened to what was happening in South Africa. He didn’t jump to articulate his point of view.” Listening, of course, was the organising principle of Freire’s ideology.

After Biko

The news of Biko’s murder in 1977 left Phillip too distraught to attend the funeral. Afterwards, he went to mourn with the Biko family in Ginsburg. There he also supported his fellow priest-activist Malusi Mpumlwana — who later became general secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC). Mpumlwana was under house arrest and severely stressed. “In order to preserve his sanity, he had built a makeshift chapel. Religion has its uses.”

The security police showed up at Mpumlwana’s house while he was there. “‘What are you doing here?’ they asked. I said I was a priest, and I was giving communion. I wanted to put up a fight. I’d come all the way from Durban. And I wanted to spend some time with Malusi.

“The cops said if you don’t leave now, we are going to lock you up. Malusi said: ‘They’re crazy, Rubin, I think you should go.’ And then they followed me all the way to the East London airport. I think they wanted to knock me off. I’ve never driven so fast in my life.”

At another point, Phillip was himself banned and sentenced to house arrest. As the 1980s wore on, he was at the forefront of the SACC’s move to the frontline of the internal struggle, driving its programme devoted to supporting families of political prisoners. “We provided basic pastoral care.”

Phillip has always been a street-level priest — a guerrilla of pacifist struggle. His work terrain is shacks and hospitals and cemeteries, giving direct support to those tormented and bereaved by apartheid tyranny or its post-democracy mutations. Nowadays, he is a staunch ally of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack-dwellers’ movement that emerged from the Kennedy Road settlement in 2005. Phillip still attends funerals of the movement’s members, driving deep into the shacklands of KwaZulu-Natal, alone in his skorokoro.

Collars and courtrooms

But Phillip is not too humble to deploy the public gravitas of his bishop’s collar. In 2009, Abahlali won a pivotal Constitutional Court victory, blocking the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government’s attempt to help landowners evict shack dwellers with the Slums Act — and Phillip provided vocal and visible solidarity. “It was one of the few times I got really drunk that day, celebrating that victory. It was the seemingly powerless, standing up, and fighting for their freedom and winning. It was a major turning point. I marched with them, and I sat in the court, wearing my collar.”

A year earlier, in 2008, when a shipload of Chinese-made arms bound for Zimbabwe docked at Durban harbour, Phillip was alerted by an official of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu). The workers wanted to refuse to offload the arms onto trucks bound for the Mugabe regime’s military machine. “I phoned Paddy Kearney, a great comrade at the Diakonia Council of Churches, who died recently. They were going to offload the cargo that very afternoon. It was a Friday. We have a meeting on the street, the corner of West Street and Smith Street. We wanted to get a court order, so we phone a lawyer who tells us, there’s no way on Earth that any judge is going to meet with you now. These guys don’t work till five or six on a Friday.” But he said: ‘I’ll try.’ Eventually we were able to persuade a judge to hear us, and she issued an order blocking the offloading.”

It was another big moment: a triumph of defiance by workers of then-president Thabo Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” — a policy stance that closely resembled craven enablement of the Mugabe regime.

Uncertain victories

Phillip has been married to his wife Rosemary, a preschool teacher, for decades. Their family has been scarred by an unfathomable loss: two of their three sons died as young adults. That suffering has served if anything to deepen his commitment to others, and to what he sees as the sanctuary of faith.

He is disturbed by the rising power of predatory pastors selling a cynical brand of “prosperity gospel”. “We need to call out the extreme fundamentalists. When there’s a fire in the room, you can’t be using a glass of water to douse it. We’ve reached that situation.

“We as the church need to rediscover our prophetic role in society. Because government is too preoccupied with its own demons and shortcomings to make any significant change in the building of our society. They are too busy putting out fires to plant fresh seeds.”

Phillip talks regularly to students and schoolchildren about the legacy of Biko. “Fundamentally it is about pride. The level of killing and destruction in our communities are just a sign of lack of self-worth and self-love. And unless and until we as a people affirm who we are, not only in material terms, we cannot win this struggle for genuine independence. We need to reach the point where a man is so proud of himself, so accepting of himself and of the other, that he won’t rape a young woman. She is a sister. The fact you have R10 000 in your pocket is not going to stop you from abusing a 12-year-old. There is an intangible thing in the soul that is lacking.

“I found it hard to write off the EFF. I disagree with a lot of what they stand for. But my sense is that some of BC [black consciousness] principles are there, about pride and achievement. But there is a kind of rotten materialism that runs like a thread through it all. I’m appalled at Malema buying outrageously expensive clothes and so on.”

What’s missing, he argues, is an authentic promise of transcendence. “When I read Cone and Gutierrez, Freire and Fanon, fundamental to their writings is a great sense of hope shining through the words of struggle. Unless we allow hope to saturate our lives and our actions, we are not going to be winners. We become disillusioned. And if you read Biko, it’s there too. The conviction that we will win. That the victory is ours.”

This article was first published by New Frame.