Gonville ffrench-Beytagh

Gonville Aubie ffrench-Beytagh was born in 1913 in Shanghai, son of an Irish cotton company executive and a South African mother. (Each part of his improbable name reflects his ancient Irish pedigree.) His parents separated - his father was alcoholic - and he grew up in South Africa. A wild young man, he had a conversion experience in Johannesberg Cathedral and in due course was ordained, in 1939. Serving in a mining town, he became critical of the apartheid regime. After a spell as Dean of Salisbury Cathedral in Rhodesia (1954-64) he returned to South Africa as Dean of Johannesberg and continued to speak out: he called the South African way of life the South African way of death. He was arrested and brutally interrogated in prison, and on 1 November 1971 sentenced to five years imprisonment under the terms of the South African Terrorism Act on charges of 'subversion', after a 3-month trial, and a 5-hour verdict, in Johannesburg's Old Synagogue. As he left the court, blacks and whites sang Onward Christian Soldiers.

The charges were various. Those relating to conduct were dismissed - for instance, he freely admitted distributing $70,000 to political prisoners and their families, but denied that the money had come from the outlawed Defence and Aid Fund of London. He was also charged with possessing African National Congress leaflets. But more complicated - and troubling for other Christians who were speaking out against apartheid at the time, 40 of whom had their churches and offices raided during the trial - were the charges related to what he had said, rather than what he had done. One of his altar servers, Kenneth Jordaan, was a key witness against him, claiming that he had urged him to join the security police to monitor government tactics. It was alleged that the dean had incited Jordaan to violence and had told the Black Sash, a liberal women's group, that bloody revolution is justified under certain circumstances. ffrench-Beytagh said that, far from advocating violence, he had warned that the present racial system would result in violence if it were not changed. Apartheid, he insisted, is "heresy - and damnable heresy."

His conviction caused shock around the world. A United Nations report condemned it: all its member states opposed the policy of apartheid as a criminal affront against the conscience and dignity of mankind. The Dean had sought to provide humanitarian assistance to its opponents.

Because Trevor Huddleston, another campaigner against apartheid, was the Bishop of Stepney at the time, many parishes in East London, including ours, had been supporting and praying for ffrench-Beytagh. That is how we come to have in our files [right] a duplicated letter, with handwritten additions, which he wrote shortly after his conviction, when he had been released on bail of $14,000 pending an appeal. It is a poignant document. Although he describes himself as fit and well, he was suffering from a weak heart and hypertension, and had said elsewhere that if the appeal failed I won't come out alive, you know. So he was using his time to say farewell to friends.

In the event, he was expelled from South Africa and came to England, where he continued to campaign for an end to apartheid; he died in 1991. Here is the entry from African Saints: Saints, Martyrs and Holy People from the Continent of Africa (Continuum 2002), which describes his conversion experience and also his practice of 'spiritual communion' in his prison cell.

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