Cosmas Desmond: The man who saved the world

When I was a little girl my granddad used to tell me stories about a member of our family who was a hero. He had, my granddad said, travelled to a far away land and fought bad men who did bad things, he had written a book which the people in power didn’t like very much, and had been grounded by the government. I grew up hearing that story, and thinking to myself that when I got bigger I would find this hero, and meet him. I didn’t have much to go on, just a name: It was Cosmas Desmond.

Twenty years later, and with the advent of the Internet I began looking for Cosmas Desmond. It was not an easy undertaking. I was unsure even of the correct spelling of ‘Cosmas’. I had no idea whereabouts he had carried out his heroic deeds, I didn’t really know exactly how we were related, just that we were, and that we had the same surname. In truth, I didn’t even know if he was still alive.

But through my research I also started fleshing out the skeleton of the story my grandfather had told me. I found a website that made reference to a Catholic priest called Cosmas Desmond in South Africa (that must be the far away land, I thought) and I learned that Cosmas had been an outspoken opponent of the apartheid regime, that the book he had written was called The Discarded People. It detailed the creation of the Bantustans, or ‘Homelands’, tiny ‘states’ set aside for black South Africans, which consisted mainly of broken tracts of deserted land.

The ten Homelands were home to 3.5 million black Africans, but accounted for just 13 per cent of South Africa’s land mass, the other 87 per cent was reserved for the white minority. During the course of the National Party’s reign black Africans were forcibly removed from their homes, often at gunpoint, loaded onto trucks and ‘resettled’ in the Bantustans under the Group Areas Act. Their former homes were often bulldozed, or reclaimed as ‘white only’ areas.

Families were ripped apart as fathers and husbands had to travel miles to find work, children often going hungry as nothing would grow on the Bantustan’s barren soil. Many of the most vulnerable perished as they slid further into poverty and squalor, living on isolated land with few natural resources, clean water or medical treatment, self-sufficiency an agricultural impossibility. Pass Laws were introduced to further regulate the movements of the country’s black citizens. The passbook or ‘dom pas’ (‘dumb pass’) was to be carried at all times, and failure to do so could result in arrest.

I discovered that in response to his criticisms of this brutal regime the government had tried to silence Cosmas by placing a banning order on him for five years – an order which restricted his movement, political activities and associations with others. This meant that he was no longer permitted to write, be photographed, or even quoted in the press. He was made to report to the local police station regularly, whilst the government seized his passport, making it impossible for him to leave the country. He was, they said, ‘a communist.’

He was also placed under house arrest – meaning that he lived under curfew, some days was prohibited to leave the house at all, or be in the same room as more than one person. Under constant surveillance by security police, his every move was monitored. The draconian nature of the house arrest conditions made it impossible to attend Mass, so he continually flouted the banning order and went to church anyway, followed, of course, by the security police. The more I read, the more I became fascinated with South African history and politics, devouring everything I could in order to understand better the unique contribution that Cosmas had made.

I learnt about the resistance struggle, of both Mandela’s African National Congress and also other Black Consciousness groups such as Stephen Biko’s Pan African Congress. I learnt that Cosmas had himself stood as a candidate for the PAC in 1994, the only white to do so. I read Donald Woods’ Biko, and watched the film Cry, Freedom and slowly I began to understand what a huge thing Cosmas Desmond had done. And of course I tracked down a copy of Cosmas’s own seminal work, The Discarded People, and read that too.

I began to realise how the small group of missionaries, journalists and teachers who opposed the crushing cruelty taking place before them had fed information out of South Africa. How Cosmas’s book, and the work of others had educated a world often oblivious to what was occurring there. And how in documenting what was taking place, Cosmas had ensured that the atrocities were recorded, and were able not just to affect change at the time, but to stand alone as a historical document in a country notorious for silencing and censoring dissenters.

I learnt that the work he did in highlighting such barbarity was instrumental in the United Nations declaring the apartheid regime as a “crime against humanity”. And I realised how monumentally important his contribution had been, not just to South Africa, but to the world, to humanity itself. I thought about the quote by Irish philosopher Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” And then I thought about Cosmas, born in the East End of London, finding himself on a different continent, a lone priest speaking out against a regime breathtaking in its savagery, speaking out against a government which acted on its murderous intent time and again.

A government that thought nothing of shooting schoolchildren in the back, as they ran away, in the Soweto Uprising in 1976. A government that routinely beat dissenters to death in custody, including (I was to learn later) Cosmas’s friend Steve Biko, who died in 1977.  And it occurred to me that my granddad had been right, Cosmas was a hero, he was a good man that did something, that refused to stand by and watch, that refused to let evil triumph.

And then after many hours and historical references and dead ends I I found an article online that made reference to a Cosmas Desmond in connection with a charity called ChildrenFIRST, and I realised that he was very much alive and living in Durban. After more digging I found a postal address for the charity, and I wrote him a letter, sending it recorded delivery, all the way to South Africa.

I told him about my grandfather in the letter, who also grew up in the East End, I told him my father’s and uncles’ and aunts’ names, and the fact they had moved from Mile End to Hastings sometime after the war. But, my grandfather had died in the eighties so that was all I had. Unsure that I even had the right address, or if I did, that it would ever reach him, I went back to my life, until one day, about 6 weeks later a letter plopped onto my doormat. It had a South African stamp and postmark. It was from Cosmas Desmond.

Cosmas began his letter to me by telling me that when he saw the East Sussex address, and that my name was ‘Desmond’, he knew exactly which branch of the family I was from. He told me that ‘Cosmas’ was the name he had adopted as a Franciscan priest but that he was known in the family as Paddy. And he told me that we weren’t as distantly related as I had imagined, that he was my grandfather’s first cousin and remembered him well, although as is the case in large Catholic families, there was a huge age gap between him and my granddad.

My granddad, he told me, had been in the army when he was a child, but he remembered vividly my grandfather coming to visit them in Stepney when he was on leave from the army. He gave me his email address and asked if I had one. I did, and from that point on Paddy and I got to know each other, forming a friendship that spanned over a decade. The first time I met him was during a visit he’d made to London from South Africa, I was working on Fleet Street and we spent a lunchtime drinking mugs of tea in a cafe on High Holborn. It was one of the best lunchtimes I’ve ever had.

I asked him about his work in South Africa, and whether he knew Steve Biko and Donald Woods, he said that he had known and worked with both of them during the resistance struggle. He explained to me the problems that South Africa faced in the wake of apartheid, that the racial, and spacial, segregation been replaced with a type of economic apartheid, whereby the majority of black Africans were still disadvantaged, and dislocated from the wealthy whites. I asked him about the resentment felt by so many white South Africans about the move towards Affirmative Action, and he said: “Laury, the only thing white South Africans have lost is privilege.”

I was late back to work that day, but I didn’t care a jot, I was just so enthralled to be in Paddy’s company, so in awe of this gentle, softly spoken man, with such a huge, scintillating intellect. I could’ve sat chatting to him for hours, just drinking in his wisdom about a world in which I, so often, understood so little. I asked him that day whether he spoke Afrikaans, he smiled softly and said he did not, but that he did speak Zulu. I didn’t realise the significance of that until years later when inspired by Paddy and my own burgeoning interest in South Africa I travelled to Cape Town to work as a newly qualified journalist.

It was only after I had been living in Africa for a few months that I began to understand the meaning of what paddy had said that day. I saw so many Westerners while I was there, people that had travelled there to ‘save’ Africa – from missionaries to gap year students – and whilst their intentions were almost always well meant, so often they would cause offence amongst the proud African communities they were trying to help.

A Zimbabwean friend of mine explained that oftentimes white people flying in, armed with little or no knowledge of the indigenous cultures and telling them how they should live, and what they should believe, was taken as arrogance in the tight-knit African communities. It was viewed as just another form of colonialism; of the white man imposing his ideas on the black.

And then I remembered what Paddy had said about the African concept of ‘ubunto’ – or kinship – about how he had lived in African areas, amongst African people, and I remembered something he had written for the New Internationalist magazine: “In my innocence or ignorance I really thought I was coming to Africa to convert the heathen hordes,” he wrote. “Instead I found that the jungle was concrete and that the heathens were white.”

And then what he had said that day in High Holborn hit me. Of course Paddy didn’t speak Afrikaans. Afrikaans was the language of the oppressor. Paddy had lived on the Maria Ratschitz mission as well as in other indigenous communities. But unlike so many other Westerners in Africa he did not expect the people he found there to speak English to him, instead he learned to speak their language.

Over the course of the last decade I spoke to Paddy about so much, he told me about leaving the priesthood in 1973, and marrying, and spoke with utter pride and joy about his three beloved sons. I asked him why he left the priesthood once and he said that his political activities had not gone down well with the Church, but that he was still very much a practising Catholic, and was still treated by many of the Franciscans as “one of their own”.

I asked his advice on life choices, sought his wisdom of world politics, picked his brains on family history and also just shared a laugh with him. When Obama became president and the world rejoiced, I asked Paddy what he thought, and he gave me an alternative perspective to the sentimental ‘first black man in the white house’ popular view. He talked about the advisers on economic policy Obama had chosen and said he didn’t think he’d do much for the cause of the Palestinians.

“He shares Bush’s view of the role of the US as the enforcer of their idea of good governance anywhere in the world,” he told me. And it made me seek out alternative information sources than just the popular press. It made me question. When Pope John Paul II died and was replaced by Pope Benedict XVI I again sought Paddy’s opinion about what it would mean for the Church. And he explained to me how many of the Cardinals had been hand-picked by Pope John Paul II, ensuring a traditionalist culture would survive.

As I embarked for Ghana in 2005 Paddy told me about Kwame Nkrumah’s leadership and how it was the fount of Pan-Africanism. So I read more, I wanted to know more. Sometimes it seemed like there was almost nothing that Paddy didn’t know about, a conversation with him was like an education of the best type. He kept me up to date on the work of ChildrenFIRST, a report he had written on child rape and the lobbying for the widespread use of anti-retroviral drugs in pregnant women infected with HIV in South Africa. Sometimes I wondered how on earth he managed to fit it all in, he just never seemed to stop fighting for the underdog. Never stopped championing the rights of the world’s most vulnerable.

But it was not all politics and current affairs, Paddy was also incredibly funny. His razor sharp wit used to make me smile, when the FIFA World Cup hit South Africa in 2010 Paddy told me about the large-scale chaos that was ensuing in Durban. “In a couple of days we are expecting 17,000 Aussies who are going to camp on a cricket ground just down the road from us,” he said wryly. “Doubtless they will remain sober and not cause any disturbance.”

And that was the thing about Paddy, for all his many accomplishments promoting the human rights of others, for his tireless campaigning and defiant refusal to bow down to the most extreme attempts to silence him, for his incredible intellect, searing wit and sense of fun, he was also the most humble man I have ever had the good fortune to know. His humility marked him out, continually playing down a life well lived, spent in service to others, often at great sacrifice to himself.

Paddy told me that he had been promising everyone that he’d write his magnum opus one day, but that he had not yet gotten round to it. I’m not sure if he ever did, knowing Paddy he probably thought his contribution to the world wasn’t important enough, wasn’t worthy of an autobiography of his life’s work. Plus I know he struggled to find the time amongst all his other charitable commitments.

That’s the thing about heroes, they aren’t into self-promotion, there was always more important work to be done, people to be helped, causes to fight for, the last time I spoke to him about it he said he had been inundated with editing for the AIDS Foundation, so his book had been put on the backburner again. But in a way it doesn’t matter, because Paddy’s legacy is all around – particularly for the people of South Africa. His contribution is part of history, and has helped shaped the futures of so many more.

I will miss Paddy more than these paltry words can convey. He wasn’t just my cousin, he was my friend, and I have valued his presence in my life for the last decade. I am so happy that I found him and had the privilege of getting to know him. I wish I had of told him now how proud my granddad (a staunch socialist himself) was of him, how the story of all he had achieved had been passed down through the generations of our family like a prayer. It is not often that you can say that the world is a better place because somebody was in it, but dear Paddy is a courageous exception to this rule.

Patrick Anthony Desmond, 19 November 1935–31 March 2012

© Laury Jeanneret, 2012.



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