A special pride

2009-07-24 00:00

TEN years ago today Peter Kerchhoff died. He had been involved in an accident some days earlier. Driving on the N3, he had come across a fire which filled the road with thick smoke. He slowed down, as anyone would, and was hit in the rear. In hospital he seemed to be recovering and his friends visited him. Then suddenly he died of heart failure. His family, although alerted of the emergency, did not reach the hospital in time to say goodbye.

His death caused a shock to many people. He had become a significant figure on the Pietermaritzburg scene. At the funeral service for him, the Anglican Cathedral was filled to capacity by people of all races and from many walks of life. As the founder and co-ordinator — he didn’t like the word “director” — of Pacsa (the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness) he had, together with others, performed many vital tasks, particularly in the crucial years 1980 to 1994, the years in which South Africa was transformed, slowly, painfully and often violently, from a repressive apartheid society to one that is more democratic and considerably less unjust.

Kerchhoff had not always been an anti-apartheid activist. Unlike some of the people whom he worked with — Peter Brown, for example, or John Aitchison, both of whom had earlier been banned for 10 years — Kerchhoff had started off as a fairly “normal” white South African. He had played rugby at university here in Pietermaritzburg, he had qualified in chemistry and become a professional in that field. But, in the early seventies, various promptings and associations led him and his wife, Joan, to feel the intolerable inhumanity of apartheid.

The setting-up of Pacsa was planned by a group of like-minded Christians shortly after Beyers Naude’s Christian Institute had been banned in 1977. Its original aim was to make white Christians aware of the social meaning of their faith. Kerchhoff resigned from his job at Huletts Aluminium and became a full-time worker. He and Joan took a huge salary cut and moved into a smaller house. Pacsa began with some aid from overseas church bodies. But before long, as the situation changed, its challenges changed too. As the government’s repression intensified, the Pacsa office in town became one of the few places where people who had been brutalised by the police or by the “third force” could take refuge and seek assistance and counselling. Kerchhoff and Pacsa were also working on a number of other fronts, for example on forced removals.

The security police didn’t like it at all, and in 1986 he was detained for some months, mainly in solitary confinement. Among the numerous questions put to him repeatedly by the interrogators was this remarkable one: “Why do you think you should get involved with black people? You are a Christian, aren’t you?” They also asked him: “Are you a Christian or a Communist?” but this was a question that was also asked by many conservative white Christians.

What was Kerchhoff like? He was a wonderfully warm, cheerful and outgoing person. There was often a smile on his face. He loved people, and people loved him. It was because of his belief that all people are important and equal in God’s eyes that he was able to work so hard and vigorously for the coming of a new dispensation. Behind his warm disposition there was a profound faith, trust and optimism. He did not look for material reward for the work he did.

The great changes of the early nineties meant that Pacsa, like many other NGOs, had to rethink its position. Was the great task completed? No, it wasn’t, and led by Kerchhoff, Pacsa, a rather bigger organisation now, focused on the challenges that remained: issues particularly of poverty, economic justice, education and the empowerment of the marginalised. Kerchhoff’s dedication and imaginativeness went forward unabated.

His death came shortly after Pacsa had celebrated its 20th anniversary. He would have wanted its work to carry on, and it has. With its agenda further enriched and expanded, it is about to celebrate its 30th anniversary.

When a sub-committee of the Msunduzi Municipality came to consider the renaming of certain streets, Peter Kerchhoff’s name was an obvious choice. He is one of those very special people of whom this city can feel deeply proud.

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