Cosmas Desmond dies at 76

2012-04-04 00:00

THERE were no flowers, no adornments to mark the end of his life, just a simple pine coffin embossed with a small wooden cross.

But that is the way that Cosmas Desmond, former Catholic priest, apartheid activist and author, wanted it, said close friends and family who packed the Nazareth House chapel in Durban’s Ridge Road yesterday for his funeral.

The 76-year-old, who had been an independent and eloquent voice of the homeless and the landless for more than half a century, died of an Alzheimer’s-related condition on Saturday.

Paying tribute to his father, Tim Desmond said his father had always believed that life was not about material things but about championing the rights of those who were marginalised by society.

“He wasn’t always popular and he was far from perfect, but he never wavered in his fight against injustice.”

Desmond said his father had faced his illness with stoicism and good humour.

“Even in sickness he said that his job was to make people laugh.”

Monsignor Paul Nadal conducted the communion service. He praised Desmond for his faith and compassion for “those who were not being cared for, the outcasts and the discarded”.

The former Franciscan priest was known for his outspoken stance against the apartheid regime, which described him as “a nuisance” and an “agitator”. In the 1970s he wrote a book The Discarded People, which described the harsh conditions under which resettled African people existed. The book was outlawed in South Africa. Desmond was placed under house arrest and was given a banning order that was only lifted after four years.

In his later years Desmond became an outspoken critic of the ANC, which he said had been in exile for so long it was willing, in his view, to accept power “at any price”.

“There was no vision spelt out, no political philosophy: it was like candy floss, all sweet and fluffy and lovely with a spurious notion of ‘reconciliation’ between those with nothing and those with everything.”

Desmond was born in London’s notorious gangster area, the East End, and came to South Africa as a Catholic priest to work on a mission station in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

In 1973 he left the priesthood, but remained a practising Catholic. He married and had three children.

In 1977, in the wake of death threats, he and his family left the country and settled in London, where Desmond became the British director of Amnesty International.

He rejected compromise, in all its forms, and said he was willing to suffer the consequences.

He remained outspoken about South Africa and worked for the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa.

He returned to South Africa with his family in 1994 where he became director of children’s rights organisation Children First.

He is survived by his wife, Snoeks, three sons and a grandson.

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