Priest with the heart of an activist

2010-08-20 00:00

DAN le Cordeur’s 61 years span some of the most monumental social and political changes southern Africa has known.

Born in colonial Botswana to cattle-farming parents, Dan’s childhood home, Bonnington, is now a suburb of Gaborone. Dan was the last born of five children and the only son of Daniel and Rene. As with most children of farming stock, Dan lived away from home from the time he was six: first, at Mafikeng Convent (1955) and then at St John’s College, Johannesburg (1957). The combination of an institutionalised childhood and tumultuous transition from adolescence to adulthood trying to make sense of a South African national education contributed significantly to Dan’s tendency to smile somewhat benignly at, and then often ignore, convention.

After studying at the University of Cape Town to become a marine engineer (1967), Dan took to the seas and for eight years saw the world from many ships while working for SAF Marine and Israeli shipping companies. He eventually jumped ship long enough to fall in love with Patricia Geoghegan. The bohemian newlyweds took to the road singing Give Peace a Chance and searching for meaning in a world hellbent on war.

Dan and Patricia eventually found steady jobs and established a home in Hout Bay, where James, William and Matthew were born. Dan was increasingly challenged by the invisibility of poverty on his own doorstep and was “Dan” enough to question it. Dan’s spiritual journey was provoked by Ben, a bergie from Hout Bay who asked him to attend church with him.

Increasingly, Dan wanted to contribute to structural change in South Africa, but felt he lacked mandate. In 1986, while Archbishop Desmond Tutu was advocating for sanctions across the world, Dan, Patricia and the boys left Hout Bay to live at Maria­linden Mission Station in rural Transkei in order to work with a development organisation. These were years of spiritual renewal for Dan and Patricia, and they emerged convinced of his calling to the priesthood.

A year after Nelson Mandela was released (1990), Dan, Patricia and the boys moved to the Federal Theological Seminary in Imbali (1991) and then to St Joseph’s Scholasticate in Cedara (1993) where Dan trained for the priesthood.

Dan was selected as a special election monitor assigned to cover rural hot spots like Tugela Ferry that were expected to erupt into violence during South Africa’s first democratic elections (1994).

Bishop Geoff Davies ordained Dan in 1996, and he worked in the uMzimvubu Diocese before moving to St Anne’s Diocesan College (1998) where he was chaplain for five years. During this time he developed strong relationships in Mpophomeni where he helped to develop the Zenzeleni Community Project and became the first chairperson of the Umgeni Aids Centre and then its director (2004) before taking up a position with Pepfar’s Children’s Emergency Relief Institute (2008).

Like many who have contributed to the transitions of the past two decades, Dan felt he was increasingly marginalised by the very institutions that most claimed to champion the voices and rights of the poor. While Dan maintained a lively relationship with local congregations, and especially St Michael’s in Boston and St Patrick’s in Pietermaritzburg, he lamented the loss of the prophetic voice of the community of faith. Dan grew weary of having his opinions categorised, rather than heard.

South Africa doesn’t silence prophetic voices by stoning them. We will hopefully never again detain the outspoken or imprison our Mandelas. Dan’s concern, however, was that in our democracy we so readily put probing voices into passive perspective and that the effect is the same: unholy silence.

In this, his first year of retirement, Dan increasingly looked to spend time in the places where his influence could be more practically felt: Patricia’s Hilton Pharmacy, renovating their home, their family and friends and planning a future together. He had also started a project creating crèches for disadvantaged children in the midlands. It was while Dan was meditating on his future possibilities that his life was cut short, leaving his family and friends bereft ... wanting more.

Dan is survived by his partner, Patricia, and three sons, James, William and Matthew.


• Dan le Cordeur’s funeral will take place tomorrow at 2 pm at the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity, Pietermaritzburg.

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