BISHOP RUBIN PHILLIP - ONE OF THE STRUGGLE HEROES WHO WENT BEYOND RELIGIOUS BOUNDARIES FOR FREEDOM IN SOUTH AFRICA
(BISHOP RUBIN PHILLIP IN HIS YOUNGER DAYS WITH ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU)
(BY SUBRY GOVENDER)
In this week’s feature on struggle heroes and heroines, veteran struggle journalist Subry Govender, writes about Bishop Rubin Philip, who retired in December 2015 as head of the Anglican Church in KwaZulu-Natal. He is one of the activists who has made an invaluable contribution to the political and social transformation of South Africa as a progressive leader of the church and a former black consciousness leader. Bishop Philip participated in the struggles without any fanfare and publicity.
(Rubin Philip 's father, Lutchman, mother Ethel and one of his sisters)
“I became politically aware when growing up as a young boy in Clairwood, I began to ask questions about the poor conditions of the people. And later this awareness gained momentum when I came under the influence of black consciousness while studying to be a priest at the Federal Theological College in Alice in the Eastern Cape.”
Rubin Philip (2nd from right) after being first appointed as a priest at the Anglican Church in Wentworth in 1971)
Bishop Rubin Philip, who retired just over a year ago as head of the Anglican Church in KwaZulu-Natal at the age of 69, has been one of the activists and progressive leaders who involved himself fully in the struggles for a free, non-racial and democratic society from an early age.
Born into a working class, Telegu-speaking family in the historical district and close-knit community of Clairwood, south of Durban, in March 1948, Philip started at a young age to question the desperate conditions under which his parents and other families had to survive at that time.
His grand-parents came to the then Natal Colony as indentured labourers from a little village in the then area of the Madras Presidency. The Madras Presidency at that time in the 1860s comprised districts where the people spoke both Tamil and Telegu. After independence in 1947, the Telegu-speaking people became part of the state of Andhra Pradesh.
“My father was a qualified chef and he gave that up and started his own little general hardware business. But that was not a success and it was during that period, as a teenager, I thought about our own situation and why we were struggling so much.
“That got me to ask a number of questions about apartheid, about Indian people in the particular area where we were living. I began to ask why do they have to suffer so much and why they were being denied access to things that white people in particular were receiving,” Philip said in a recent interview.
(BANNING ORDER SERVED ON RUBIN PHILLIP IN 1973)
His political awareness became clearer when in 1969 at the age of 20, he travelled to the town of Alice in the Eastern Cape to study to become a priest at the Federal Theological College, near the Fort Hare University.
“Here, I started to engage people, mainly Africans.
“For the first time I was living with people of all races. I was able to hear their stories first hand, the levels of their own suffering, pain and hardship. Then I started to ask the question what is the relationship between faith, particularly Christianity, and the suffering of black people, including myself.
“And why was it that there was white Christians and black Christians and yet white Christians lived a very advantaged life, whereas the rest of the people were oppressed through policies created by white Christian people, English and Afrikaners. There was a real contradiction there.
“We would spend hours and hours at the Seminary discussing these questions. They were very heated discussions. Then Steve Biko came into our campus and a branch of SASO was formed. I became its first chairperson.
“By being involved and discussing issues, I realised that SASO was going to become a very important part of my life. SASO was answering questions for which I did not have answers before.
(Rubin Philip's colleague in 1972 - Ranwedzi Nengwekhulu)
“At that time Black Theology and Black Power as it was called in the United States started to have its influence on black South Africans, especially people like us who were very radical about the state of things in the country at that time.”
Rubin Philip had a calling to enter the ministry but never for one moment thought that studying at the seminary would change his life for ever.
After he returned home to Durban at the end of 1971, he was appointed a minister at an Anglican Church in Wentworth. Here because of the proximity to the Alan Taylor residential quarters for black medical students, he re-established contact with Steve Biko and also came into contact with people of the calibre of Barney Pityana, Dr Mamphele Ramphele, Harry Ngengkulu, Ben Khoapa, Strini Moodley and Stanley Ngwasa.
His involvement in black consciousness was further strengthened when he was elected vice-president in charge of International Affairs for SASO.
“After my ordination, I continued to be involved in black consciousness movement. I was elected vice-president of the organisation and became involved in matters relating to international affairs. But further more I was involved in what we called Black Theology Project. Again it was an attempt to relate religion to political and social transformation.”
(Rubin Philip's colleague in the 1970s - Nyameko Pityana)While he continued his work to conscientise the people, the apartheid regime at the same time had other plans for him. When he returned from an overseas trip in 1973, the members of the dreaded security police at that time detained him at the then Jan Smuts International Airport (Now Oliver Tambo International) in Johannesburg.
“When I arrived at the airport, my name was called out and I went to this room where I was beaten up by the security police. I was then told by the security police that if I didn’t stop my activities, they would get rid of my family. A few days later I was served with a five-year banning order.”
Although his own banning and restriction order was lifted in 1976, repression was still at its height in the wake of the Soweto uprisings in June of that year and the country-wide student boycotts that followed. Thousands of people were detained around the country, many died mysteriously and affected families were left destitute.
Rubin Philip entered the fray and with the co-operation of several other leaders established the Dependents Conference to assist affected families. He also initiated and became actively involved in the Natal Crisis Fund that was set up to bring relief to the thousands of people who were caught up in the political violence that gripped KwaZulu-Natal in the 1980s.
At the same time he continued with his socio-economic relief work through the Diakonia Council of Churches and numerous other organisations. He had been involved with Diaonia for more than 30 years since the early 1970s and served as its chairperson for more than a decade. During his term at Diakonia, he worked with progressive church leaders of the calibre of Catholic Archbishop Denis Hurley, Manas Buthelezi of the Lutheran Church and Dr Norman Hudson of the Methodist Church. In addition to Diakonia, he worked and led a number of socially-active organisations to promote the human rights of the people.
(Rubin Philip's colleague in the 1970s - Strini Moodley)
(Rubin Philip's colleague Temba Sono in 1972)
Rubin Philip like other comrades breathed a sigh of relief when political negotiations led to the downfall of the apartheid regime in April 1994.
“I recall very clearly the day when for the first time in my life I had to vote. It was a very emotional day. After having filled in my form I was putting it into the box and I held it there for something like a minute and half and then when the voting form dropped to the bottom of the box I felt that for me it was a deeply spiritual experience.
“I was at this time the Dean of the Anglican Cathedral in Pretoria. Something in me became unshackled and I first of all felt a deep spiritual feeling. I felt tremendously elated because it was the first time I had voted.”
Rubin Philip was elected Bishop of the Anglican Church in KwaZulu-Natal in November 1995. He was ordained as the Bishop by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who Reuben Philip had befriended since his early days when studying at the Federal Theological College in Alice in the Eastern Cape.
He was the first religious leader of Indian-origin to be appointed to this position in the Anglican Church in Southern Africa.
He has used this position to continue with his socio-economic work alongside his spiritual duties.
Over the past two decades since the advent of our new democracy in 1994, Rubin Philip has come out in full support of the Abahlali base Mjondolo, which promotes the welfare of informal dwellers. He was critical of the fact that the new South Africa was prepared to spend billions in hosting events such as the 2010 Fifa World Cup but yet was incapable of providing decent housing, water and electricity for homeless people.
(Rubin Phillip as chairperson of Natal Technikon)
This is what he said about this anomaly:
"If we can successfully host a massive event like the World Cup, spending billions, then why can't we provide water, electricity and housing for a handful of shack dwellers.”
He has also been involved in the struggles by the people of Zimbabwe against the oppressive Robert Mugabe rule, leading the Zimbabwe Solidarity Forum. As head of this Solidarity Forum, Bishop Philip successfully lodged an application in the Durban High Court to stop a shipment of arms and ammunition from China being transported from the Durban Harbour to Zimbabwe.
Bishop Philip, who is still the Chairperson of the Zimbabwe Solidarity Forum, recently held talks with some of the Zimbabwe political leaders in Pretoria.
In 2012 when nearly 48 miners were shot dead by South African Police at Marikana, Bishop Philip spoke out strongly against the massacre of the people in our new democratic society.
(RUBIN PHILLIP AT THE RECENT MEMORIAL SERVICE FOR AHMED KATHRADA THAT WAS DISRUPOTED BY ANC YOUTH LEAGUE MEMBERS)
He condemned the Marikana massacre as follows: "And so again, the truth of our country is in dead black bodies littering the ground. The truth of our time is that people asserting their rights and dignity have been brought down in a hail of bullets."
Bishop Philip has also been fully involved in several organisations fighting the HIV-Aids pandemic under the auspices of the Diakonia Council of Churches, and in organisations such as the Independent Projects Trust which is based in Durban.
Bishop Philip has also been involved in inter-faith organisations, promoting secularism, tolerance, solidarity, and peace against all forms of racism and inequalities. In this regard he has worked closely with Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish leaders to promote tolerance and understanding.
Bishop Philip believes South Africa has come a long way from the days of apartheid but there’s still much more work to be done.
“There’s no question that since 1994 there has been much progress been made in the country. However, we have not arrived in the promised land. We are still faced with high unemployment, the abuse of women and children, we are not united as a country, there’s still a lot of prejudice around, we still have a long way to go in terms of developing our people. Political freedom in our constitution has got to work itself out in touching the lives of ordinary South Africans whether they are in Phoenix, Chatsworth, Umlazi, KwaMashu or anywhere else.”
(Rubin Philip attending an anti-corruption protest meeting in Durban)
“We started with our new political dispensation on a high.
“Under Mandela we did very well as a country, we became progressive and we were dealing with many of the issues. I think Mandela’s greatest contribution was that he created a platform for others to come in and build a sound economy and sound political structures.
‘But that’s now vanished over the last 10 years. We first of all lost our moral compass that we used to fight for freedom. We challenged apartheid as an ungodly system that was immoral and inhuman.
“Now to our disbelief we are doing the same.
“We have a huge disregard for ordinary people and the way we show this disregard is by not creating enough jobs and by the corruption at the level of leadership, both in business and politics. We see it in education, which is a fundamental foundation for building a solid and strong South Africa.”
(Rubin Philip - with former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan at a recent meeting.)“I think the other issue we have not tackled seriously is that of race relations. Instead of becoming a stronger non-racial community, there are people within our society who have used race to gain economic benefits and political power. This has divided people along racial lines. The challenge for us is to turn this around because if we don’t resolve the racial discrepancies in our society this thing can explode.”
He said this situation of racism has reared its ugly head despite the enormous amount of work that has been done over the past three decades to promote greater human rights values among the people.
“There are still a number of organisations and individuals who are promoting greater respect among the people. However, given some of the tensions we are seeing at the moment, it is very clear not enough is being done. I think we all have a responsibility to overcome the distrust.
“We cannot point a finger at any one or blame other people. We mustn’t forget our past that apartheid divided us along racial ghettos.
“It’s still there. We don’t have to dig too much. So it requires a bit of humility among all of us, it requires for us to contribute to building the non-racial South Africa that we sacrificed our lives for.”
Bishop Philip was deeply saddened by the corruption and self-interest that have become deeply imbedded in our socio-economic and political situation.
(RUBIN PHILLIP AT THE RECENT MEMORIAl SERVICE FOR AHMED KATHRADA AT SASTRI COLLEGE)
“What I have seen in recent years has deeply affected me. The plundering of the resources and the wealth of this country by a few and the rest of the people are just being offered crumbs. No wonder people resort to violence but we don’t condone this. No wonder people take to the streets increasingly, no wonder people turn on one another. This has a lot to do with economics. And it is not as if we don’t have adequate resources in this country. We are one of the richest countries in Africa. It’s a question of not managing the resources properly and sharing the pie equally and not being corrupt and greedy. Some of us are saying that because we did not have this in the past and now I will take that by any means.”
His tireless work for the socio-economic freedom of people has not gone un-noticed. Only recently he was given an award by a Durban Muslim organisation for his commitment to the socio-economic upliftment of the people. In 2009 he was given the Bremen International Peace Award in Germany for his commitment to the struggles against apartheid and his “ongoing work to offer solidarity to the displaced people, victims of persecutions and detainees”.
In 2010, Bishop Philip was given the Diakonia Award in recoginition of his involvement in the anti-apartheid movement since the 1960s and his advocacy and involvement in the Zimbabwe crisis and to his solidarity with shack dwellers.
Bishop Philip dedicated this award to the shack dwellers and all those who had stood in solidarity with the informal dwellers.
Bishop Philip, who also served as Chairperson of Technikon Natal, was conferred with a honorary degree of Doctor of Technology: Public Administration and Social Services, in 2002 in recognition of his “outstanding service to the local community, his tireless efforts in promoting peace and reconciliation in our country, and his dedicated and invaluable commitment to Technikon Natal”.
SOUTH AFRICAN LIAISON OFFICE
Although he has retired from the ministry, Bishop Philip continues with his human rights work. He is now involved with the South African Liaison Office (SALO), which highlights critical socio-economic-political issues in South Africa. The organisation also works with the Department of Foreign Affairs in promoting the cause of human rights in many countries, including Zimbabwe and South Sudan.
The situation of Tamils in the North and East of Sri Lanka is of concern to Bishop Philip.
“We have been more concerned about human rights violations in our immediate vicinity and on the African continent. We now also have to look at situations like what is happening to the Tamil people in Sri Lanka who have suffered human rights violations for many decades and the massacre in 2009,” he said.
RUBIN PHILLIP WANTS TO VISIT THE LAND OF HIS FOREFATHERS IN INDIA
Bishop Philip in his retirement also wants to set aside some time researching his roots as he has very good memories of his early life growing up in Clairwood, south of Durban.
“Clairwood had a wonderful community, it was vibrant, I loved that. There was a sense of belonging and sharing and it was quite cosmopolitan. There were people of all races who lived in Clairwood.
“Although it was dominated mainly by people of Indian-origin, there were people of all races there, including whites. So that was good.”
Although they were living under poor conditions, he has fond memories of how his father, Lutchman Philip, his mother, Ethel, and two other brothers and four sisters lived with community members in Clairwood.
“We lived in a community that was like one large family. It is something that we miss today. It is a pity that we have today lost this type of neighbourliness.”
All his siblings are around today with one brother living in the Eastern Cape and one still resident in Clairwood. All his sisters live in and around Durban.
He wants to visit the area where his grand-parents came from.
“I know that my grand-parents came from an area which is now in Andhra Pradesh. I want to make a tour to India next year in an attempt to connect with my roots. It would be wonderful to make this connection.” Ends – June 6 2017