Monday book: A true champion of equality

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IF ONE man could be said to be responsible for putting the issue of apartheid on the international agenda, and keeping it there, said Desmond Tutu, that man would be Trevor Huddleston. As we approach the anniversary, and the election, that mark South Africa's first five years of democracy, the problems of its present seem too pressing to allow us to dwell upon the past. There is still 42 per cent unemployment among blacks (compared with just 4 per cent among whites), and 10 million people live in shacks on land they do not own or rent.

Amidst all that, it is easy to forget what has gone by: not perhaps the horrors of torture and assassination revealed before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but certainly those early days in which the Smuts policy of "separate development" grew into a full-scale programme of white supremacy. And yet in some ways, that earlier time, when the hardening of attitudes took place, is the one from which we can most profitably learn.

Trevor Huddleston was there throughout that early period, in which he became the main white spokesman against apartheid. He was an odd figure, a High Anglican cleric, not long out of public school, who brought a deeply prayerful monastic discipline with its seven-fold Benedictine divine office to the midst of an African shanty town. But if his gaunt figure looked out of place parading in full vestments through the dust of Sophiatown, what was more unusual was his everyday behaviour.

Desmond Tutu recalls how, at the age of eight, he was "bowled over" when Fr Huddlestone went by and doffed his hat to Tutu's mother - an unthinkable act for a white man in those days. He was, says Tutu, "the wonderful person that made us blacks realise that whites were not all the same". He made a similar impact on the other young black men he came into contact with, including Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and Hugh Masekela (who got his first trumpet from the monk).

It was a world - with its one tap to 50 families - that politicised him. Why, he began to ask, were white schoolchildren entitled to a free school meal that black children were denied? When 40,000 of his parishioners were evicted and their homes destroyed, he made his first political protest. As the apartheid regime was built - with the Bantu Education Act, Group Areas Act, Population Registration Act, Western Areas removal scheme, and the rest - his protests turned him into a national and international figure.

It was cut short in 1955 by the head of his order, the Community of the Resurrection, which, after 12 years, suddenly ordered him back to England. It brought to an end not just what Huddleston later described as the happiest time of his life, but also the mission which gave it purpose. "I learned everything from Sophiatown. It was one of the most vital places on earth," he later said. Thereafter, the rest of his life he regarded as an exile and a terrible anti-climax, though he struggled on valiantly.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of Robin Denniston's biography. After its vivid beginnings, it generates too great a sense of merely filling in the gaps that followed as Huddleston returned to Mirfield as novice master, then served as a bishop in Tanzania, Stepney and Mauritius. All the time, he played a critical role mobilising international support among politicians, bankers, foreign journalists, the UN and the general public for the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

Denniston offers the odd interesting detail, but in the end casts no real light on key questions, such as why Huddleston was recalled, merely gathering together a variety of opinions. He was thought to have become "too political"; his health was a worry (he had diabetes); he spoke out of turn on ecclesiastical politics over the Church of South India; individuals he championed merely became greater targets for the apartheid authorities; and, most revealingly, the admission by the order's superior over a late- night drink that Huddleston had become too charismatic - "they would have made him king".

But he offers no steer as to his own conclusions. He is equally equivocal on the subject of Huddleston's sexuality, and on the secret work of the defence fund that the bishop chaired. He talks of how a network of unpaid volunteers would receive every two months, by registered mail, cash sums, and instructions to pass them on to certain prisoners' families. But then he says that the details of the operation can never be revealed.

Still, what emerges are desultory glimpses of the paradox that was Huddleston: the compassion and the intolerance, the love and the self-absorption, the anger and the self-pity, and the self-emptying and the vainglory. All of which produced what the South African parliament called, after his death, "one of the greatest champions of freedom and equality the world has ever seen".