Obituary: John Rees
Thursday 20 October 1994
BLACK townships in South Africa used to be known as 'locations'. It was an appropriate word for the dehumanising, run-down ghettos created on the edge of the well-off cities and villages for whites. The officials in charge of location - the superintendents - were, of course, white and they exercised huge power over the lives of the black people in their charge.
John Rees was the superintendent of Mofolo, in Soweto, when I first met him in the late Fifties. I was a reporter with the Rand Daily Mail and I was puzzled by him because he was unlike any of the other location superintendents I encountered as I moved around Soweto. The ones I brushed up against were arrogant and unfeeling in dealing with black people. Rees was discernibly different. He was also unusual as an English-speaker among the Afrikaner official class.
He did not take to me. What he did share with other superintendents was dislike of an eager young reporter prying around his bureaucratic patch and stirring things up. Our ways parted.
Years later I noticed that 'John Rees' had become general secretary of the South African Council of Churches. It could not be the same man. I thought location superintendents were incapable of making such a leap in life.
Finally I met the general secretary, and yes, it was the same John Rees. And as I came to realise, as our contact and friendship increased over the years, it was his devout Methodism and his belief in applying his religious beliefs in his everyday life that had taken him into working as a superintendent.
Rees had been with the Council of Churches for six years when, on 16 June 1976, the police opened fire on protesting schoolchildren in Soweto. As history has shown, the bullet that felled young Hector Peterson was the beginning of the end for apartheid. But at the time, many thousands of people suffered as the government tried to quell the brave resistance which burst out.
Rees threw himself into helping the victims. He took the lead in raising millions of rands from abroad for the specially created Asingeni Relief Fund. He ensured that there was financial aid for the families of people shot or detained, and that those detained or charged had proper legal representation.
The government was extremely angry about his activity in giving aid and comfort to the 'enemy' and Rees had no illusions about the risks he was taking. There was even more reason for him to be anxious because he was also using his discretionary control of funds to channel money to people who were defying apartheid laws - such as passing cash to Steve Biko (who, two years later, was to die at the hands of the police) so that he could break his banning orders and travel around the country for his political work.
Rees was undeterred. He simply accepted that one day he might be called to account for the money he had secretly disbursed and, as he often said to me, he would not be able to disclose the details. It happened exactly like that: the government went for him - it seemed to be part of a general onslaught on the churches - and he was charged with fraud.
Judge Richard Goldstone - who went on to expose those responsible for violence in South Africa and who is now the international prosecutor investigating war crimes in the former Yugoslavia - presided over the trial and on the evidence available to him handed down a guilty verdict in 1983; 11 years later, in a fitting tribute as apartheid died, Judge Goldstone appointed Rees to his commission on children and violence in South Africa.
The publicity surrounding the fraud trial obscured Rees's other far-sighted and singular activities of the time. During his six years with the Council of Churches, in 1970-76, he pushed for the appointment of black people to leading positions in the organisation and finally quit his job to open the way for Desmond Tutu to become general secretary.
Later, when appointed director of the South African Institute of Race Relations, he revolutionised the traditional liberal body, changing its focus from pure research into the country's racial affairs to community participation. Out of this grew Operation Hunger, which has brought relief to countless hungry and starving.
Rees and I teamed up, during the late 1970s, for a project whose name, The Search for Alternatives in South Africa, described its ambitious aims. It was ahead of its time and it failed, but there is still a story to be told about its success in linking an amazingly wide spectrum of South Africans willing to enter into discussions with each other.
When Rees's trial ended, friends arranged for him to become director of Johannesburg's Avril Elizabeth Home for the mentally handicapped. It hardly seemed a suitable match for his vision and energy; but Rees showed himself to be a natural advocate for the handicapped, and he also embarked upon, and brought to fruition, a scheme for a home for black people in Soweto.
The Methodist Church's African Old Age Feeding Scheme was another of the projects he initiated and directed. There was indeed no end to the scope of his activities in a range of organisations which cared for the elderly, the homeless and the victims of violence. He was also concerned that black people should take their rightful place in private business and he was a considerable force behind the scenes in securing breakthroughs.
Even as he fell ill with leukaemia early this year Rees did not halt: one of the most recent schemes in which he was involved was for the building of thousands of low-cost houses to help meet one of South Africa's prime needs.
Non-racism was as natural to Rees as breathing. That, combined with his humanity, courage, enthusiasm and energy, made him a rare being among South Africa's whites. The trust he engendered meant that he had links across the colour line enjoyed by no more than one, or perhaps two, other white South Africans.
It can be said of him, as it can be said of only a few, that he played his part in securing freedom in South Africa with honour and total integrity.
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