Archbishop Denis Hurley
(Filed: 17/02/2004)

Archbishop Denis Hurley, the former Roman Catholic Archbishop of Durban who died on Friday aged 88, became an outspoken and implacable opponent of apartheid and injustice in South Africa during the years of white National Party rule, a stand which made him a heroic figure among the forces of black liberation that now govern the country.

The son of an Irish emigrant to South Africa, in 1947 Hurley became the youngest Catholic bishop in the world at the age of 31. As a young man he had been sent to Ireland to enter the Oblate novitiate, and had completed his studies in Rome, where he was ordained seven years later. He was to admit that the racial attitudes he had instinctively developed as a schoolboy in South Africa were demolished when he found many brilliant black fellow scholars and friends during his years in Rome.

Returning to South Africa in 1940, he was assigned to Durban's Emmanuel Cathedral, and was soon involved in work among the Zulu communities throughout Natal. The Afrikaner-dominated National Party which gained power in South Africa in 1948, shortly after his appointment as bishop, was enraged by his sharp criticism of apartheid.

The Vatican appointed Hurley archbishop just five years later (again, he was the youngest man ever to achieve the rank); it appeared to be an acknowledgement of the condemnation of racial discrimination by the Catholic Church. Once elected to be head of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference, Hurley established his credentials as a fighter for racial equality, condemning the policy of apartheid as "inherently evil".

The authorities became increasingly concerned by Hurley's influence among restless black communities. His Emmanuel Cathedral became a focal point for black protesters and the starting point for marches and demonstrations. Hurley himself led many protests.

He began to receive death threats, not only from agents of the government but also, it was suspected, from deeply conservative white members of the Catholic Church. His home was petrol-bombed, and at one stage he was charged and appeared in court in connection with comments he had made about the activities of a covert police unit against local people in northern Namibia. When the case was dropped, it was a tacit acknowledgement of his status within the Roman Catholic Church and the respect he inspired among black leaders.

Hurley later said that he had never harboured any doubts that the apartheid system would collapse: "I could not see how it could last for any great length. In fact, I predicted an earlier ending than actually happened. I could not see how such a totally unjust system could survive."

Contrary to the expectations of his admirers, Hurley was never made a cardinal. But he had not endeared himself to the Vatican by his views on the need for birth control and the right of women to become priests.

Denis Eugene Hurley was born on November 9 1915 in Cape Town. He spent what he called a "wonderful childhood" in some of South Africa's most spectacular and wildest coastal areas, his father being a senior lighthouse keeper. Hurley was later to joke with Nelson Mandela that he had been on Robben Island, the notorious prison in Table Bay, much earlier than South Africa's first black president, as he had spent four years on the island when his father had kept the lighthouse.

Hurley's deeply devout parents, recognising the thoughtful and studious nature of their son, sent him to Ireland to study for the priesthood after he had matriculated at St Charles's College in Pietermaritzburg. He completed his basic training in the missionary congregation, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, before going to Rome, where he completed licentiates in Philosophy at the Angelicum, and in Theology at the Gregorian University, where he was ordained in 1939.

Soon after his return to South Africa, Hurley was chosen to head the newly-formed St Joseph's Scholasticate in Pietermaritzburg, where young Oblates were prepared for the priesthood. His progress was noted by the Vatican, and more than a few eyebrows were raised in the Church when he was chosen to succeed Bishop Henri Delalle of Durban.

When, just five years later, he became archbishop, he expressed his own surprise. "I found myself in a lift that was going up," he said. By this time, apartheid was being established as a philosophy rather than a political policy, and Archbishop Hurley decided that he, and the Roman Catholic Church in South Africa, had to make an early stand against all forms of discrimination.

He condemned apartheid from pulpit and platform, and worked tirelessly to oppose its oppressive legislation in all forms, exposing himself to ridicule among many South African whites and subjecting himself to the attentions of the security forces.

Hurley seemed to thrive on official opprobrium, becoming ever more outspoken and encouraging the destruction of racial discrimination in all aspects of South African society, in particular in the educational establishments where black students were welcomed for the first time. Meanwhile, his gaunt and somewhat forbidding demeanour, which hid a quiet sense of humour, intimidated many putative black leaders who crossed his path. His strict adherence to his principles won him the nickname of "Mhlwemamba" (Eyes of the Mamba) from the Zulus.

He acknowledged that the highlight of his life was the Second Vatican Council, the major policy-making conference of the world's Catholic bishops, at which he worked closely with leading cardinals to ensure that progressive views gained the ascendancy. At the same time, Hurley knew that his stand against injustice was supported by most bishops and cardinals within the Church, and he returned to South Africa with renewed vigour.

A studious, solitary and - to those who did not know him well - a somewhat forbidding man, Hurley became a permanent thorn in the side of the increasingly beleaguered National Party government, but greatly admired by the black majority. He was much in demand as a speaker, and won many accolades worldwide for his anti-apartheid work. He became president of the South African Institute of Race Relations and Chancellor of Natal University, one of 10 institutions internationally that awarded him an honorary doctorate.

After 40 years as Archbishop of Durban, Hurley decided to retire in 1992, choosing to become a parish priest at Emmanuel Cathedral. He finally retired to work on his memoirs; the first volume compares his father's work as a lighthouse keeper, guiding ships around the treacherous Cape coasts, to the way Hurley had attempted to lead the Catholic Church, and South Africa, into more progressive, more placid waters.