South Africa: Aelred Stubbs, Spiritual Mentor and Editor, Dies

18 November 2004

When nine leaders of the black consciousness movement were put on trial in Pretoria in 1975, many of them far from home, and public interest ebbed during the protracted State case, a tall, spare, even ascetic-looking, white man was a dedicated supporter.

Day after day, Aelred Stubbs, clad in the black and white robes of a monk of the Anglican religious order, the Community of the Resurrection (CR), kept vigil in the sparsely-occupied public gallery of Court C of Pretoria's Palace of Justice. It was one of few occasions when Stubbs was seen on a public stage in his role as spiritual mentor and personal friend to many of the leaders of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) and the Black People's Convention.

Stubbs was, in the description of Nyameko Barney Pityana, now principal of the University of South Africa, a quiet, unassuming man, and his approach contrasted with the assertive public stands in support of the ANC of his brother monk, Trevor Huddleston. It is a mark of Stubbs's willingness to work backstage that his death in Mirfield, England - the home of the community - on Sunday October 17 has drawn comparatively little attention.

At a memorial service in the CR's old priory church in Rosettenville on November 13, Dr Mongezi Guma, rector of Christ the King Church, Sophiatown, suggested that few people had influenced a generation of leaders as much as Stubbs had without seeking recognition for it.

Early Years

Anthony Richard Peter Stubbs was born in the United Kingdom in 1923, and educated at Eton College, at Balliol College, Oxford, and at the College of the Resurrection at Mirfield.

He was ordained priest in 1954 and professed his first vows as a member of the CR, taking the name Aelred, the same year. He first worked in dioceses in the United Kingdom. In 1960, he was sent to Rosettenville as principal of the College of the Resurrection and St Peter, the seminary in which the CR fathers trained almost all black priests for the northern dioceses of the Anglican Church for most of the 20th century.

There Stubbs identified Desmond Tutu as potentially the first black principal of the college, and worked diligently to have him sent to King's College, London, to be prepared for the post.

Tutu was, Stubbs said in a recent interview, "head and shoulders" above his fellow students. "Lawrence Zulu (later Bishop of Zululand)... was the original thinker [but] didn't have the incisiveness or ambition. Desmond had an extraordinary power of assimilation... and a real feeling for people and their goodness or otherwise."

When the college was forced from Rosettenville by apartheid, Stubbs became an enthusiastic proponent of its relocation to Alice in the Eastern Cape as part of the multi-denominational Federal Theological Seminary. There he and his fellow teachers welcomed, and nurtured debate among not only their own students but others, such as Barney Pityana, facing persecution by authorities at the neighbouring University of Fort Hare.

In the words of Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana of the Ethiopian Episcopal Church (EEC), another BC activist, "the reflective space that Aelred made possible was very important at that early time of BC." St Peter's College "became an oasis of sanity in the middle of a desert of indescribable folly," said Bishop Siqibo Dwane of the EEC, preaching at Saturday's memorial service.

Among those Stubbs met was Steve Biko, the first president of SASO, who visited Alice as he travelled the country building the organisation.

Stubbs said later that he came to realise that Biko, Pityana and others "had the key to the future in South Africa... [and] that I was almost uniquely privileged in having gained their confidence..." Of Biko, he wrote: "...I remember so well the physical presence of Stephen at that time. Tall, and big in proportion, he brought to any gathering a sense of expectancy, a more than physical vitality and power... But his soul was in his eyes, which were brown liquid and infinitely expressive..." And, "There was a burning inner spirit which filled his limbs, so that he always met you with his own powerful presence."

Editing Biko

In 1972, Stubbs left the college and returned to the CR priory in Rosettenville. As the government tried to crush BC, he began a new ministry which became "my chief service and joy for the next five years" -- visiting the banned and the banished. He "went out of his way," says Pityana, driving around the country to visit people such as Biko, Pityana, Mamphela Ramphele, Malusi Mpumlwana, Thenjiwe Mtintso, and, from a previous generation, Robert Sobukwe.

In 1977 the apartheid government withdrew the exemption which allowed Stubbs as a British subject to enter South Africa without a visa. He withdrew to a hut on the grounds of a convent in the foothills of the Maluti mountains in Lesotho.

Three weeks later, the Port Elizabeth security branch killed Biko. Stubbs told Donald Woods of the Daily Dispatch that "I can no longer recognise Vorster and his gang as fit to govern South Africa." In Father Guma's telling, Stubbs responded with "James Bond-style manoeuvring" to collect and smuggle into Lesotho as much of Biko's writing as he could find.

He went on to edit a widely published edition of Biko's work under the title, "I Write What I Like." It has been republished a number of times since, with recent editions including an introduction by Malusi and Thoko Mpumlwana identifying themes still relevant to the remaking of South African society.

Aelred Stubbs was not blindly supportive of Biko. In 1974, he tackled him over an extra-marital relationship (about which Mamphela Ramphele has subsequently written in her autobiography). Biko responded by emphasising his respect for Stubbs as "a pastor, a 'missionary', and elder and my dear priest," but rebuffed the rebuke.

Early in his stay in South Africa, Stubbs was not above racial characterisation of behaviour. He once implied to one of Desmond Tutu's sponsors in London that he should watch the young student's spending. Handling money badly was, "... as no doubt you know... the besetting fault of Africans," he said, attempting but failing to soften the comment by adding "and not only Africans!"

And as an unmarried member of a community largely made up of upper middle class Englishmen, whose basic needs were all provided for, he was sometimes insensitive to the pressures on a married student responsible for the upkeep and education of four children. He was also furious with Tutu for departing from the carefully scripted plan to appoint him principal of St. Peter's to lecture at the Roma campus of the then University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland.

Yet in years to come he promoted Tutu to Leslie Stradling, bishop of Johannesburg, and seconded a proposal that Tutu be elected to replace Stradling upon his retirement in 1974. The attempt failed but led directly to Tutu's return to South Africa as dean of Johannesburg a year later.

It is as editor of Biko's writings that Aelred Stubbs will best be remembered. In the final months of a long illness, one of those portraits in which Biko's eyes stand out with startling clarity hung over the foot of Stubbs's bed. In an interview about Tutu, his mind kept returning to Biko. Gesturing at the portrait, he said: "I always look at Steve when I go to bed."

His hero's widow, Ntsiki Biko, and their son, Nkosinathi, were at Mirfield for his funeral.

John Allen, a contributing correspondent for AllAfrica Global Media, is writing the authorized biography of Desmond Tutu.

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