Paddy Kearney – Icon of Peace and Nonviolence

By Indhrannie Pillay

Gerald Patrick Kearney, fondly referred to as Paddy, was born on 28 August 1942 in Pietermaritzburg. He matriculated from St Charles’ College in Pietermaritzburg in 1959. His tertiary education spanned over thirteen years starting from 1960 to 1973 and culminated in a Fullbright Scholarship to obtain a Masters in Education in Ohio.

He taught as a matric teacher specializing in Latin and English at St David’s Marist College in Johannesburg from 1966-1969. In 1971 Kearney took up employment at Inanda Seminary, an all-girls school for black students, where he taught as a senior English teacher. It was here that Kearney was exposed to the injustices of apartheid. Kearney says, “That was the most interesting year for me. I think I learnt more than I had taught. It exposed me to what was happening in the life of African people and the issues that really concerned them.”

During apartheid black learners were highly disadvantaged. Kearney relates an incident where he witnessed the inequalities faced by his learners. “I was teaching Macbeth to my standard eight class and a play was being performed at the Alhambra Theatre (now Durban Christian Centre) which featured artists from abroad. My students were not allowed to attend the performance because it was not opened out to black students.” Kearney then wrote a letter to the Daily News regarding this incident. “After reading the article, the actors from the play became very upset. They were unaware that apartheid was being applied to the play,” he says. The cast of the play contacted Kearney and said that they would come out to the school and perform the play and he could also invite other black schools in the Durban area to attend. “Thousands of children came and sat on the lawns of the school and enjoyed the wonderful production.” Witnessing first hand the extent of exclusion under apartheid rule, Kearney says, “In a way I also felt discriminated against when I was not allowed to take my students to watch the play.”

In 1972 Kearney joined the then University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg as a junior lecturer in the faculty of education. In September of that year he went abroad to the USA where he worked as a graduate assistant on the Board of Education. “In Ohio I worked on multi-cultural projects for inner city schools which prepared teachers to respond sensitively to the needs of Afro-American and Hispanic students.”

He returned to the University of Natal in 1974. While teaching at the university he worked as a volunteer to establish Diakonia, which was proposed by Archbishop Dennis Hurley. “My voluntary work involved organizing consultations with community and church groups to test the support for the Diakonia proposal,” Kearney says. Diakonia was established to provide a platform for Christian denominations and organizations in Kwa Zulu Natal on a range of social problems. After his voluntary consultancy work, Kearney resigned from the university and took up a full time position as a staff member for Diakonia. “Diakonia has always been involved in socio-political and socio-economic issues. Prior to 1994, much of our focus was on anti- apartheid work, opposing Group Areas removals, detentions, banning, issues of workers rights and violence.” In 1976 Kearney was appointed secretary and co-organiser of Diakonia and subsequently Director in 1980. In 1994 he was appointed as director of the new Diakonia Council of Churches when Diakonia amalgamated with the Durban and District Council Churches.  Vanessa Franks who worked closely with Paddy from 1987 to 2004 says “Paddy is my mentor. He is a modest, humble man with immense compassion and warmth for people. He is a perfectionist and sets very high standards for himself and others which I now set for myself. He continues to inspire me.” In 2004 Kearney retired from Diakonia where he had worked for 30 years.

Much of Kearney’s work was and is done through faith-based organisations and non governmental organisations working towards creating a nonviolent society. “South Africa has a tremendous number of people who are involved in one or the other of the world faiths. It is a country of a lot of believers and I think it is necessary that we should draw on the combined strengths of all these faiths to bring about positive change and moral regeneration and promote respect for all. All the major faiths teach us that we should treat our neighbour in the way that we want to be treated.” Colleague Daphne Goad who worked with Paddy for 18 years says “He is a great leader, a man who inspires all around him with his deep sense of humility and compassion.”
South Africa is a democratic state but still at a great imbalance. Many people are still marginalised and poverty is a major problem affecting the masses. “Poverty is the biggest challenge in the present situation. Whilst we have gotten rid of apartheid through many laws and legislations much of the economic situation has been unchanged,” says Kearney. There are some economists who think that there is more poverty now than there was in the past. “The gap between the rich and poor has grown greater. It is not something that is going to be solved in a couple of years, it will take decades before we have more economic equality,” says Kearney. Along with poverty, crime is a major issue facing the country, more especially the violent nature of crime. “The crime situation in the country is very disturbing but in a way it’s not surprising. I think that we haven’t healed from the political violence from the past. People were traumatized through apartheid and political violence and it has manifested itself in the form of violence. Also due to the great economic inequalities, people have felt that they are entitled to finances and facilities and they must now steal if they cannot get them legitimately. The criminal justice system must be more effective in punishing those people who are involved in crime.”

It will take a very long time before all the injustices and inadequacies of the past have been addressed. According to Kearney, “People need to realize that some groups have been disadvantaged while others have had all the advantages. All the citizens have to come together to bring about change. We still need to get rid of racism completely.” Following the life story of Paddy Kearney one sees the trend of an individual who fought for justice and equality for all. “There are injustices and I felt that I could do something and that I had a duty to use my energy for that purpose.”

He is presently a consultant to the KwaZulu Natal Christian Council and has recently completed a biography on the life story of Archbishop Dennis Hurley. Kearney also serves as a trustee for Gandhi Development Trust (GDT) and as a board member for the International Center of Non-violence (ICON). “It has been a great privilege to be associated with the Gandhi family. I have immense admiration for Mahatma Gandhi and he has made a huge impact on the philosophy of non violence and I think we in Durban are very lucky to have that connection with the Gandhi legacy.” Attorney JP Purshotam, a friend and colleague to Kearney says, “Paddy is a living example of the passion and zeal that Gandhi demonstrated during his life for truth and justice.” Kearney believes that non violent education is imperative in bringing about transformation in individuals and the country. “All levels of education, pre schools, primary and high schools, tertiary institutes, and even in the community and workplace, people need to be exposed to nonviolent methods of resolving conflict.”