A selfless servant of the people has fallen, the radical priest is gone

A great man fell this week – and I am not talking about our former Home Affairs Minister. I am referring to Chris Wessels, a Moravian priest whose name became almost synonymous with the missionary settlement of Genadenal.

Wessels’ name was also synonymous with the Struggle for liberation. He passed away at the age of 83 on Tuesday morning, surrounded by members of his family, including his wife, Nabawaya “Nabs” Wessels who also played a crucial role in the Struggle. He leaves behind his children Uta, Esther, Christopher and Thandi and several grandchildren.

Wessels became involved in the Struggle at a young age, at a time when it was not fashionable for church leaders to be involved, even though many were grappling with whether apartheid was reconcilable with the Scriptures.

His involvement with the Struggle was driven by his strong faith, which he displayed at an early age. In a television documentary, The Golden Years, which was screened on SABC a few years ago, Wessels spoke about how he started praying for people when he was only 17. He said his relationship with God was “always very intense”.

He became a priest in 1970 and served the Moravian Church and the community in many capacities, including as a lecturer for 30 years at the Moravian Theological Seminary in Heideveld until his retirement in 2000. He remained active in the church as an emeritus minister.

Wessels was born in Genadendal but, after becoming a minister, he moved to Johannesburg where he met his future wife. They later moved to Port Elizabeth.

Wessels was arrested several times: he was detained under the Internal Security Act for four months in 1976 and for 69 days under the Terrorism Act in 1977.

At that time, he had been active in the Black Consciousness Movement, which was led by Steve Biko who was murdered by the security police in 1977. Biko and Western Cape BCM activist Peter Cyril Jones had been on their way from Wessels’ house in Port Elizabeth to King Williams Town when they were arrested. Wessels was also later arrested.

During his second stay in prison, Wessels was bitten blue by spiders, was left naked in his cell, was fed only maize meal and was given three dirty blankets and mats to sleep on. He said the guards would not allow him to read the Bible.

In a talk in 2001, Wessels said that, on his worst days, he asked himself whether fighting for liberation was worth the deprivation. He decided it was.

“I realised that I did not choose this road. The Lord chose it for me. This is how he wanted me to lead,” he said.

Despite his periods in detention, Wessels continued to be committed to the Struggle, but in the 1980s, he often took a back seat as his wife played more of a prominent role. She was a social worker who was active in many communities.

I met Wessels for the first time in the early 1980s when Nabs was a field worker for the Churches Urban Planning Commission in Hanover Park, where I lived and was a youth leader.

Later on, we interacted many times, in Cape Town or Genadendal. One of the memories that I will always hold dear was when I spent a few days at their home in Genadendal. It coincided with Nabs’ birthday and Chris had organised the Moravian Youth brass band to play a few songs on their stoep for “die juffrou”, as the wife of the priest was known. Nabs then invited the band members inside for tea and cake. It was a beautiful moment which spoke of the simplicity and humility of this amazing family.

I have never believed that people should be respected merely based on their contribution to the Struggle, but I do believe in honouring those people who continue to serve way into our democracy. Chris Wessels was one of those people. Long may he be remembered.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 17 November 2018)