The Rt. Rev. Thabo Makgoba, Archbishop of Cape Town, has issued a statement in honor of the Rt. Rev. David Russell, who died August 17 at age 75:
With David Russell’s death, an era passes for the Church and its prophetic and courageous ministry, especially to the poorest of the poor.
From the earliest days of his ministry as a priest, he was radical in his identification with the poor and oppressed. Steve Biko, with whom he worked closely, called him “a friend, an equal … a comrade.”
In the Eastern Cape in the 1970s, he played an important role in drawing attention to the plight of people who were forcibly removed from their homes under apartheid and dumped to starve in areas, such as Dimbaza, where they had no hope of making a living.
Later, as a chaplain to migrant workers in Cape Town, he campaigned against the cruel removals, in the middle of winter, of families who defied the pass laws and came to Crossroads to live with their husbands and fathers.
When the apartheid government sent in bulldozers to destroy their shacks, he was willing to put his life on the line — one admirer recalled on Facebook this week: “Will never forget the image of DR lying, spread-eagled, in front of a bulldozer in Crossroads.”
When the government imposed a banning order on him, he defied it, breaking it in multiple ways to attend a meeting of the Church’s Provincial Synod and to motivate a resolution expressing the Church’s understanding of those who had resorted to armed struggle.
After becoming Bishop of Grahamstown, he ordained the first woman priest in Southern Africa and repeatedly challenged the Church on theological grounds to reverse its opposition to blessing same-sex unions. He also challenged the democratically elected provincial government of the Eastern Cape for its failures in areas such as health and education.
As one who served as Bishop David’s suffragan bishop in Grahamstown and was mentored by him, I feel his loss keenly.
Not only the Church but the nation — which honoured him for his service with the Order of the Baobab in Silver — mourns this son of the soil.
On behalf of my family, the Diocese of Cape Town, the Synod of Bishops and the broader church, we send our condolences and prayers to his wife, Dorothea, and to his sons, Sipho and Thabo.
May this pastor, prophet, theologian and fierce fighter against injustice rest in peace until we meet again.