A Homily Celebrating Professor Francis Wilson

Prof Francis Wilson [Photo UCT News.]

Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, delivered the following homily at the funeral of South African economist, activist and campaigner against poverty, Francis Wilson, in St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, on May 2. Professor Wilson worshipped at the Cathedral, represented ACSA at a World Council of Churches assembly in Uppsala and also worked with the SACC. Archbishop Thabo Makgoba presided at the Requiem Mass.

1 John 4:7: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”

Today we acknowledge with much sadness, the grief that Nomthunzi, David, Jessie, Tanya, Tim and their spouses are going through at the departure of the much-loved husband, father and brother Francis.

But dear friends, this morning we mourn not, but we celebrate the incredible faithfulness of Francis’ life, as the life of a son born to parents who interpreted their own life purpose in the fulfilment of the Great Commandment in John’s Gospel:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Like Godfrey and Monica Wilson, and like David and Jessie Hunter before them, Francis made love the foundation of his life purpose; for “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” And so it is, that on his and Tim’s father Godfrey’s grave is the inscription that we use for our reflection in celebrating this family heritage – “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God”, reads the epitaph on Godfrey Wilson’s grave. It is the latter part of verse 7 that in its fulness says:

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”

This text comes from the first of the three epistles that carry the name of John, this first one is the one considered most as associated with the Apostle John, the presumed writer of the 4th gospel. Some, however, suggest that the three letters with the name of John were actually one body of epistle, and not three.

Whatever the debates of the scholars might be, there is no question that this specific message that the Wilsons adopted for the memorialisation of Godfrey Wilson, saying, “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God”, is directly related to the Great Commandment as given in the 4th gospel to love one another, and thereby be identifiable as a disciple of Christ. It is this, that became the heritage that Francis Wilson represents.

We celebrate Francis Wilson of Hunterstoun Hogsback, by honouring the principle of love, through which Francis, his parents and grandparents defined their relationship with God, as a loving relationship with others.

His mother Monica is said to have written to her husband Godfrey with respect to her relationship with the people she interacted with in her Pondoland research, that the only times that one “lives” in the New Testament sense, is when the ‘relationship with God, or one’s neighbour is intensely felt’1(Morrow 2016: Location 1344, Kindle version). This is the life principle of love. It is a direct application of faith in the message of today’s reading in 1 John, that “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” And living through him is to live the love ethic.

It is this love ethic, that stakes the claim to be born of God, that defined the work of Francis’ grandparents David and Jessie Hunter and it was the energy behind the commitment to carry the Christian Express news-magazine that David Hunter, as its long-time editor, renamed the South African Outlook in 1922.

In faithfulness to this heritage of love expressed in word and deed, Francis was for decades the editor of his grandfather’s Outlook magazine. And he passed on the responsibility to the South African Council of Churches. In turn, at the SACC, it went to Bishop Luke Pato and Thoko Mpumlwana as co-editors, and in that context, they were both reminiscing about the hand-over meeting they had with Francis, and specifically requested that I convey their condolences as successors to the good professor, on the Outlook task. At the time Professor Barney Pityana was Principal and Vice Chancellor of UNISA, and he facilitated that the Outlook be printed at UNISA Press.

Francis, in gratitude for my small contribution to Tanya’s preparation for confirmation in 1986, made me the gift of a very special book, a celebration of the 100 years of the Outlook magazine, 1870 – 1970, Outlook on a Century. In his inscription on the book, he described Tanya as the great granddaughter of David Hunter, as if to instruct me to remember someday to remind Tanya and her siblings of the Hunter – Wilson heritage. The book attests in at least two testimonies, to the Wilson heritage of the love ethic.

Monica Wilson writes in a piece on Lovedale, that “Love demands hard thinking and practical application”2 (Wilson & Perrot 1973:12). The family way of life in all generations has been about thinking ways to apply love practically in the context of human living, be it through anthropology, education, filmmaking, philanthropy, health services or economic policy inputs. For everyone who loves is born of God and knows God; but, says Francis’ mother Monica, “Love demands hard thinking and practical application”.

In the same book, as editor Francis invokes the words of theologian Paul Tillich who in his book Love, Power, and Justice, says that love is “the drive towards the unity of the separated”3 (Wilson & Perrot 1973:1).

Time does not allow for us to recount how Francis has sought to live the idea of love as the “drive towards the unity of the separated”, both in the racial and class divides of South Africa.

One4 practical application of the “drive towards the unity of the separated” in South Africa’s racial divisions is to commit to learn and speak the language of the other, especially that of the oppressed and the less powerful. Monica Wilson was steeped into the Xhosa and Mpondo culture and languages with the ability to distinguish between them. She went to a majority black school at Lovedale and learned to respect the intellect of African fellow pupils.

That ability and commitment to genuinely “crossover” in the “drive towards the unity of the separated” became a key element of the Wilson love ethic. Francis, his wife Nomthunzi, and their children, with varying capabilities, all know that they have a responsibility to engage in isiXhosa; for, many of the people they interact with have already met them more than three quarter way into the dominant English language – indeed with little choice in the matter! What might it do for the love defined as the “drive towards the unity of the separated”, if every South African was to learn to speak a different African language from their own, from English to isiXhosa like the Wilsons; from isiXhosa to tshiVenda as Malusi should; etc. That is a South African challenge that the Wilsons pose for us all today as we bid farewell to our celebrated Francis?

When I first met Francis Wilson, it was precisely on his quest to activate this drive towards the unity of the separated. He was to visit our group of Black Consciousness proponents with Steve Biko at King Williamstown, some time in 1975. I believe he wanted to get to know Steve Biko and understand his place in the love drive towards the unity of the separated. In his typical unassuming manner, he presented himself and listened.

I do believe he was keen to gain an appreciation of how Black Consciousness located the significance of economic analysis in the self-drive for black emancipation. It was at the time that we were crafting our thinking around what we termed Black Communalism. David Russell had known Francis, and I sought to know more about him from David, who was happy to discuss him. He described him as an economist who sought to bridge the gap of economic opportunity between the whites and blacks in South Africa. A good description, but Francis was a lot more than that in his faithfulness to his mother’s dictum that “Love demands hard thinking and practical application”.

  • His number crunching of racial disparities in apartheid budgeting.
  • His establishment of the celebrated SALDRU and its ever-ground-breaking research work.
  • His relentless research in the living and working conditions of black workers, and doing what Monica would say is, from her own unwanted research on farm worker conditions, ‘considering the conditions they (employers) have to hide.’
  • The dramatic walk from Grahamstown to Cape Town to draw attention to the pain of migrant labour.
  • His major work through the Second Carnegie Enquiry into Poverty, repeating for Blacks (especially Coloureds and Africans), what was done for Afrikaners in the first Carnegie enquiry in the 1930s.
  • His commitment to help the new legislators of the democratic era with Economics 101 for newly appointed Deputy Minister of Trade & Industry Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka and a cohort that included the present Minister of Agriculture and Land Reform, Thoko Didiza.
  • His commitment to an understanding of the integrated nature of the Southern African economic reality; that the development of Johannesburg is the underdevelopment of Maseru, Maputo and Lilongwe.
  • And his work in the last few years with the SACC economic transformation work that sought to craft ways to bring into the productive economy South Africa’s excluded majority.

All this, a Francis manifestation that we celebrate today, of the Hunter-Wilson love ethic, where love is “the drive towards the unity of the separated”; and love demanding “hard thinking and practical application”.

We celebrate Francis and his love ethic, a heritage to which he has been religiously faithful till his last breath. His family knows that love, for each and every one of them. As a brother growing up together Tim, you have known that love, that Illse was to bask in when she became a co-custodian with you, of the Wilson heritage.

Lindy, your relationship was beautiful to watch. It is that loving bond that carried you in the difficult months of Francis’ illness. Part of the beauty of your relationship was in the rhythm of the Wednesday dates. Busy as he was with everything, the man for whom nothing was impossible, that man, never failed you on those regular Wednesday dates, even if it meant it was conducted on the phone from a distance, but must, it had to be.

David, Jessie, Tanya, you each have known your dad as personal in a special way to each of you. And you each thought he was a nice brother, husband, and father. No, he was more than that, he was a bearer of a heritage that remains with you, etched as it is in 1 John 4:7, “beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”

You will sorely miss his special care for each of you, but the abiding Hunter Wilson heritage of faith must and will sustain you. I commend to you another Monica’s life instruction in Outlook on a Century, “to a Christian, the death of a man …is not the end. We look for a resurrection”5. And from the tragedy of Monica Wilson’s family as a child (with the death of brother Aylmer), you are urged to do as the old Hunters had to do, to place your anxieties on Christ, as they had to believe that ‘In His will is our tranquillity’6. NgesiXhosa we say, “akulahlwa mbeleko ngakufelwa”. One doesn’t throw away the capacity to nurse a child, with the death of the child.

As friends and as the church of Jesus Christ, we are assured that the difficult journey ahead without Francis will be full of grace.

To the SALDRU colleagues Murray Leibbrant and team; to the South African society and the world, Francis was not the giant of a social and practical economist; no, he was just a simple and faithful respondent to the message of today’s gospel in Matthew:

“You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world…Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

I accepted the Dean’s generous offer to use the special Desmond Tutu cope I am wearing today, not because I have the temerity to wear a garment with so august an association, but I assume the duty to wear it because without a doubt, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu would most heartily approve of it being used on the occasion of celebrating Francis Wilson. He was in his own way what Desmond was, in a different way, but both profoundly impactful in their driving quest for an alternative South African reality – that which is in keeping with the love ethic inaugurated by Jesus Christ as the revival of what was intended at our creation.

And so, we gather this morning, in this eucharistic worship, to give glory to God for Francis Aylmer Hunter Wilson of Hunterstoun Hogsback! Let the man who never rested, rest in peace, and rise in glory! Halleluiah! Halleluiah!!

[Apart from the personal friendship between the Mpumlwanas and the Wilsons, Francis Wilson had an institutional relationship with the SACC through both the South African Outlook, and his & SALDRU’s role in the SACC Economic Transformation Working Group.]

1 Morrow, Sean The Fires Beneath: The Life of Monica Wilson, South African Anthropologist. Cape Town: Penguin Books 2016, Kindle version, Location 1344.

2 Wilson, Francis & Perrot, Dominique (Eds), Outlook on a Century: South Africa 1870-1970, Lovedale: Lovedale Press, 1973, p.12

3 Ibid. p.1

4 These shaded paragraphs were not read at the delivery of the sermon, partly in the interest of time.

5 Op. cit., p.12

6 Op. cit. Kindle version, Location 274

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