Faith in our struggle: South African YCS leaders against apartheid

Former South African YCS leader, Peter Sadie, is publishing his autobiography entitled “Faith in our struggle: A memoir of hope.”

He recounts his personal story as well as that of the South African YCS in this interview with Polity magazine:

“His story vividly illustrates how he grew up from a naïve, yet loving childhood, through the fires of divorce, deaths and broken political promises fracturing trust,” write Aluta Continua in Polity.

“Can lives inspired by faith restore compassion with the poor and act again to respond to their suffering?  Could this be a time of Kairos in our country’s growth to a more ‘critical loyalty’: from the innocence of our freedom in 1994, through the wasted years of state-capture, to the resurrection of a more mature political reorder?”


Faith in our Struggle: A Memoir of Hope – Peter Sadie (Polity)

Albert Nolan: Priest, Activist, Author, and Renowned Theologian

By Terence Creamer with input from Fr Mike Deeb, Fr Mark James and Prof Philippe Denis

Well-known South African Catholic priest, anti-apartheid activist and internationally renowned theologian and author Fr. Albert Nolan has died at the age of 88.

He died peacefully in his sleep under the care of the Dominican Sisters at Marian House in Boksburg in the early hours of Monday October 17.

Born Denis James Harry Nolan in Cape Town on September 2, 1934, Nolan was born to a family of South Africans of Irish descent, who lived in Gardens. He went to school at St. Joseph’s Marist Brothers in Rondebosch and after a period working for a bank, entered the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church in 1954, taking the name Albert.

Awarded the ‘Order of Luthuli in Silver’ by then President Thabo Mbeki in 2003 for his “life-long dedication to the struggle for democracy, human rights and justice and for challenging the religious ‘dogma’ especially the theological justification for apartheid”, Nolan inspired a generation of Christian activists and theologians.

His dedication to the anti-apartheid struggle saw him decline the prestigious role of Master of the Dominican Order to which he was elected in 1983, as it would have meant him being transferred to the Order’s Rome headquarters. Instead, he convinced the Dominicans to allow him to remain in South Africa. At the height of the second State of Emergency in 1986, he was forced into hiding in order to escape from the notorious South African Security Police. Nolan was particularly vulnerable to arrest for steering the drafting process of the Kairos Document in mid-1985, which arose primarily from the work of grassroots theologians in Soweto and Johannesburg, but which he and Reverend Frank Chikane of the Institute for Contextual Theology (ICT) played a central role in editing.

Described as a ‘theology from below’, the document critiqued the role of the churches in apartheid South Africa, dismantled any theological justification for racism and totalitarianism and proposed instead a ‘prophetic theology’ akin to Liberation Theology.

From 1973-1980, he served as national chaplain for the National Catholic Federation of Students (NCFS) and also, until 1980, for the Catholic Students Association (CASA), which was formed in 1976 after black students began organising themselves into separate formations as Black Consciousness flourished.

Founding YCS in South Africa

In 1977, Nolan was instrumental in establishing Young Christian Students (YCS) in South Africa after he attended an International Movement of Catholic Students gathering in Lima, Peru, in 1975, where he was introduced to the See-Judge-Act method of social analysis and was inspired by Gustavo Gutiérrez, who later also became a Dominican and who is regarded as one of the pioneers of Liberation Theology.

From 1977-1984, Nolan served as national chaplain of YCS, which affiliated itself to the United Democratic Front, initially formed in 1983 to oppose the Tricameral Parliament but which also united more than 400 organisations across all sectors of society in the struggle for a ‘non-racial, non-sexist and united South Africa’.

Underground work

Nolan also played a brave role in the “underground work” of the liberation movements, notably the African National Congress, offering his support to activists, especially those who became victims of the apartheid regime’s violent and repressive security police. He was part of a secret underground network that managed logistics, including the transportation and movement of activists, providing safe houses and a means of communication while in South Africa.

The full extent of his role in these networks was revealed by Horst Kleinschmidt in a tribute to Nolan on October 20, 2022. Kleinschmidt, who was himself banned, detained, and exiled by the apartheid regime, disclosed that Nolan was part of a group of more than 20 operatives who smuggled communication out of South Africa to the then exiled African National Congress and returned with messages from Oliver Tambo and Thabo Mbeki to activists inside the country.

“I reveal today for the first time that Albert Nolan was known as operative A4 after Black Wednesday [October 19, 1977, when Black Consciousness organisations were banned, editors arrested and opposition newspapers banned] and from 1981 onwards he was operative 42. The numbers ‘4’ and ‘2’ were scrambled into texts and figures – and the Security Branch never found the key to this messaging.” Kleinschmidt also revealed that the long-running operation involved the smuggling of letters, none of which were ever intercepted, as well as call-box to call-box communications that changed location each week and the swapping of money that made any tracing of bank records impossible.

Dominican provincial

Having been elected provincial of the Dominicans in Southern Africa in early 1976, Nolan relocated from Stellenbosch – where he had received his religious formation, and also served as university chaplain for several years up to the early 1970s – to Johannesburg. Poignantly, the move took place on June 16, 1976, a date synonymous with the ‘Soweto Uprising’ which was violently suppressed and is today commemorated as Youth Day.

As provincial, from 1976-1980, Nolan supported several of his priests – including Joe Falkiner, Benedict Mulder and Finbar Synnott – in their establishment of a simple-lifestyle community in a run-down building opposite the station on Central Avenue in Mayfair, a working-class suburb on the western edge of the Johannesburg central business district. He then made the bold decision to sell the provincial’s house in the leafy suburb of Houghton, in the richer northern suburbs, and relocate to Mayfair himself, where CASA, NCFS, YCS and the Young Christian Workers also set up their national offices. He would serve as provincial of the Dominican Order for two more terms, from 1980-1984 and from 2000-2004. Besides serving as provincial, Nolan played various other roles within his Order, including that of novice master and student master, which allowed him to continue to nurture and guide young people, as he had done for many years as a student chaplain.

Biblical scholar

A gifted Biblical scholar and theologian, Nolan completed his doctorate in Rome in 1963 – a period that coincided with the Second Vatican Council and which ushered in significant reforms across the Catholic Church. Having completed his thesis, Nolan decided it was ‘too expensive’ to have it published, a pre-requisite for being awarded the title of ‘doctor’ and, thus, he never formally secured the title that he had duly earned. He was also initially denied the distinction of being awarded an honorary doctorate when the Holy See, without explanation, disallowed the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) from bestowing such in 1990, presumably owing to misgivings at the time about Liberation Theology. However, in the same year, as a sign of solidarity, the Jesuit-run Regis College of the University of Toronto granted him an honorary doctorate. The Dominican Order recognised his contribution as a theologian and preacher of the Gospel when, in 2008, the Master of the Dominican Order promoted Nolan to a Master of Sacred Theology.

Nolan, however, preferred to see himself as a preacher rather than a Biblical scholar. He wanted the Gospel to make a difference in people’s lives, and did not view debating small issues of textual interpretation as the purpose of the scriptures. In his view, the scriptures were there to inspire, convert and transform people and lead them to change their lives and the world in which they live.

Jesus Before Christianity

Outside of South Africa, Nolan became highly regarded for his 1976 best-selling book Jesus Before Christianity, which has been translated into at least nine languages. The book was the product both of Nolan’s deep knowledge of the Bible and his work in the student movement where he gave regular inputs on ‘That Man Jesus’ in student conferences. While in hiding in the late 1980s, Nolan went on to write God in South Africa, which is the outcome of what he described as “doing theology in a particular context” and Jesus Today, which explores the spirituality of Jesus as a “spirituality that leads to unity with God, ourselves, others, and the universe”. A collection of his talks, edited by one of his brothers, Fr Stan Muyebe, was published as Hope in an Age of Despair.

Nolan, who was one of the first staff members of the Institute for Contextual Theology (ICT) in 1981, later become editor of the ecumenical Challenge magazine, widely circulated across all denominations and which offered a considered perspective on how Christians should respond to the struggle for democracy in South Africa before and after the democratic elections in 1994. Ecumenism was a theme throughout Nolan’s life and was evident not only in his student ministry and at ICT but in his close relationship with leaders outside of the Catholic church, including Reverend Frank Chikane, Dr Beyers Naudé and Reverend Cedric Mayson. Despite his criticism of the Catholic Church, he also remained respected by the Catholic hierarchy for his Biblical proficiency, his theological insight and his commitment to preaching the Gospel. He was, thus, regularly requested to deliver inputs and retreats, including to the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, particularly when it was led by Archbishop Denis Hurley during the last decade of apartheid.

Nolan was also a source of support to other religious in the Catholic church who took up an active role in the struggle, notably Sr. Bernard Ncube and Fr. Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, who was detained several times and banned. Ncube was a member of the first democratic Parliament in 1994, chairing the portfolio committee on arts and culture, and in 2002 became mayor of the West Rand municipality. In 1996, Mkhatshwa became the Deputy Minister of Education, a post he held until 1999. He was elected to the ANC National Executive Committee in 1997 and in 2000 he became the Executive Mayor of the City of Tshwane.

In addition, Nolan taught at St Peter’s Seminary, in Hammanskraal, in the late 1970’s when a strong Black Consciousness focus was developed there, working particularly closely with Mkhatshwa and Buti Tlhagale in attempts to promote this voice in the church. Tlhagale is the current Archbishop of Johannesburg.

As a priest, activist, author, and renowned theologian Nolan offered a forceful yet gentle message of hope, particularly hope in the building of a non-racial, non-sexist, peaceful and environmentally sustainable South Africa and world.


Published on and written by Terence Creamer with input from Fr Mike Deeb, Fr Mark James and Prof Philippe Denis and with additions arising from tributes delivered by Fr Mark James and Horst Kleinschmidt on October 19 and 20 respectively.

Jean Tyacke, unionist and YCW extension worker in South Africa

Jean Tyacke, who came to South Africa from her native United States as a YCW extension worker, has died in Johannesburg, just a few days before her 95th birthday.

“She might have been the last of the giant Young Christian Workers-trained unionists active in the apartheid era,” writes Paul Goller in the South African Southern Cross magazine.

Jean was born in the United States in 1927 and came to South Africa in 1959. Engagingly she retained her accent over the rest of her life. But, more characteristically, she continued her voting for Democratic presidential candidates up to Joe Biden.

In Chicago, probably her favourite city, Jean came to YCW early, after having been very active in Young Christian Students In her schooldays. Even then, she said, she saw herself more as a teambuilder than as a dominant leader; the apartheid regime came to dislike both.

In 1961, Jean married Eric Tyacke, founder of the South African branch of YCW in 1949 and the Urban Training Project (UTP). They lived in Robertsham until their retirement in 1987. The non-racial parties they hosted were surely the scandal of the neighbourhood. They didn’t, one suspects, make their children’s lives at the local government school any easier.

With journalist Sydney Duval and others, Jean participated in the drafting of the SACBC’s seminal 1972 pastoral letter condemning apartheid, “Call to Conscience”, and its subsequent study materials.

She also took part in the launch of the YCS adult Family Social Action movement.

Jean’s home was raided by the security police as early as the late 1960s; the Anglican dean of Johannesburg had been charged with participating in an alleged African National Congress plan to overthrow the government by force. Jean’s YCW heritage, building on her Catholic Christian faith, would not have let her fall into that trap.

From 1976, for more than three years the Tyacke family lived under the full rigours of the banning system, which attempted to destroy most aspects of its victims’ work, social and activist lives. Percy Qoboza, the YCW editor of The World wrote of Jean and Eric: ”Take heart, you two beautiful people: you do everything possible to bridge the growing gap between black and white”.

Jean worked at Wits University — after the employment element of her banning was challenged — and into the 1980s. She was able to see the education of her daughters Kathy, Teresa and Sheila continue into socially committed professions at Wits during this period.

Jean was employed at UTP only intermittently; but in 1999 the late Donovan Lowry found her help invaluable, not only in proofreading his authoritative history of UTP but also in adding to and even shaping his research material.

Eric Tyacke died on August 20, 2014, at 89.

In a letter to Eric and Jean on their retirement in 1987, Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban had summed up their working lives: “What a contribution you both have made in the building up of the worker movement in South Africa. You, and some others like you, have with great dedication, maintained links between organised Church and the worker. Thank you and God bless you for that.”

Reuben Denge, the director of WEP, the organisation that succeeded UTP, said upon hearing of Jean’s death: ”She really contributed immensely in the development of the labour movement in South Africa.”


Catholic activist Jean Tyacke dies at 94 (Southern Cross)

RIP Fr Albert Nolan o.p., author of ‘Jesus before Christianity’

Liberation theologian and former South African YCS chaplain, Fr Albert Nolan o.p. has died at the age of 88.

Born in Cape Town in 1934 in a lower middle-class family of Irish extraction, young Dennis Nolan worked as a bank clerk after finishing school until he joined the Order of Preachers in 1954. Taking the name Albert, he completed his studies for the priesthood at St. Nicholas Priory in Stellenbosch, near Cape Town, before completing doctoral studies at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Angelicum, in Rome.

Because he considered the cost of publishing his thesis a waste of money, the degree was never conferred. Undeterred, he returned to South Africa to teach theology at the Dominican house of studies from which he had graduated. He combined his teaching with serving as chaplain to Catholic students at the overwhelmingly white and Afrikaans-speaking Stellenbosch University.

He would also in the 1970s onward serve as a chaplain and advisor to the Young Christian Students.

Father Nolan’s responsibilities as chaplain broadened in 1973 when he was made National Chaplain of the National Catholic Federation of Students, at a time when even liberal-minded student movements were in ferment generated by the rise of the Black Consciousness movement. Started in 1969 by the late Steve Biko, the movement encouraged black pride and self-reliance, with a view to political liberation.

Albert challenged through his writings and his life a whole generation of Catholic students and young Catholic men and women religious of many orders.

His specific contribution at this stage was theological. Prompted by a meeting in the mid-1970s with liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez (who would himself later become a Dominican), Father Nolan gave a series of lectures on the historical Jesus to two N.C.F.S. national conferences, which he later turned into a book published in 1976 as Jesus Before Christianity.

After a small print run from a local publisher, the book was picked up by theological publishers in the United Kingdom and United States. It became one of the bestselling theological texts of the last 100 years and is still in print.

By the early 1980s, Father Nolan was provincial of the Dominicans in Southern Africa, which necessitated a move to Johannesburg. While in Johannesburg, he helped to found the Institute for Contextual Theology, an ecumenical network of pastors and theologians engaged in the struggle against apartheid. This brought together white and Black university professors and clergy in South Africa’s townships who had embraced Black Consciousness (which had been suppressed as a movement in 1977).

Midway through all this, in 1983 Father Nolan was elected master general of the Order of Preachers. In an unprecedented move in Dominican history, he politely turned down the appointment, believing that his work in South Africa would serve the Gospel more.

Returning to South Africa, in the decade of apartheid’s endgame, Father Nolan threw himself into his work. Crucial to this period was his involvement in drafting and editing the 1985 Kairos Document, a call from pastors and theologians to the churches of South Africa to fully embrace the struggle for democracy and to put their institutions at the service of nonviolent resistance. Although the institutions responded uneasily to Kairos, criticizing (perhaps correctly) the representation of themselves in the text, by the end of the 1980s the churches in fact took a leading role in nonviolent action.

Meanwhile within the Catholic Church, though he was controversial, Father Nolan was a major resource for the Southern African Justice and Peace Commission, advising the bishops on public statements and even at one point visiting and reporting on the state of the church in Communist countries. (The report has never been published!)

During the State of Emergency, 1985 through February 1990, in South Africa—the beginning of the end for apartheid—Father Nolan’s life took further dramatic turns. For a while, he was in hiding, hunted by the security police who wanted to detain him without trial for his work on the Kairos document.

Father Nolan saw an opportunity and wrote his second major book, God in South Africa, literally on the run. It was published in 1988. This work, in many ways his most radical, analyzed the South African situation from a perspective very close to the A.N.C.’s understanding and argued that hope lay in the very struggle for freedom that the A.N.C. and other internal resistance moments committed to non-racial democracy were waging.

May his memory inspire us all to hope and struggle onwards in new times for that reign.


Anthony Egan SJ, Remembering Father Albert Nolan, a best-selling theologian who explored the humanity of Christ (America Magazine)


Image by Ricardo da Silva, S.J. Photo courtesy of The Southern Cross.


An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Fr Albert was a YCW chaplain. He was a strong supporter of the movement but was in fact a YCS chaplain.

Video: A priest for workers in apartheid South Africa

South African Dominican priest, Fr Joe Falkiner op, was our guest for the July 2022 ACI webinar.

He shared his experiences of working with the YCW during the era of the apartheid system in South Africa.

Watch the video above.


Gunther Simmermacher, Book review: A priest looks back (Australian Cardijn Institute)

Webinar: A priest for workers (Australian Cardijn Institute)


A Priest for Workers: Memoirs of Father Joseph Falkiner OP (Cluster Publications)

Webinar: A priest for workers

Former South African YCW chaplain, Fr Joe Falkiner op, will be our speaker for our next ACI Webinar entitled “A Priest for Workers” on Tuesday 12 July 2022 at 7pm AEST.

Last year, Fr Joe published his memoirs in a book of the same name in which he recalled his many years of work as chaplain of the South African YCW movement under the apartheid regime during the 1970s and 180s.


South African Dominican priest, Fr Joe Falkiner op, was born in the town of Springs in 1934. After completing high school with the Christian Brothers, he studied geology at university.

After this, he began work with the Anglo-American Corporation mining conglomerate, which sent him to Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Through this work, he saw the terrible way in which black workers were treated by their employer, eventually leading to his resignation and search for his vocation.

In 1962, he applied to enter the Dominican Order, joining their community at Stellenbosch in 1963, leading to his ordination in 1969.

Soon after joining the Dominicans, he came into contact with local teams of the South African YCW. As a priest in a parish from 1970, he began a greater involvement with the movement, setting him on the path to eventually becoming national chaplain.

Fr Joe’s memoirs tell the story of this sometimes dangerous work, under the surveillance of the security police, at the height of the apartheid regime.


Gunther Simmermacher, Book review: A priest looks back (Australian Cardijn Institute)


A Priest for Workers: Memoirs of Father Joseph Falkiner OP (Cluster Publications)


Title: A Priest for Workers: Fr Joe Falkiner op on working with the YCW in South Africa under apartheid

Date: Tuesday 12 July 2022, 7pm AEST/11am South African time


A priest for workers looks back

Book Review: A PRIEST FOR WORKERS, by Father Joseph Falkiner OP. Cluster Publications, Pietermaritzburg. 2021. 245pp

Reviewed by Günther Simmermacher, editor, Southern Cross

Born into a middle-class family in the goldmining town of Springs, Joseph Falkiner grew up regarding the established order of racial segregation — and separation of township residents and migrant workers in the hostels — as a natural way of life. As he grew older, he realised that this perspective, from a position of privilege, wasn’t natural at all, and so Joe made it his life’s mission, chosen for him by God, to fight this established order — to become, as the book’s title promises, “a priest for the workers”. In his memoirs, Fr Falkiner recounts this ministry of over half a century.

Fr Falkiner has served working-class people in many ways, most notably through the Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement, which was founded in the 1920s in Belgium by Fr Joseph Cardijn, and now so sadly largely dormant in South Africa. But before he got there, and to his vocation as a Dominican priest, he had to make a secular journey of eye-opening experiences.

The first awakening was a posting in the 1950s as a prospecting geologist for Anglo-American in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), where he was in charge of a group of rural workers who were subjected to merciless corporate exploitation. This was followed by a stint of diamond prospecting in Namaqualand, where he lost all respect for his employers and, indeed, all corporations of their kind. Both experiences guided Catholic-raised Joe to work for God instead.

Fr Joe Falkiner OP

Fr Joe and the pope

In 1962, at the age of 28, he joined the Dominican order; he would be ordained on December 13, 1969 — on the very same day, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, received his holy orders in Argentina.

While studying at the Dominican priory in Stellenbosch, with its prevailing spirit of social justice, Joe was conscientised further. Ministry with working-class youths from the local coloured community led to his involvement with YCW, then a potent movement in South Africa with its See-Judge-Act method, which puts the “Gospel into action”.

Fr Falkiner explains this method, which also guided people like Archbishop Denis Hurley, in vivid detail — in the memoirs section of the book as well as in the illuminating appendix, which also outlines the Church’s Social Teachings, the Theology of Work, and work through the lens of Scripture.

God guided Fr Joe into other areas of activism, such as the nascent black trade unionism, which pre-1976 was a primary arena of the struggle against apartheid. As a priest in KwaThema, he had a hand in the first case in South Africa in which dismissed non-striking workers of colour, in this case at the Raleigh bicycle factory in Brakpan, successfully sued for their reinstatement. The day after the court judgment, there were queues of people wanting to join YCW. And this increased membership led to the establishment of several unions — whose meetings would always begin with a prayer.

The ascendancy of Cosatu as the dominant union federation meant that faith-based worker activism would be frozen out. As a result, Fr Falkiner notes, history has ignored the pivotal role of YCW in the rise of black trade unions.

Apartheid’s great enemy

The regime certainly did not ignore YCW, whose members were routinely detained. At one point, Fr Falkiner recalls, police minister Jimmy Kruger singled out YCW as one of apartheid’s three greatest enemies. The 1988 bombing of Khanya House, the SACBC’s Pretoria headquarters — also mentioned in the book — showed just how much the regime saw the Catholic Church in general as a threat.

In the post-apartheid era, YCW faded away, for various reasons which Fr Falkiner outlines. But, as he explains, the See-Judge-Act method is still being used and promoted today.

As good memoirs do, this one name-checks important people whom the author encountered in his journey. Four notable representatives of Catholic Social Teachings activism stand out: the late labour leader Eric Tyacke; Sam Ntuli, an activist and convert who was assassinated in 1991; and the late Roddy Mzwandile Nunes and John Capel, who successively coordinated the SACBC’s Commission for Church and Work, until it was arbitrarily closed down in 2002, despite having sufficient funding (that decision put an end to the annual Workers’ Sundays).

Fr Falkiner runs through his life briskly, in short chapters. It is difficult to put this readable book down. Despite its weighty themes, there is some light relief in occasional anecdotes, including one in which Fr Joe finds himself propositioned by a prostitute. But Fr Falkiner doesn’t dwell long on personal matters: the author keeps the focus firmly on his ministry and God’s presence in it.

A Priest for Workers can be ordered at R200 ($A18.50 plus p&p at


A Priest for Workers Looks Back (Southern Cross)

Thanks to Gunther Simmermacher and Southern Cross for permission to reproduce this review.