By Gerry Lynch
CAPE TOWN, 24 June 2011 – An interfaith service of commemoration was held yesterday in Cape Town in memory of Fr. Bernie Wrankmore, an Anglican priest and courageous and distinctive fighter against apartheid. Wrankmore died last week in the city aged 86.
After Imam Abdullah Haron, an anti-apartheid activist and Imam in the city’s Claremont suburb, died in police custody, Wrankmore undertook a 67-day fast in 1971 in an attempt to persuade the government to launch a commission of inquiry into Haron’s death. Although Haron’s body showed clear signs of torture, a magistrate backed the police story that Haron had fallen down stone steps. Emaciated and suffering from oedema as a result of living on mountain water and orange juice for over two months, Wrankmore came off the mountain after securing a meeting with then Prime Minister John Vorster who, while courteous, refused to open an inquiry.
“He was very strong-minded and strong-willed, and what he stood up for was always right,” Wrankmore’s widow, Val, said. “He was against detention without trial and he thought he had to do something about it.”
Wrankmore undertook his fast first inside, and later in a caravan next to, one of the cosmopolitan city’s holiest Muslim shrines, the kramat on Signal Hill, with its commanding view. It was there that Christians and Muslims gathered with members of other faiths and none to remember these remarkable men on a blustery midwinter day. Wrankmore and Haron never met and in many ways were an unlikely pair – a politically conservative priest with a keen sense of right and wrong and a radical Imam whose activism and openness to working with people of all religious and racial backgrounds offended conservative elements in the Muslim community. That it was left to Wrankmore to challenge the government on Haron’s death while cautious elements within the city’s Muslim leadership kept quiet, transformed Christian-Muslim relations in Cape Town and acted as midwife to the city’s blooming interfaith scene.
Wrankmore’s hunger strike was only one part of a ministry which was colourful, individual and committed to living out the Gospel of Christ regardless of risk. Fr. Wrankmore famously hated churchiness and church services, and was for many years chaplain at Cape Town’s Missions to Seamen, in the city’s tough docklands. As containerisation dramatically changed the shipping industry, the Mission – a vital resource for vulnerable mariners but also the Wrankmore family home – was left isolated in a gang-ridden industrial wasteland. Gangs would wait to ambush and rob foreign sailors, and Wrankmore’s sons recalled how they would help their mother staunch stab victims’ wounds until ambulances arrived. Wrankmore once caber-tossed a would-be burglar out of the Mission head first.
Wrankmore was ordained in his late 30s after serving as a soldier in North Africa during World War Two, then working as a gym instructor, deerstalker and crayfish diver. Along with his wife and children, Wrankmore’s lifelong passion was as a square dance instructor, something he continued well into his 80s.
Yesterday’s ceremony was organised by the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum and the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative and was devised and led by District Six Priest and interfaith activist, Fr. John Oliver.