Celebrating The Life and Times of the Rt. Bishop David Russell

The Right Reverend David Patrick Hamilton Russell (1938 - 2014)

The Late Bishop David Russell (right) with SBF CEO N. Biko at the Biko3030 Gala in 2007.

As we celebrate Women's Month in South Africa, we remember a man who supported the rights of women to the end; Bishop David Russell.

In summary: For his excellent contribution and commitment to opposing the apartheid system as a church leader and for taking a brave stand on many thorny issues to ensure that South Africa became a democratic society, David Patrick Russell was awarded the Order of the Baobab in Silver.

Born in the late 1930s, David Russell became involved in the struggle against apartheid from an early age. He did his first degree at the University of Cape Town, and then studied for a Masters Degree at Oxford University. He trained for the priesthood at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, England, and later obtained his PhD in Religious Studies (specialising in Christian Ethics) from the University of Cape Town. In 1965 he was ordained as the 12th Bishop of Grahamstown.

A lifelong activist, Bishop Russell, who passed away on August 17th, 2014 after a long battle with cancer, was a friend of Steve Biko and many others fighting apartheid. His support assisted the Black Consciousness Movement in carrying out a number of projects, particularly those facilitated by the Black Community Programmes.

Among Russell’s many acts of defiance was when on August 8th, 1977 he laid down in front of trucks and bulldozers to protest against forced removals from Modderdam in the Western Cape, an area declared “whites only”. He was forcibly dragged by police and arrested as an “enemy of the state”. The apartheid regime served him with a five-year banning order on October 1977 restricting him to Cape Town.

Defying these banning orders, and found in possession of a book – Biko – by Donald Woods, he was sentenced in 1980 to a one year jail sentence. He denounced apartheid injustices and the arrests of anti-apartheid activists as vicious and pointed out that such kind of injustices filled people with “revulsion, bitterness and anger”.

The ministry of women in the church was affirmed when the first female priests in the Anglican Church in southern Africa were ordained by Bishop Russell in 1992. He is honoured for his role in opposing the apartheid system as a church leader and for taking a brave stand on many thorny issues to ensure that South Africa became a democratic society.

Later in life, Bishop Russell was a founding member of the Steve Biko Foundation’s Board of Trustees and served in this role from 1998 - 2009. In recognition of his contribution to the liberation struggle and ongoing pursuit of social justice, Russell was nominated for a national order by the Foundation, and subsequently conferred with the Order of Baobab in Silver by President Jacob Zuma.

While saddened by his passing, the Foundation celebrates the enormous contribution Bishop Russell made to the South African liberation struggle and development at large. “He will always be remembered for his role in fighting apartheid, and the memory of his contributions will continue to inspire coming generations”, said SBF CEO Nkosinathi Biko. 

On 27 April 2011, the State President, Jacob G Zuma, conferred Bishop David Patrick Russell with the Order of the Baobab in Silver for his outstanding contribution to the theological field.

According to the Steve Biko Foundation’s Director, Ms Obenewa Amponsah, “Bishop Russell was an ardent advocate of human rights and his concern for the rights of women was an important aspect of his ministry. Even in retirement he remained an outspoken advocate for inclusivity”. A staunch advocate for social justice and as one who stood firmly on the side of the oppressed, Bishop David Russell will not only be missed by the Steve Biko Foundation, but friends and communities throughout South Africa and the international community.

Bishop Russell is survived by his wife Dorothea and two sons.

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