Integrity on Trial



– a 90 minute documentary


When John Rees was arrested & charged by the State for not accounting for some R 379 000 raised from the international church community to aid victims of apartheid, only two things could have saved him:

i] a readiness on the part of those victims of apartheid that he had helped, to come forward & testify – something they could not do for fear of punishment at the hands of the regime;

ii] a willingness on John’s part to reveal from who and to whom he had received and disbursed the money – something he could easily have done but unequivocally refused to consider.

For John – to even contemplate disclosure – would have constituted a betrayal that was totally contrary to his faith, impeccable integrity, Christian values & steadfast commitment to the cause of social justice.

“So John had to suffer ….

many opponents of apartheid suffered, but John’s crucifixion was of a uniquely excruciating kind.

It was not his vision, nor his convictions that were put on trial, but that place within himself that he prized most dearly – his integrity.

From the times we talked together, prayed and wept together, I testify today that John’s conscience was clear.

His family knows that and so do many others.

But the pain!

That never left him.”

Bishop Peter Storey:

Former president of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa

& the South African Council of Churches.

Memorial service for John Charles Rees

Central Methodist Church, Johannesburg

19 October 1994

Rudyard Kipling, English journalist, author & poet once wrote:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

In today’s world, Kipling’s words are a distant echo & awkward  reminder of a seemingly quaint paternalistic remote idealistic value system envisioned in a different & far-removed reality.

But – as demonstrated in his response to the hand dealt him by life – these sentiments resonate with the unambiguous reference points of the value system of John Rees.

Tall, burly, straight brown hair neatly brushed back, speaking earnestly and forcefully, living a family life in a modest house in Johannesburg’s Kensington suburb, driving the same second-hand signature family sedan, he seemed the epitome of a conservative, conventional man – except for his unusual hobby of making musical boxes – one such consisting of chimes inside a giant ostrich egg.

Yet, to those who knew – in his thinking & actions – John Rees was totally unconventional.

His devout Methodism and his belief in applying his religious beliefs in his everyday life had taken him into working – first as a location superintendent in community of Soweto – and then into what he went on to do in fighting apartheid.

John Rees had been the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches [SACC] for six years when the fateful events of 16 June 1976 occurred & police opened fire on schoolchildren in Soweto protesting against the enforced use of the Afrikaans language to teach some subjects, notably mathematics.         It was a turning-point in South Africa’s history.

The bullet that felled young Hector Peterson that day was the beginning of the end for apartheid.

But at the time, many thousands of people suffered as the government quelled resistance that spread through the country.

Officially, the police killed some 500 people, mainly youngsters – in media circles the figure was thought to be some 1 000.

Parents often did not know what had happened to their children – whether they had been shot by the police and their bodies hidden, detained without trial or had fled the country to seek military training to return one day to fight.

The SACC already had a task division called the Dependents’ Conference, set up in 1963, using social workers to help families of political prisoners and detainees.

But events now overwhelmed this.

In response, John Rees took the lead in rapidly raising millions of dollars from churches in Europe and the United States for the specially created “Asingeni” Relief Fund.

“Asingeni”, meaning “We will not go in”, was chosen to express solidarity with the Soweto pupils who were boycotting classes.

Through this fund & the finance raised by John Rees, the SACC provided financial aid for countless families of youths shot by the police or detained without trial.

‘Asingeni’ covered the massive fees for the legal defense of hundreds of activists accused in courts of terrorism or treason and for the inquests of those killed.

The biggest contributions came from churches in West Germany, with further significant contributions from the Netherlands, Switzerland, Scandinavia, the US and UK.

When ‘Asingeni’ was set up, basic to its everyday coping with emergency needs was that John Rees had discretionary power over the money that poured in from abroad.

He could decide whom to support and to what extent.

It later became known that he had used this discretionary power for about twenty percent of donated monies, the rest of which was reported and audited.

As Rees was later to explain, many of the people he helped were members of the banned African National Congress and Pan-Africanist Congress, both outlawed and illegal since 1960.

Secrecy was crucial, but it was ultimately to undo him.

In 1983, John Rees, once the eminent General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, was put on trial by the apartheid regime.

Refusing – under penalty of prison – to disclose sources & recipients of the discretionary funding, John Rees was found guilty of stealing R 256 000 of funds donated to the SACC’s ‘Asingeni’ Fund.

Somewhat reluctantly, Judge Goldstone sentenced Rees to ten years’ imprisonment suspended for five years, and a fine of R30 000 or six years’ imprisonment.

The fine could be paid in three installments over 18 months.     Given the dimensions of the criminal charges it was a remarkably light sentence.

Friends immediately paid the fine but fellow Christians damned him.

The SACC – gravely embarrassed – was deeply divided on the issue & the churches were riven by dissent.

The Apartheid government rejoiced about the damage done to an organisation – which it accused of fomenting revolution in the guise of Christianity – and seizing the opportunity presented by Rees’ conviction the regime instituted the Eloff Commission of Enquiry to investigate funding received by the SACC from international sources – a move that threatened the very existence of the Council & its critical work in providing relief to the victims of apartheid.

Rees’ public reputation and livelihood were destroyed.

The council of churches’ Executive, meeting with leaders of member churches, condemned Rees outright: he had ‘deceived the very body he built… ; deceived its office bearers and displayed a lack of Christian trust in the structure of the SACC; and by his actions contributed towards the situation which led to government appointment of the Eloff Commission’.

Yet there was always a question mark over the trial and conviction and one contrary voice in particular was raised – that of the Rev Peter Storey, SACC President and President of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

To his friends, Rees was an exemplar of honesty and integrity – it wasn’t possible that he was a fraudster and a thief.

Peter Storey felt so strongly that he resigned as President of the South African Council of Churches.

He spoke about the ‘persecution’ of John Rees.

Other Methodists rallied round Rees and the local synod paid tribute to him for ‘the extent and excellence of his many years of service to the church’.

He and his family received more than 4 000 letters of support from churches, friends and organizations.

However, many accepted that Rees had been properly convicted.

During his tenure as General Secretary, John Rees had “transformed the Council of Churches beyond recognition, from a body employing six people into one employing seventy and making the promotion of black people a priority,” wrote John Allen in his biography of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The push for black advancement – highly unusual at the time – opened the way on 1 March 1978 to appoint the first black person as general secretary: Desmond Tutu, then the Anglican Bishop of Lesotho and previously its Dean in Johannesburg.

Rees handed over an organization with an annual budget of R3 million, ninety-eight percent of which came from abroad.

He gave Tutu details of twenty-seven trust funds and twenty-two divisional accounts for which the General Secretary was responsible.

The Council’s executive voted a fulsome thank you to Rees for his work.

A Council member spoke of him as a ‘kind of whiz kid’ who needed to be replaced by a ‘superhuman administrator’.

Tutu, in his inimitable way, later said: ‘I tried on his shoes and found them several sizes too large.

So I decided I could not emulate John.

All I could do was to be what I know best to be – myself.’

On leaving the executive of the SACC, John Rees became director of the South African Institute of Race Relations.

There too he was energetic and innovative & revolutionized the traditional liberal body – changing its focus from pure research to racial affairs & community participation – giving rise to projects such as Operation Hunger which for years to come provided food to the starving.

On 23 June 1982, Rees was in a meeting with a mining company, and about to receive a donation for his Institute of Race Relations, when the police arrested him.

With the obvious intention of humiliating him, he was kept in jail overnight.

He appeared in court the next morning and was freed after bail was set at the high amount of R 30 000.

After the rush to arrest Rees, he had to wait ten months before going on trial in April 1983 in the Supreme Court, Johannesburg, before Judge Richard Goldstone.

He pleaded not guilty to 43 charges of fraud, alternatively theft, involving R 379 000: that between 4 June 1975 and 2 May 1978 he had requisitioned cheques from council funds and paid them into 51 personal bank and building society accounts.

In all this, there was not the slightest evidence that Rees had in any way enriched himself: he went on living in the same modest way, driving the same modest signature car & living in a modest house in a modest suburb.

His use of multiple bank accounts was strange but that was the way he handled his finances as a way to create a smokescreen in handling secret funds.

The Rees trial over, friends who believed in him arranged for him to become director of Johannesburg’s Avril Elizabeth Home for the mentally handicapped, which was for whites.

He also became the driving force behind the first home for black mentally handicapped – Takalani in Soweto which housed 750 people.

The Methodist Church’s African Old Age Feeding Scheme was another of the projects he initiated and directed.

There was no end to the scope of his activities in a range of organisations which cared for the elderly, the homeless and victims of violence.

He was also concerned that black people should take their rightful place in private business and was a considerable force behind the scenes in securing breakthroughs.

In October 1991, State President FW de Klerk in agreement with Nelson Mandela appointed Judge Goldstone to head a commission ‘to investigate human rights abuses committed by the country’s various political factions’.

Rees was appointed to the ‘The Victims of Violence’ committee – which was somewhat remarkable recognition and respect for him across a wide spectrum of South Africans less than nine years after his criminal trial – and even more because it was at the initiative of the judge who had convicted him.

Within months, early in 1994, John Rees was diagnosed with leukemia.

No treatment was able to halt the disease.

As death approached later that year he told friend & Journalist, Benjamin Pogrund that he had received a phone call from someone who confessed that he had been responsible for feeding information to the police which had resulted in John’s prosecution.

Benjamin wanted to pursue the call and publicise the truth about his conviction.

But John would not disclose who it was, saying he it was all in the past.

“I thought his attitude came from his Christian belief in forgiveness” said Benjamin.

On his death-bed, John wrote letters to Judge Goldstone and others who had been involved in his trial.

He gave Benjamin a copy of his letter to Goldstone:

‘By the time this letter reaches you, I will be dead and buried and have wanted to write to you for a long time, firstly because I am a great admirer of the work that you have achieved for South Africa… I have lived a very full life and done everything that I have ever wanted to do for my fellow human-beings.

         Interestingly enough just out of curiosity I tried to calculate how much money I had raised for projects and other ventures and it is well over R50 million, much of that was achieved since the case.

         ‘Turning to the case for a moment, it must have been a puzzling matter for you, a seeming fool who has lived in the same house for thirty three years, had no aspiration other than that to bring up a family in a deeply Christian manner and suddenly be accused of pinching R 256 000 out of the millions that he handled.

         I am grateful you never sent me to jail – it was a possibility.

         ‘Just in case you ever had any lingering doubt, I would like you to know that I never touched one lousy penny of the money I was accused of pinching and the secret of how and to whom I managed to get the money will go to the grave with me.

         Suffice it to say that the majority of people that I helped hold very high office today and are known to you and me personally… ‘     

         John Rees died a month later, on 15 October 1994,

         at the age of 57.




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