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Pope Francis honours SA educated ambassador George Johannes with a knighthood

By Brian Williams

Angels flew across the Cape Flats and remembered that a young boy from Elsies River, who was educated by Holy Cross Sisters at Saint Augustine’s in Parow, was somewhere in Europe.

He went into exile during the dark days of apartheid and mobilised for peace and justice. These angels noted that today, he was now a man tasked with great responsibilities on behalf of the South African nation. They then flew off to Europe and were assembled at the Vatican to witness a remarkable and historic event.

On June 18, His Holiness Pope Francis honoured His Excellency George Johannes, a Cape Flats man, with a knighthood, titled “Knight of the Order of Pope Pius IX”. His Excellency Johannes is now the South African Ambassador to the Holy See based in Vatican City. George had his name written into permanent papal history when he accepted this magnificent honour. Pope Francis is the political head as well as the spiritual leader of 1.4 billion Catholics, who can be found in every country on this planet.

His Excellency Johannes was taught by Catholic Nuns and Sister Mary, the current Provincial Leader of the Holy Cross Sisters, expressed pride at the achievement of George. By all accounts, George was a bit naughty, liked to tease but was really a bright and inquisitive boy. He was always concerned about the plight of the destitute and downtrodden. George completed his South African schooling at Trafalgar High. It was no surprise that he became active within the liberation movement and went into exile. George points out that he “worked with the great Oliver Tambo in Lusaka & many of the political giants of our struggle.”

He is the first South African to be honoured in this way. He is also the only South African who was formally received as an Ambassador by Pope Benedict and then Pope Francis. George is the first permanent Ambassador to the Vatican, the smallest country in the world but one of the most globally influential on the international stage.

George, in a post-apartheid setting worked with the current Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni in the first reconstituted Department of Labour after the April 1994 election. His expertise was in international relations and this required travel across the world. He had many international postings and immediately before his appointment as a permanent Ambassador to the Holy See, George was the Ambassador to Switzerland.

His Excellency Johannes said “the Holy See is a powerful strategic partner which plays big on the world stage”. He identified that “the Holy See has peace missions across the world”.

He gave examples of the Cuba and US agreement that ended the cold war, brokered by Pope Francis. He also referred to a number of peace initiatives in Africa such as the revitalised peace agreement in South Sudan and the cessation of hostilities in Mozambique.

His Excellency Johannes said “the Holy See contributes billions of rand for our country's social funding to support the poor and destitute”.

On June 18, His Holiness Pope Francis honoured His Excellency George Johannes, a Cape Flats man, with a knighthood, titled “Knight of the Order of Pope Pius IX”.

Catholics provide a vast network of schools, a national university (Saint Augustine), clinics, social welfare, children and youth centres, medical support services for the vulnerable and seniors, learning and entrepreneurial centres, refugee and migrant support, social development programmes and a host of human development projects.

Dr Craayenstein, chairperson of the human rights organisation Protect UWC, who was also a fellow exile, lavished praise on the elevation of George to such a prominent position.

Arthur Johannes, a lawyer, deacon and George's brother, said “wonderful” and “profound” were the words shared by Father Wim Lindeque, head of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Church, on the ennoblement of His Excellency Johannes.

I was extremely overjoyed when I discovered from George that he had received such a great honour. We met a lifetime ago and we have remained friends and comrades ever since. Over the years we maintained contact and recently I asked his permission to write about the global recognition of his noble elevation.

I really had to twist his arm very hard, the Cape Flats way (!). This article is a confirmation that George eventually had to yield and allow South Africa and the world to know about his great achievement.

George gave a message of hope for young people. He urged them to dream, educate themselves, to work for peace and to oppose injustice everywhere. George ended his discussion with the famous quote from Saint Francis that “all the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle”. We must shatter hopelessness and light the way for the most vulnerable among us.



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