Billy Paddock was of Irish extraction and grew up in Durban in the 1950s. He attended Glenwood High School and excelled at athletics: he won Natal colours and later completed the Comrades Marathon. His political consciousness was awakened at the University of Natal in Durban in the early 1970s as an Engineering student, when he became involved in the Student Christian Movement. He edited a journal,Through the Cross, which argued strongly for Christian social justice in South Africa.
He returned to the university later in the 1970s as a Social Science student and became involved in student politics, as Projects Officer on the SRC and also one of its Vice-Presidents. Billy was committed to youth ministry in the Anglican Church and looked after a parish in Durban’s southern suburbs. He was accepted as a candidate for ordination and spent a year at St Paul’s Theological Seminary in Grahamstown.
Billy was a member of Archbishop Tutu’s South African Council of Churches-sponsored delegation to Europe in the late 1970s, designed to highlight the plight of ordinary South Africans and the urgent need for the world to bring pressure for change.
Billy rose to wider national prominence as a result of his decision not to serve in the South African Defence Force (SADF). At the time of his call-up (which had been deferred because of his candidacy for the ministry) he was reflecting on his position and working in industry. One of a very small group of conscientious objectors willing to face jail rather than leave the country, Billy was court-martialled in 1982. Billy based his stand on the fact that at the time, the SADF was waging an unjust war against the people of Namibia. As he said in his defence, ‘I cannot enter the SADF because of the role it plays in defending the structural violence of the South African system. I am then confronted with two options: to leave the country or to object. I did not want to leave the country as I believe I have a role to play in liberating its people.’
Archbishop Desmond Tutu strongly defended him at his trial, the only member of the Anglican hierarchy to do so. He said from the witness stand, ‘Humans are not robots but decision-making animals and the teaching of the Bible through the church says an individual must always obey his conscience. If he violates his conscience he sins, therefore he is always obliged to obey his conscience’.
Billy, supported by the Conscientious Objectors Support Group and the End Conscription Campaign, was sentenced to two years imprisonment, later reduced. He served his time in Pretoria Central Prison. On his release, he took up photography, strongly encouraged by leading social documentary photographers of the time, such as Omar Badsha.
Billy proved fearless in capturing the turbulent days of protest as the campaigns of the UDF gathered momentum. He was often the only witness to street protests in Durban’s townships. He wrote off more than one car, as stones and other missiles rained down on him. On one occasion he threw his film out of the back of a police van after he had been arrested, so that his pictures had a chance of avoiding confiscation and destruction. His photographs of that time form an immensely important record of popular campaigns for justice in South Africa and have rightly become internationally recognised.
Billy’s talent of recording unfolding events meant that he also took to journalism. He spent time as a correspondent for Agence France Presse and also for the Guardian in Namibia. By the time of his tragic death in a car accident in May 1994, on the eve of the majority rule he had so longed to see, he had risen to be political editor of Business Day.
He was a prolific writer, photographer, activist, indefatigable friend and one of the truly brave heroes of the struggle for freedom.