Rosebank.07.02.13. The children of the late Helen Kotze at the veteran political activist's memorial service on Thursday, 07 February in the Rosebank Methodist church. Picture Ian Landsberg

Hundreds of mourners paid tribute this week to “Theo’s priceless gem” at a memorial service for Helen Kotze, who was honoured for her behind-the-scenes fight against apartheid.

The wife of the late struggle theologian Reverend Theo Kotze, Helen passed away in Cape Town aged 92 last month.

Addressing a packed Rosebank Methodist Church on Thursday afternoon, the family’s close friend and fellow theologian activist Charles Villa-Vicencio described Theo as the “committed opstoker” and Helen as the “rock” who was the “mother of the Christian Institute” in Cape Town, a stalwart of the Black Sash and a “champion of the poor”.

Together, the couple, who had five children, were a “formidable pair who paid “an enormous price” in the fight against apartheid.

As activists at the Christian Institute in Mowbray, their home was searched and shot at by security police. In 1977 the Institute and Theo were banned, leaving him with no choice but to cross the border into Botswana. Helen and her family followed, embarking on a new journey into exile “beginning to pay the price in a new way – the loneliness of exile”.

After 15 years of being uprooted, the couple returned to South Africa in 1993 – at the dawn of the new SA.

The couple’s son Derek told the friends at the service that his mother’s life “could not be described as a happy one, but it was a rich one”.

Another close family friend and activist, Horst Kleinschmidt said that in the liberated SA, Helen’s values remained what they were before 1994, a life in search of ‘justice and honesty”.

“The struggle left them with no house of their own and every cent had to be turned twice before it was spent. They never complained nor had regrets,” said Kleinschmidt.

The story of the Kotzes and of the Christian Institute had not yet found its place in South African history, and it “deserves remembering”, he said.

The Institute and the Mowbray office was a place of education, where a “small and beleaguered community of apartheid opponents” of all races gathered, where they set an example in living an alternative life to apartheid.

Kleinschmidt said that like so many others, Helen had been forgotten for her freedom-fighting role after liberation in 1994.

This was why in her Diep River retirement home, Helen was very proud of the National Orders award, the order of Luthuli, that Theo was given posthumously by the president in 2009 for his contribution to democracy. - [email protected]