DESMOND MPILO TUTU (7 OCTOBER 1931 – 26 DECEMBER 2021)
Reflections on a flawed, funny human who wanted to be loved, above all
It would be futile to seek a definitive measure of Desmond Tutu in his life. What matters is the consistency of his focus. He said that he hurt less than he had done during his earlier years, but that his wounds persisted.
Ever the performer, the Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu, who died on Sunday, had survived delicate health, cancer, frequent hospitalisation and, most recently, in October this year, fake media rumours of his death.
Tutu’s final assertion that medically assisted dying would allow us to leave Mother Earth with dignity, was considered a denial of faith by many, igniting fears that this would lead vulnerable disabled people to end their lives.
A dramatic ending was hardly out of place for Tutu, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his role as a unifying figure in South Africa’s non-violent struggle for liberation. The archbishop provided a running show for the nation as chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996. He used his gifts of emotional articulation to inject a spectacular tension into a confrontation with state-sponsored atrocity. When he spoke out about HIV/Aids in the thick of the Mbeki-era silence, I arranged an interview with him through the auspices of a communication company, which took place in a minibus taxi.
Always on target, on Monday, he was teaching the world to forgive; on Tuesday, he’d rather have gone to hell than to a homophobic heaven; on Wednesday, it was freedom of speech on Palestine; on Thursday, he called for respect for the rule of law; and on Friday, he urged us to take stewardship of the Earth.
Throughout his life, Tutu raised his voice in protest and was in turn the butt of intense criticism. His insistence on forgiveness and reconciliation is yet to be forgiven by many who have branded him a sell-out for letting apartheid beneficiaries off the hook, only to call later for a “white tax” as a form of delayed reparation. Many saw his coaxing and pleading with victims and their families to forgive perpetrators for egregious crimes against humanity, as showmanship. His insistent and stubborn nomination of National Party president FW de Klerk to share the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela, despite his subsequent regret when De Klerk denied that he was aware of the death squads and other human rights atrocities, earned Tutu no favours either.
I waited almost a year to be granted an interview with Tutu in 2008, after reading The Open Road, Pico Iyer’s book about his Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, describing the close friendship of the two spiritual celebrities.
Tutu’s characterisation of himself as a wounded healer refers to the Jungian conception of a healing process made possible by delving into the darkness of the personal story, making whole what has been broken. The quest for wholeness is the defining theme of Tutu’s life work, connecting his spiritual search with his quest for justice.
During our interview, finally, in his Sandton hotel room, the archbishop was hospitable and focused.
I wanted to understand his concept of healing. I did not wish to talk to Tutu about forgiveness. Others had written about the influence of the German Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred in Nazi Germany for his defence of Jews, and his critique of the “cut-price grace” flogged by German Christianity, justifying sin and sinner.
I wanted Tutu to describe the issue of his faith. The Dalai Lama had declared that he and Tutu shared a similar spiritual approach; only their creators were different. Yet Tutu provided stock answers about the linearity of the Christian perspective, versus the Buddhist concept of liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth. He talked about “our human interconnectedness” and the ways in which whites dehumanised themselves in their dehumanisation of blacks. He believed in the consequences of action, in what he called “the world of soul making”.
At the time of our interview, the youth were giving him hell, although Fikile Mbalula, as outgoing African National Congress Youth League leader, later apologised for his hurtful attacks.
During our interview the archbishop spoke with surprising intimacy about the effect of the hormonal treatment against his prostate cancer and God’s blessing in creating women such as his wife, Nomalizo Leah. However, I could not make the discerning link between his histrionics and dramatic gifts that continued to force us into a confrontation with our darker side, while he moved along, creating foundations for men’s health and peace among youth, spitting fire at the unjust.
What had made him so brave?
The Archbishop Emeritus Njongonkulu Ndungane saw Tutu throw himself across the body of a suspected impimpi (informer) to stop him from being burnt to death by necklacing. Ndungane attributed this to “a reckless faith”.
Tutu cut a comical figure, a slight man with a limp, his ambitions to become a medical doctor never realised. When his teaching career was cut down by Bantu education, Tutu turned to the cloth perforce. He had come to the struggle for liberation as its interim leader by default as a consequence of the leadership vacuum, after Black Consciousness Movement leader Steve Biko was murdered in detention. The Nationalist Party wanted to lock Tutu up and the ANC on the ground thought his civil disobedience and disinvestment campaigns un-revolutionary.
Born on 7 October 1931 in Klerksdorp, in what was then the Transvaal, to Zachariah Zililo Tutu, an isiXhosa speaker, and Aletta Dorothea Mavoertsek Matlhare, a Motswana woman, Tutu’s childhood was circumscribed by racism and structural violence. His father, a teacher, was forced to supplement his paltry salary working as a “delivery boy” for a liquor store, and beat his mother. Tutu wrote about the unconditional love that shaped him but was to recall “the hard tangle of emotions that I bring to the memory of my father’s acts of violence”, as he tried to forgive himself for refusing to speak to his father before he died. Racist jibes angled at Tutu on the street and witnessing his father’s humiliation by whites cut deep and the wounds inflicted by this conflict would take a lifetime to salve.
During childhood, Tutu narrowly escaped death, twice; first from polio then from tuberculosis at age 14. His frequent visitor was the English anti-apartheid Anglican priest Father Trevor Huddleston, who took him into his parish as an altar boy.
Of course, I did not believe Tutu’s claim of his shock at discovering that South Africa’s own democratic leaders were allowing the revolution to swallow its children; he had been around, watching the restriction of freedoms and post-colonial ravages first hand. Crossing the continent in the 1970s and 1980s in his capacity as African director of the theological education fund of the South African Council of Churches he was to witness the ways in which the leaders of newly liberated countries decimated the rights of their citizens. The pan-African odyssey he made as African director of the Theological Education Fund (TEF) of the South African Council of Churches, which took off from Bromley in England in 1972 until 1975, is a lesser known aspect of Tutu’s biography.
The archbishop’s lessons in those years – about the failure of new governments to deal with the interethnic divisions sown by the colonialist past and the need for non-retributive justice – presented a model for conflict resolution beyond the continent. Threats of revenge in the aftermath of an attempted coup by the majority Hutu against the ruling minority Tutsis in Rwanda in 1972 persuaded Tutu of the need for restorative justice. In a 1995 address, he urged Rwandans to “break the cycle of killing” after the genocide in that country, and expressed “solidarity and participation as an African, as a human being and especially as a Christian”.
His work with the TEF brought him to black liberation theology, which dovetailed with black consciousness, which he had picked up at Fort Hare. He turned the arrogant western claims on a universal Christianity and demands on Africans to convert, first to westernisation before Christianity, on its head and he endeavoured to make faith work specifically for black people. The principles of non-retributive justice and ubuntu were built into the traditional life of black people and provided the cornerstones for his philosophy.
In our interview, I understood I would never come closer to resolving the apparent contradictions of his faith; which manifested in his kinetic relationship with God. Tutu at times raged against his God for permitting the suffering of black people, yet was inspired by Him to revolt against their perpetrators. He understood that God did not call for perfection but required human agency in the transfiguration of the world. “Join the winning side!” was his war cry. Decrying the continent’s devastating human rights record in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1989, Tutu warned, “Our God is a God who takes sides. Our God is a God who takes the side of the oppressed, of the poor and the downtrodden. We say to unjust rulers everywhere: Beware! Watch it! Look out in South Africa, look out wherever you may be, unjust ruler. We have no doubt we shall be free.”
It’s okay if Tutu’s attacks on leaders were not divinely inspired. Tutu was entertaining when he was bashing Mbeki’s “obsequious voting cattle”, and when he pronounced how much he would hate to have to admit that his president was Jacob Zuma when walking down a street in New York. But when US President Barack Obama invited Zuma to New York to receive an award, walking down the road with Zuma as president was not such a bad thing.
Nobody was calling for a rigid Archbishop Emeritus or a boring one and the fact that by his own admission he was unable to shut up in the face of injustice was compelling, even if he did claim to be “just a ventriloquist for causes”. It is not important that Tutu’s level of humility was lesser than that of, for instance, Chief Albert Luthuli’s, but Tutu’s fatal flaw, his uncompromising need for the limelight, was impossible to ignore.
When Tutu raged in the Observer in September 2012 against the lopsided world order that allowed a warmonger such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to be unleashed on leadership summits while recommending, for instance, that Zimbabwe’s leader, Robert Mugabe, be tried at The Hague and Bin Laden be killed, Nelson Jones in the New Statesman astutely probed the nature of Tutu’s “peculiar sort of soft power”, which he argued “owes little to any formal position and everything to personality, an image of saintliness and a high media profile”.
Tutu, nevertheless, frequently confronted his own self, aware of the danger of self-aggrandisement, the insecurity that propels arrogance. He confessed to, “a horrible but human weakness, in that I want very much to be loved – this desire to be loved can become an obsession and you can find you are ready to do almost anything to gain the approval of others”.
Surely Tutu’s God approved the compassionate premise of his final request to be allowed to go gently into the good night.
It would be futile to seek a definitive measure of the man in his life. What matters is the consistency of his focus. He said that he hurt less than he had done during his earlier years, but that his wounds persisted. DM
Maureen Isaacson’s essay Desmond Tutu; The Wounded Healer was published in Africa’s Peacemakers; Nobel laureates of African Descent, edited by Adekeye Adebajo, (Zed Books), January 2014.