DESMOND MPILO TUTU (7 October 1931 – 26 December 2021)
So long Arch, thanks for the love
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu died on 26 December 2021. He left the legacy of an anti-apartheid fighter, rainbow-nation builder and a truly peerless human being.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, when asked by a child what one had to do in order to win the Nobel Prize, gamely explained: “It’s very easy, you just need three things – you must have an easy name, like Tutu for example, you must have a large nose and you must have sexy legs.”
Tutu’s humour was perennial, his laughter described as infectious. In the United States, when confronted by a woman who ran up and greeted him with “Hello Archbishop Mandela”, he warmly congratulated her – not to her face – on getting two for the price of one.
The Arch — credited with coining the phrase “Rainbow Nation”, although the phrase he actually used was “Rainbow People of God” — became known, despite his peaceful approach, for his unflinching stance on human rights abuses both during and after apartheid.
“People who call pacifists weak,” he said, “that’s not the case. Actually, you go into confrontation. You confront violent people without weapons, and your confrontation draws out their violence, as it did in Birmingham with the dogs, as it did in South Africa with the dogs. And that worked beautifully in Cape Town in those few months.”
Speaking of the Defiance Campaign, he told of the police violence that spread from the townships to the city centre.
“There was a particular evening,” he recounted, “in which the Anglican Cathedral went to a judge to seek an order to stop the police from beating people up indiscriminately on the streets. Well, the police lawyer had considerable difficulty persuading the judge not to grant the order when the judge’s own clerk had been beaten up on the way to court to hear the case that evening.”
Celebrating his 75th birthday, he said the highlight was looking back at his life and “realising it is possible for good to overcome evil and to know that we can do it together”.
The simplicity of this statement belies the enormous role Tutu played both in South Africa and globally, and the complexities he was willing to tackle as a campaigner. As the first black Archbishop of Cape Town and Bishop of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa, he became internationally known in the 1980s as a result of his anti-apartheid activism.
Later, he fought for the rights of those living with HIV/Aids, worked to raise awareness about tuberculosis, and campaigned against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. He also became known for his outspoken views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the Darfur conflict; South Africa’s policy of “quiet diplomacy” on Zimbabwe and, later, the ANC corruption.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” he said. “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Born in Klerksdorp in 1931, in what was then the Transvaal, Desmond Mpilo Tutu was the second of four children. As a young man, he wanted to study medicine, but his family was unable to pay for his studies — his mother, Aletta Tutu, was a cook and cleaner, and his father, Zacheriah Tutu, was a teacher. The Tutu family endured multiple relocations during Tutu’s childhood. After one of these moves, he met Trevor Huddleston, who was working as a parish priest in Sophiatown.
Huddleston befriended Tutu when the young boy was sick with tuberculosis and became a mentor to him for many years. In an early encounter with Huddleston, Tutu recalls the priest tipping his hat at Tutu’s mother. Tutu was indelibly impressed. It was the first time he had seen a white man raise his hat to a black, working-class woman.
Tutu did not join the Church then, however. He became a teacher, studying at the Pretoria Bantu Normal College until 1953, but resigned in protest after the Bantu Education Act was passed. He then returned to his studies, in which he excelled, opting this time for theology at St Peter’s Theological College in Rosettenville. In 1961, he was ordained.
In 1962, he travelled to London, where he received his master’s degree in theology from King’s College. He worked at a number of churches in the UK, but returned to South Africa some years later, becoming chaplain at the University of Fort Hare in the late 1960s. He did, however, spend some time back in London in the 1970s, having been appointed vice-director of the Theological Education Fund of the World Council of Churches.
He married Leah in 1955, with whom he later established the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation. Dedicated to providing what they called “accountable servant leadership”, the pair worked through the foundation towards conflict resolution, the promotion of tolerance, and facilitating health and wellbeing among those in need. The foundation would also function as an umbrella organisation for the Tutus’ many other charitable endeavours, which included the Desmond Tutu Educational Trust — a fund aiming to finance developmental programmes in tertiary education.
The couple had four children: Trevor, Theresa, Naomi and Mpho. Mpho, herself a Reverend, made headlines when she married Marceline van Furth. Tutu senior had long advocated against homophobia, famously calling it the “new apartheid” and stating that if gay people couldn’t go to heaven, he’d rather go to hell.
“I am as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about apartheid,” he said. “For me, it is at the same level.”
Tutu’s brand of Christianity may have afforded him some protection from security police and government persecution under apartheid. In later years, he also became a leader among more liberal theologians.
“[What] you have to understand is that the Bible is really a library of books and it has different categories of material,” he explained. “There are certain parts which you have to say no to. The Bible accepted slavery… There are many things that you shouldn’t accept.”
His prominent involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle began in the mid-1970s, around the time of the Soweto uprisings. He primarily supported the economic boycott of South Africa, becoming a vocal opponent of US President Ronald Reagan’s policy of “friendly persuasion” and “constructive engagement”. He compared apartheid to Nazism, and the government revoked his passport at least twice. He was also imprisoned for a night in 1980.
He became Bishop of Lesotho in 1976, a taxing position which sometimes involved eight-hour trips on horseback in the course of his ministry. Two years later, he became Secretary-General of the South African Council of Churches. This placed him in the ideal position to continue his work against the apartheid regime with the support of the churches, and to continue to advocate reconciliation as a long-term solution.
His frequent travels, meanwhile, enabled him to educate members of the international community on the brutalities of apartheid. By the time the apartheid government proposed a new Constitution in 1983 that would prove even more devastating to equality, Tutu was instrumental in the National Forum Committee that opposed the changes.
After the fall of apartheid, Tutu’s most notable role was in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which he chaired. The TRC initially played a positive role in South Africa’s international image. However, it became clear in later years that mending the deep fissures left by apartheid would be a Herculean task.
Former Minister of Justice Dullah Omar described the TRC as “a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation”. Nevertheless, it drew criticism from those who believed it primarily served perpetrators — granting amnesty — while victims were left with little in terms of tangible redress.
Fanie du Toit of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation — of which Tutu was a patron — wrote on the TRC’s 20th anniversary:
“Many of those who shunned the work of the Commission when it was in operation now quote its work as proof of national forgiveness and the need to move on and forget apartheid… The TRC was never mandated to effect forgiveness or to urge South Africans to deny their past. Its core task, set out in the act, was the opposite: To make sure we never forgot, and that forgiveness, in cases where it did happen, would not come cheap.”
He added: “[It is] convenient nowadays to cast the TRC as a sell-out or cover-up of apartheid structural violence. This helps to feed the narrative pleading for a more radical and aggressive policy of black redress, outside constitutional confines, if necessary. It aims to discredit the transition from apartheid to democracy as ‘fake’, forgetting the enormous shift in political power.”
Tutu retired as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996, congratulated by his friend and colleague Nelson Mandela as having made “an immeasurable contribution” to the country. It was not really a retirement, however, since Tutu continued his work as an activist internationally.
He involved himself in innumerable causes, also launching a global plan to register all children at birth and fight against child marriage, arguing instead for the education of young girls. He announced his retirement from public life in 2010, but continued to go to his office once a week until his health deteriorated. From around 2016, he was in and out of hospital with a persistent infection.
In the last years of his life, he remained a guiding light despite his fewer public appearances. When he was vaccinated for Covid-19, he said, “All my life I have tried to do the right thing and, today, getting vaccinated against Covid-19 is definitely the right thing to do.”
He was one of the early struggle stalwarts to call into question former president Jacob Zuma’s fitness for office, saying that he would not be able to hold his head high if Zuma — following the scandal of rape and corruption charges — were to lead the country. The ANC, he said, “stopped the gravy train just long enough to get on themselves”.
At the time of his retirement, he lamented having spent “too much time in airports and hotels”, which denied him the opportunity to “grow old gracefully” — but if there is no rest for the wicked, there was surely no rest for the holy either.
“We were made to enjoy music, to enjoy beautiful sunsets, to enjoy looking at the billows of the sea and to be thrilled with a rose that is bedecked with dew,” he once said.
“Human beings are created for the transcendent, for the sublime, for the beautiful, for the truthful… and all of us are given the task of trying to make this world a little more hospitable to these beautiful things.”
Desmond Tutu, in his time on earth, surely did. DM
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