Defend Truth


Reflection: Archbishop Desmond Tutu deftly combined the art of prayer with strategy

Reflection: Archbishop Desmond Tutu deftly combined the art of prayer with strategy
Flowers are placed outside St Georges Cathedral to honour the late Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu in Cape Town, South Africa on Thursday 30 December 2021. Tutu will lie in state for two days where the public can view him before his official funeral on Saturday 1 January 2022. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Tutu’s vocal opposition, first to apartheid, then to other worldly wrongs, sometimes hid his deep spirituality and belief in prayer. Likewise, his clerical robes sometimes disguised his keen strategic sense.  

The last white elections in South Africa, in early September 1989, were sheathed in violence.

Throughout the day and into the night, roads in Cape Town’s black townships were blocked by burning barricades. Gunfire punctuated the air. By the next morning, at least 20 people were reported killed.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu wept when he heard the news and retreated to his chapel in Bishopscourt. Then head of the Anglican Church, Tutu, who died this week aged 90, had spent most of the past month at the centre of increasingly violent clashes between police and anti-apartheid protesters.

St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town had become both a rallying point, and a place of refuge. On 2 September, police had broken up a protest. They whipped and beat bystanders, including foreign tourists. From armoured water cannons, they sprayed the protesters with purple dye – the idea being that those stained purple could be easily identified for arrest afterwards. (This was the genesis of the wry graffiti on a city building: “The purple shall govern.”)

In a scene reminiscent of the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing earlier that year, a lone protester managed to mount a water cannon and turn the nozzle towards office buildings. Infuriated, the police resorted to more traditional weapons of control – teargas and batons – attacking even medics who came to treat the injured.

Many took refuge in the cathedral and Tutu was summoned to protect them. After urging the police to back down, he told the wounded and frightened protesters: “Say to yourselves, in your heart, God loves me, God loves me… God created me for freedom… My freedom is inalienable”. He urged them to straighten up their shoulders “like people who are born for freedom”.

The violence around the elections a few days later though was of a different order. The Archbishop was lost for words.

After a day of prayer, he told his assistant at the time, Matt Esau, that he had decided to call for a protest march through the city centre. “He blanched a bit,” Tutu told me in an interview later. And the UDF leaders, some just out of prison, were doubtful they would survive another assault by the police. It is an incident UDF veteran Cheryl Carolus recalled in her tribute to him at the memorial service.

It was at the time of “Well, do you have a mandate…”, Tutu told me later.

As his biographer, John Allen, writes in his book, Rabble-Rouser for Peace, he replied: “God told me and I’m afraid we can’t argue with God. It looks as though you are arrogant and presumptuous, yes, but the trouble is that I knew I was not my own master. At least I believed that.”

Whatever the role of a higher being, Tutu had judged the political climate at the time more accurately than the battered anti-apartheid leaders.

His vocal opposition, first to apartheid, then to other worldly wrongs, sometimes hid his deep spirituality and belief in prayer. Likewise, his clerical robes sometimes disguised his keen strategic sense.

At a time when it made him deeply unpopular among some of his own congregation and when it was a criminal offence, he campaigned for international sanctions against South Africa. He played a central role in lobbying the US Congress to support the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAAA) – legislation that President Ronald Reagan twice vetoed in the House and the Senate. Both times his veto was overridden, the “first override of a presidential veto on a major foreign policy question since 1972”, as Allen notes.

By 1989, South Africa, the combined effects of sanctions, a mounting debt crisis, and fierce internal resistance had led the apartheid government to a precipice.

The cantankerous, hardline apartheid leader, PW Botha has resigned less than a month before, and FW de Klerk became acting president in mid-August. De Klerk seemed to understand the international pressures he was under.

In the northern hemisphere summer of that year, recalls Moeletsi Mbeki, then a journalist in exile, senior US Congressional and Senate members at a conference in Switzerland warned that unless there were serious reforms in South Africa, the US would call on its European allies, to impose sanctions similar to the CAAA.

So Tutu and the Mass Democratic Movement, a loose coalition of anti-apartheid organisations, tested FW de Klerk’s commitment to reform. Their target was the coastline. Beaches had long been officially segregated but in the mid-80s police tended to turn a blind eye to transgressions.

However, in mid-August 1989, when Tutu and hundreds of activists arrived at the Strand, a sandy stretch of coastline on the eastern end of False Bay, they found a sign on the beach next to one that read: “DOGS NOT ALLOWED.” It  said: “DANGER, NO ENTRY, SAP DOG TRAINING.” (SAP was the South African Police) Scores of riot police stood alongside barbed wire coils. Tutu walked briefly on the beach. But after he left, police beat and arrested many of the beachgoers including cameramen and journalists.

He then left for another protest in Bloubergstrand, where he found several people already severely injured by the police. “Daggers were drawn,” Tutu told me in a subsequent interview. “When I got there, I said to the people, look, you have made your point, now you’ve got to demonstrate that you are disciplined. In fact, I asked the police if I could use their loudhailer.” He chuckled. “I don’t think they were overkeen but they realised the situation was very tense. And I got people to sing Nkosi Sikela’ iAfrika”. He persuaded the protesters to get back on the buses.

The next day at a service in St George’s Cathedral, Tutu summed up the quandary of the incoming president De Klerk: “They say apartheid is dead but really it’s one of the most extraordinary corpses I’ve ever seen … They had dogs, they had tear gas, they had quirts. To do what? To stop black people walking on God’s beaches.” If “we’d got to the beaches we won. If we didn’t get to the beaches, we won.”

De Klerk, who died last month, was installed as president only on September 20, but was de facto head of the country at the time. His first act, seen around the world, was to enforce beach apartheid, and it had cost him. Prominent white leaders such as the Cape Town mayor, Gordon Oliver, expressed despair at the actions of the apartheid government.

So when Tutu called for the peace march in the wake of the election violence, he did so with the hope that he would be breaking new ground.

Two days before the planned march – held on 13 September – De Klerk announced it would be allowed. It was, wrote Patti Waldmeir, the Financial Times correspondent in her book, “the first irreversible step to a new South Africa”, and quotes De Klerk’s fellow Cabinet member Gerrit Viljoen saying it was a “more fearful leap into the dark than any the president had made later – including the release of Nelson Mandela”.

The march itself was a watershed. Some 30,000 people, led by Tutu and other religious and political leaders including Cape Town’s mayor, thronged from the cathedral to the Grand Parade outside the City Hall. Less than a kilometre away, it took the crowd more than two hours to snake their way through the streets. Police lined the march but honoured Tutu’s request to the then minister of police, Adriaan Vlok, to “keep their hands in their pockets”.

From the balcony of the City Hall, Tutu addressed the crowds: “We are inviting you Mr de Klerk… come here. Can you see the people of this country? Come and see what this country is going to become. This country is a rainbow country”.

He called them “the rainbow people of God”.

Next to me in the crowd, a young woman wept: “Our freedom will be beautiful when it comes,” she said.

The following month, De Klerk released Nelson Mandela’s fellow trialists and ANC leaders from prison, all sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. Three months later, he was to legalise the African National Congress and release Mandela.

In the last interview I did with Tutu in 2016 to mark 20 years since the start of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he chaired, he addressed what he called “the tragedy of now” – the poor living conditions of so many people and the disappointments since that moment of triumph 25 years before.

It was at the time when the Nkandla scandal dominated headlines – the vast amounts of public money spent on former president Jacob Zuma’s homestead.

“It is totally unacceptable… you don’t want to be clobbering people and making out that you are better than them… but it is very difficult to understand how you could agree to have those millions spent on one establishment when similar investment would have given quite a few people decent homes… you are not being anti-Zuma or anti-ANC. You are just saying, man, do you realise what the Struggle was for, do you realise that these people… sacrificed? They expected that by now they would have a government that was really sympathetic, not just verbally, but sympathetic in its actions, in the things that it did and the things that it didn’t do.”

And to the narrative that the TRC was a “sell-out”, that even Nelson Mandela was a “sell-out”, he noted: “Had you been there, you would have realised that had we gone the other route there would have been very few around. The apartheid government was armed to the teeth … I hope the young people will read history properly… and realise that those who made accommodations with the Afrikaner were not cowards. You can’t be a coward when you were the commander-in-chief of MK, you were not cowards when you spent 27 years in jail.”

The black community, he said, “was encamped. It was easy to control them; guns and ammunition were mainly in the hands of the supporters of apartheid. I would hope young people would say, thank you. Thank you for what you have done. It’s not perfect but we will try to perfect it”.

This week, Cape Town’s City Hall where Tutu addressed the 1989 peace marchers, has been lit up in purple – more a nod to his clerical robes than to the infamous “purple rain” water cannons. It is meant as a gesture of thanks to the man who so deftly combined the art of prayer with strategy. DM



Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted