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Notes on a great man: This strife-torn world would be better if we heeded Desmond Tutu’s words more seriously

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Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

When the Arch passed away on Boxing Day, Sisonke Msimang was moved to write this Facebook post reflecting on the teachings of a man who became South Africa and the world's moral compass.

What a remarkable life. So many people around the world are celebrating and grieving with us South Africans today and it’s a reminder both of Desmond Tutu’s legacy and of our country’s amazing struggle.

I have already seen some negative commentary about him in relation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and because I’m someone who has written a lot about our post-1994 politics, and much of my writing examines the mythology surrounding the Rainbow Nation, and because it’s Boxing Day and I don’t need to check emails, I thought it’s worth addressing these issues as people start to shape their narratives.

I am on record as saying that the Rainbowism that the Arch and Madiba espoused was taken advantage of and exploited by some white people in South Africa in the early years after 1994. Neither of these men were naive so I’m not convinced they were duped. They were, however, living in real time and hindsight is 20/20. We critics have the luxury of hindsight.

Tutu and Mandela were experienced activists and they genuinely – and correctly – believed in the need for unity. The failure of FW De Klerk and white leaders to step truthfully into the TRC was not their fault. Still, over time the set-up and process of the TRC made people view the Arch as too forgiving.

Some even cruelly and incorrectly called him a stooge. That is an indicator of their own politics and speaks to their failure to look at the span, consistency and clarity of his efforts. He helped to free South Africa and then fought to end inequality and poverty and advocate for gay rights. The sweep of his life speaks for itself.

Yes, I wish the TRC hadn’t spent longer on Winnie Mandela than it did on the mining company hearings. I wrote about this in detail in The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela. I continue to believe that using the TRC as the mechanism for redress fell into the trap of focusing on individual stories (which were important but were never going to give us the full picture) at the expense of addressing wider structural concerns (which is why it was easier to interrogate Winnie Mandela than ABSA’s bosses who remain relatively anonymous).

And yes, I wish the collective view that forgiveness and accountability could go hand in hand had not been so thoroughly tested.

But these wishes and analyses do not give me licence to trash this great man’s legacy, nor to erase his long decades of tireless and inspiring activism.

As a person whose freedom was won through the efforts of this man and his peers, who am I to suggest that he was a stooge, a sellout, or anything less than what he was? He was a beacon and an inspiration guided by an intense passion for God and a belief in the triumph of good over evil. 

I am saddened by a faux revolutionary discourse that ignores everything but the moments in which we disagree sharply with people. I have room in my heart and my mind for Winnie and Nelson Mandela, for Desmond Tutu and Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko and Ruth First and Dulcie September and hundreds of others.

We are not talking about a man who became greedy after 1994 and left behind his history of rabble rousing. That type of activist – and there are far too many of those in South Africa today – deserves all the disdain we heap upon her or him. Those people who sit in our Cabinet today cannot be allowed to hide behind their struggle credentials to cover up their current crimes. 

Desmond Tutu was not this. He did not stop fighting after 1994. He continued to speak out, to irritate those in power. He wanted the Dalai Lama to be allowed to visit South Africa and he warned against hate, and he preached Ubuntu and he didn’t care how much this made him unlikeable.

I know it’s cool to critique the concept of Ubuntu, but among his many contributions to the world was the Arch’s articulation of Ubuntu as an African epistemological approach to living. I am intellectually and morally richer for having been directly influenced by Desmond Tutu’s ideas and initiatives. He planted many seeds and I am proud to be a friend to so many Tutu fellows.

In a world where African ideas are not taken as seriously as they should, I think often about the lessons South Africa’s greatest leaders have taught me. Everywhere the world is in strife and turmoil. But everywhere (not least in our own continent) it would be enhanced if we took his words more seriously:

“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

Rest well, Archbishop. You ran an incredible race. DM

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