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Let Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s pine coffin stand as a symbol in the life of our nation

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Judith February is the executive officer of Freedom Under Law and editor of Judith’s Prudence, the Daily Maverick legal newsletter.

In his eulogy to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu on New Year’s Day, President Cyril Ramaphosa said, ‘He has left us at another difficult time in the life of our nation. Problems and challenges abound, and they are everywhere.’

When “The Arch” died on 26 December 2021, there was a national and global outpouring of grief for a man whose extraordinary life was tied up in the complexity of our country’s history. Thousands of people across the country paid homage to Tutu in their own way, through church services, laying a flower outside St George’s Cathedral or writing in the many condolence books. 

The City of Cape Town lit up buildings and iconic Table Mountain in the purple so synonymous with the Arch. Collective expressions of grief matter, after all. 

Ours is a country well versed in loss. On Christmas Day, a Limpopo man killed seven members of his own family. The loss because of violence is so commonplace, we are inured to it. And then there is the everyday loss brought on by poverty and deepening inequality. This week will see the release of the first part of the Zondo Commission report into State Capture. Much of the detail will be known, given that the commission’s proceedings were beamed live into our living rooms one dispiriting day after the next. But the record and the recommendations will be important. 

Ramaphosa is right; challenges abound and they are everywhere. 

As with anyone of Tutu’s stature, there is, as there also was with Madiba, a tendency to reduce his legacy to the rather softer parts of his nature, the gentleness we loved about him, his naughty cackle, and his jigs with an array of celebrities too numerous to mention. However, to reduce Tutu to the “touchy-feely” is to misunderstand him and his place in the struggle for our freedom. Too often South Africans seek the saint and the saviour who does not offend and cause discomfort. Tutu often offended and caused those in power to quiver, and was entirely consistent in championing human rights for all people and speaking truth even when it was uncomfortable, whether he was dealing with the apartheid state, Myanmar, Palestine or the Iraq war. 

Much has been said over the past two weeks: Tutu was a “beacon of light”, a “moral compass” (perhaps the most overused, if accurate, thing that has been said about the Arch), he loved and he forgave. 

But we dare not look past the pine coffin that stood in the centre of St George’s Cathedral on Saturday morning, in utter simplicity. Even in death, Tutu’s rebuke of the culture of materialism, which has come to mark our democracy, was clear. The pine coffin, the scaled back role for the military, all sent a message to a ruling class detached from reality, but also fundamentally empty; empty of knowledge embracing a world where cars, handbags and shopping trips are all that really matter. It reveals an approach to life that is bereft of depth, with people content to wade in the shallows. It is for this reason that we find it hard to prioritise maintenance and care for public buildings, museums, libraries and the things that make for community and common life. The political class has betrayed the promise in exchange for shiny objects and looted the state in the process. 

Let the pine coffin stand as a symbol. 

The day after Tutu’s funeral, a fire broke out in Parliament. At the time of writing, one person has been arrested and Minister of Public Works Patricia de Lille has said that the sprinkler valves at Parliament were turned off. It is therefore entirely reasonable to ask whether this is a direct attack on our democracy and the continuation of the insurrection of July last year, or simply a random criminal act carried out by a “lone ranger”?

In the aftermath of the fire, Jacob Zuma’s daughter tweeted, “Cape Town, we see you! Amandla!” This is shameful behaviour, but then there was a faction of the ANC who did not mourn Tutu with us, instead calling him a “sellout”. 

To compound the tragedy of a Parliament in flames, we have a Speaker of Parliament, who is herself compromised, her appointment a result of the dysfunction within the governing ANC. Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula looks like a rabbit caught in the headlights. In her previous role as Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, she showed very little urgency in dealing with the insurrection in July 2021. In fact, she contradicted the president freely when he called it an insurrection. How do we trust her to protect and defend the democratic space which is the “People’s Parliament”? Simply put, we cannot.  

Our duty therefore is to persistently ask the difficult questions regarding this fire, its causes and, importantly, what will be done to prioritise safety and security at Parliament, and to rebuild this heritage building which also represents the cornerstone of our democracy? 

While someone has been arrested, we also know that we live in a country where the state does not take care of that which it holds in trust on our behalf. 

A walk past any government building tells a story of disrepair, disinterest and neglect. This is a country in which maintenance, whether of buildings, SAA airplanes, Eskom infrastructure, has gone unattended for years. It is a country whose railway lines are overgrown, where roads are falling apart and where we are unable to prioritise museums such as the Apartheid Museum, where neglect has even crept in at Robben Island’s buildings and ferries. It is a country in which politicians survey the wreckage, always excusing their conduct and with no real plans in place to improve things. Reports have been presented within Parliament which make mention of various safety standards being breached, yet no meaningful progress has been made in dealing with these breaches it seems. 

State Capture has its consequences; the wrong people appointed to positions of power, disinterested, they seek only aggrandisement for themselves, and their families and friends. Now that the kitty is bare, something has got to give. 

So, when we grieved for Tutu this past week, we grieved not only for the loss of the spiritual architect of our democracy, a tireless human rights crusader, someone who articulated the mood of the country so perspicaciously, but we grieved for our democracy itself and for how we have lost our way. 

Cavafy is perhaps also apposite in our grieving:

Thermopylae (translated by David Ferry) 

Honor is due to those who are keeping watch,
Sentinels guarding their own Thermopylae;
Never distracted from what is right to do,
And right to be; in all things virtuous,
But never so hardened by virtue as not to be
Compassionate, available to pity;
Generous if they’re rich, but generous too,
Doing whatever they can, if they are poor;
Always true to the truth, no matter what,
But never scornful of those who have to lie.
Even more honour is due when, keeping watch,
They see that the time will come when Ephialtes
Will tell the secret to the Medes and they
Will know the way to get in through the goat-path. 

We honour the Arch for keeping watch. Through his life we have come to understand what it means to be fully human and indeed fully South African.  

As we watch the “People’s Parliament” burn, the billowing smoke and ash appear symbolic of the deep trouble our democracy is in. 

We are the sentinels now. DM

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  • Cavafy has wise words for so many situations; his poem, Ithaka has long been my “go to” wise words when pondering life and it’s significance and meaning….

  • In that bastion of the ‘greatest’ democracy, it took thousands to just vandalise their seat of governance earlier this year, while here it appears (at this stage) a single individual (with help from the inside?) could reduce ours to rubble ! BUT then …we have the advantage of being really ‘good’ at what we do isn’t it … not unlike the corruption!

  • One image in a TV news report focused on the pine coffin in St George’s cathedral before many leaders and mourners. This image was followed in the next news report by one of seven ornate coffins of seven family members gunned down in Limpopo. Where is the irony?

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