The former Archbishop of Cape Town and one of the most important public figures in South Africa has announced that he is stepping down from public life after decades of tireless work as a churchman and as the conscience of South Africa.
I say this is a personal review as I think it is important to get across the all important humanity of the man rather than just go over the public image.
I’m not religious and as a journalist for three decades have developed a certain cynicism. But meeting Father Desmond, as he asked me to call him rather than Archbishop or Your Grace, was a deeply affecting experience.
[protected] Very appropriately, I met him first on Good Friday 1990, a few weeks after the unbanning of the ANC and then Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.
I’d spoken to him on the phone before from London, but, in person, his full personality was there to be experienced. In a long interview about South Africa’s political, social and spiritual future, he moved from the deadly serious to bursts of infectious laughter. The laughter came when I asked if he saw a direct political role for himself in the future South Africa. In his beguiling voice, he said, “Oh no, and for three good reasons – Muzorewa, Makarios and Khomeyni”.
But he was a very political man – not in the sense of seeking power or wanting power or pushing a party agenda or ideology. Rather, he represented a very human agenda: one of reconciliation, of respect and thought for others. In the depths of the repression and the township uprisings of 1984, he appealed to black South Africans to never forget to “be nice to whites, they need you to rediscover their humanity”. His humanity and that of Nelson Mandela and their belief in the essential bond of humanity between all South Africans were what helped smooth the transition from apartheid.
The preached and personally acted out the reconciliation needed. South Africa – as the xenophobic attacks on foreign migrants and the trial of the Free State University students guilty of repulsive racism demonstrate – has not solved the problems of lingering racism. But Tutu was one of those at the core of ensuring that the early years of the new South Africa were dominated by the image of the Rainbow Nation rather than a nation torn by resistance to change or revenge for apartheid.
Since that transition and for the 16 years since the election of the ANC, Desmond Tutu’s has remained a voice of the marginalised, a voice of reason and of justice amid a world of violence (and not just in South Africa).
Who else could have chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so ably and with such humanity?
And he has remained a champion of the downtrodden and oppressed. He has been fiercely critical of President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, saying he was becoming a caricature of bad African leaders. Controversially he spoke out against the failure of the Mbeki government to act decisively over Zimbabwe and to address poverty and the marginalised in South Africa – words which brought an outburst by Thabo Mbeki that Tutu was a liar and a charlatan; perhaps the two things that were the most inaccurate portrayal of a man of almost painful honesty and integrity.
And who can forget his spat over fashion with Nelson Mandela – he said Mandela’s choice in shirts was inappropriate and “the pits” – to which Mandela replied that this was funny, coming from a man who wore a pink dress! Tutu said this was nasty, but I suspect he was chuckling as he said it. As he was when he gave his view of the reasons people got the Nobel Peace Prize – an easy name, a big nose and sexy legs.
On the world stage, the Nobel laureate stood up for human rights and human dignity – protesting loudly when China tried to make South Africa refuse to allow the Dalai Lama to attend a human rights conference there, criticising the invasion of Iraq and berating conservatives in Africa and America within the Anglican Church over their homophobia.
He is standing down from public life but I suspect we won’t have yet heard the last words from a man who has made speaking out his life’s work. As you look around South Africa and the world, you realise how much we need men like Desmond Tutu.
By Keith Sommerville [/protected]