The bishop who moved the nation

MAY 2015 – Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu was unrivalled in drawing attention to the iniquities of apartheid, and his message of forgiveness helped forge a new Rainbow Nation. Now 83, he still speaks out as South Africa’s moral conscious.

He is the boy from a Highveld township who would one day lead the Anglican church in South Africa and embrace the great and the good in the palaces of Europe. Along the way he fought apartheid so passionately and compassionately that he carved a place in the hearts of black and white South Africans alike. His broad smile, infectious laugh and inspiring speeches warm him to young and old; rich and poor. Not just a hero to South Africa’s Anglican flock, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is a grandfatherly guiding light to everyone in the country he so aptly dubbed the “Rainbow Nation”.

Born in October 1931, the second of three children of Zacheriah Zililo Tutu and his wife, Aletta Tutu, and their only son, Desmond Mpilo Tutu grew up with apartheid. The little-big man matured into a powerful social rights activist, a keystone of the peaceful resistance to this notorious regime, and, alongside his friend the late Nelson Mandela, steered the transition to democracy and the ‘New’ South Africa in the 1990s.

Today the 83-year-old known affectionately as ‘the Arch’ has aged into an important role as the moral guardian to a still-divided and searching nation. He remains active in the defence of human rights and is never shy about using his high profile to campaign for the oppressed around the globe. In the words of former State President Nelson Mandela: “sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humour, Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless”.

Tutu’s story begins in a hot Highveld township outside Klerksdorp, part of the now defunct Transvaal province, in the heart of a gold mining hub to the south-west of Johannesburg.

“I was the middle child and had two sisters. We lived in a three-roomed house, but not three bedrooms, just three rooms. We had a bedroom, then there was a kitchen that doubled as a dining room, and the last room was both a bedroom and a sitting room. In fact, when I got married, that last one was where my wife and I stayed. But, I mean, it was actually luxurious in many ways. I have to say it is streets ahead of the things that they put up in the RDP.

“My father was a school teacher, actually the principal, and my mother a domestic worker for a white family. My mum was an incredible woman – I actually look like her. Back then I think one accepted that one was separate from the whites who lived in towns. Us blacks lived in what we called locations. I remember we had one street light which would go on at night.”

Tutu’s revered positivity doesn’t take long to emerge as he talks. As he recounts his childhood experiences, the boyish but witty responses to remembered racial slurs give an insight into his later approach to the anti-apartheid struggle, where his unequivocal opposition to oppression was always delivered with trademark humour.

“You know, I happened to be the only boy in our location who had a bicycle. Others used to ride bicycles for others, but I had a bike for myself. My father used to send me to town to buy newspapers and other things, and I remember always having to run the gauntlet of Afrikaner boys taunting me. They used to shout, “PIK, PIK, PIK!” What they were shouting meant ‘pitch’ as in ‘pitch black’. When I was at a safe distance, I would shout “GRAAF, GRAAF, GRAAF” [Afrikaans for ‘shovel’]. But you didn’t go around feeling sorry for yourself. You lived. You played soccer with tennis balls.”

A compassion for the underprivileged was also deeply ingrained from early on. “The one thing I still recall from there is black kids scavenging in the dustbins of the white school. Those white kids were getting government school feeding, but they preferred what their mummies prepared for them. These kids threw out perfectly good apples and sandwiches. Much later, after they had introduced school feeding in black schools, [former apartheid Prime Minister]Dr Verwoerd stopped it, because he said we can’t feed all of them, so we won’t feed some. To me, that is like saying we won’t try to cure some TB patients because we can’t cure all of them.

“But you accepted that this was just how life was. We went to separate schools. Another strange thing was that Indians were allowed to live in town, but not allowed to attend white schools. They had to come to the location to attend our school.”

But a chance meeting with an ardent opponent of apartheid, the English Anglican bishop Trevor Huddleston, gave the young Tutu an inspiring lesson in inter-racial respect. He recalled the brief encounter on a Sophiatown pavement in an eloquent interview with Sir David Frost: “I didn’t know him then, but I recall this white priest in a long, flowing cassock, doffing his hat to my mother. And… I mean, that struck me as being quite odd: a white man lifting his hat to my mother, a black woman, not particularly educated, a domestic worker.”

Later, when Tutu spent nearly two years in hospital struggling with tuberculosis, Huddleston was a dedicated visitor to the teenager’s bedside. “You don’t know just what it did for one’s self-esteem,” emphasises Tutu. “Here is an important white man coming to visit me in a township clinic. His influence on me – and on many others – was quite phenomenal.”

After finishing his schooling in Soweto, the young Tutu hoped to become a doctor, but the financial resources required were well beyond what his family could muster. Instead he followed in his father’s footsteps and went into teaching – and the newly qualified Mr Tutu taught at various high schools around Johannesburg in the early 1950s.

On the personal side, he married Nomalizo Leah Shenxane, also a teacher, in 1955. It was the start of strong marital partnership that continues to this day. The couple have four children – a son and three daughters – and seven grandchildren together. Their eldest – named for Tutu’s mentor Trevor Huddleston – was born in 1956.

So it was a brave move when the new father resigned from teaching in 1957. The apartheid government had introduced the reviled Bantu Education Act of 1953, a segregation law that enforced racially separated educational facilities. It served to significantly downgrade the educational prospects of black students, a move that was unacceptable to the principled and increasingly politically minded Tutu.

The 25-year-old decided to rather follow the path of anti-apartheid activist Huddleston and enrolled as a student in theology at St Peter’s Theology College in Rosettenville, in the south of Johannesburg. In late 1961 he was ordained as an Anglican priest.

A star student, in 1962 the young minister was awarded the opportunity to study towards a Master’s in Theology at King’s College in London, where he also worked part-time as a curate at various churches. He completed his degree in 1966 and moved back to South Africa with his young family, taking on the chaplaincy at the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape the following year. Fort Hare was then a hotbed of political thought, and alma mater to many freedom fighters, including Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, then secretary general of the ANC and living in exile in the United Kingdom. Tutu’s stirring lectures during this period, both at Fort Hare and the National University of Lesotho, where he taught in the early 1970s, highlighted the plight of South Africa’s increasingly dispossessed black population.

Tutu’s reputation grew internationally as he took on leadership roles in theistic organisations. He returned to the UK in 1972, when he was appointed vice-director of the Theological Education Fund of the World Council of Churches, based in Kent.

Three years later he was back in Johannesburg to take up the role of Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral. Here he continued to motivate for political change, sending an open letter to then Prime Minister John Vorster in May 1976, just a month before another reviled education act – the Afrikaans Medium Decree, which forced all black schools to use both Afrikaans and English as languages of instruction – resulted in a mass student protest in Soweto.

On 16 June 1976, the Tutu family was preparing for a move back to Maseru, where Desmond was to serve as Bishop of Lesotho, when news of the police response to the Soweto protests broke. Hundreds of protestors had been shot, many of them children, and Tutu was not alone in being deeply affected by the event. He felt strongly that he should stay in South Africa but eventually agreed to the church’s insistence that he was needed in Lesotho.

It marked a milestone in his thinking, however, and he became more and more outspoken on the injustices of apartheid, supporting the international call for an economic boycott of South Africa.

When Steve Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, was killed in police detention in 1977, Tutu made a stirring speech at his funeral. His oratory reignited calls for him to return home and take on a role in the struggle against apartheid – and in 1978 he did just that, accepting the position of secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches.

With a potent core of supportive church leaders, the feisty bishop continued his vocal but peaceful opposition to the apartheid government.  His lectures and writings, both in South Africa and abroad, consistently called for reconciliation between the parties and for a peaceful solution to the freedom struggle. His battle was one of hearts and minds, and he was as unshakeably opposed to violent action by revolutionary groups as he was to police brutality. His passion and his reconciliatory message won him backers from across the world.

Predictably, this didn’t sit well with those in power in South Africa, and his actions attracted the attention of the notorious apartheid security police. His passport was revoked on a couple of occasions, and he was briefly jailed in 1980 for his role in a protest march. It may have been only his disarming manner and worldwide respect that spared him longer incarceration.

His universal impact was acknowledged when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1984. Egil Aarvik, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, remarked at Tutu’s award presentation, “Desmond Tutu is an exponent of the only form for conflict solving which is worthy of civilised nations”.

More international awards followed, including the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism in 1986 and the Pacem in Terris Award in 1987.

Meanwhile, he continued to move up the ranks in the Anglican church and in 1986 was elected the first black Archbishop of Cape Town, a role which saw him become the leader of the church in South Africa.

He resigned that position in 1996 when he began what many regard as his defining office – Nelson Mandela’s hand-picked chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Charged with the harrowing job of hearing testimony around human rights abuses during apartheid, his candid human frailty, tempered by strength, may have been the only possible way to keep a combustible situation from catching fire in a precarious democracy.

“I broke down on the very first day,” Tutu muses. “But then I said this wasn‘t fair because the media then concentrated on me instead of the people who were the rightful subjects, the victims. If I wanted to cry I would cry at home or at church.”

Mandela further recognised his role as a reconciliatory force when he convened The Elders in July 2007. A group of world leaders that contribute their wisdom, leadership and integrity both publicly and behind the scenes to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems, Tutu served as the inaugural chair until 2013. Once of his first missions was to lead a group to Sudan to help foster peace in the Darfur crisis. He’s also led delegations to Ethiopia, Palestine and Israel, and was particularly involved with The Elders’ initiative opposing child marriages.

Although he officially retired from public life in October 2010, on his 79th birthday, Tutu continues to take a stand against injustice wherever he perceives it. From human rights abuses in the Middle East and homophobia, to climate change and military aggression, he still speaks forthrightly, even scathingly, when his moral fabric demands it. And, just as Tutu once ticked off Ronald Reagan for what he felt was a weak American stance on apartheid, the Archbishop Emeritus has criticised the current South African government for corruption and ineffectiveness.

“I think that now we need to say, without being too harsh on government, that they must give the people a substantial share of the freedom dividend. And it is very distressing when you see over R200-million being spent on Nkandla [referring to controversial upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s private home in KwaZulu-Natal], in an area where all the neighbours are struggling with poverty.”

He’s also taken South African leaders to task for their policy of quiet diplomacy towards Zimbabwe, and has been vocal in his condemnation of the Mugabe government’s human rights abuses.

Through it all though, his message of peace is clear, and he has an extraordinary capacity to reach across barriers of age, race and religion to people from all walks of life. At one of his last public appearances, an address at the 2010 One World Conference in London, he told the silently mesmerised youth audience: “I want to salute you, for you are a fantastic bunch of human beings. You dream dreams. You dream dreams of a world that is without war. You dream dreams and you say let us make poverty history.”

Himself a frequent inclusion in the hypothetical ‘three historical figures you‘d wish to have dinner with‘ list, who might Tutu select? “I would choose Mary Magdalene and St Francis. Well, I knew him personally, but I’d add Trevor Huddleston. And I think I’d like to have met Augustine of Hippo. He was an African and one of the most brilliant Africans ever. Incredible. His influence on Western Christendom is dramatic.”

And as he settles further into his chair, where does the 83-year-old see his country‘s future? “I thought we’d be there already. I mean, it has been more than 20 years since freedom. I hope we become a country that spreads its wealth – not so that everybody is rich, but so everybody knows they matter.”

With the bantam giant growing visibly weary, it seems apt to leave comment on the Tutu legacy to someone else. That of John Allen, his erstwhile press secretary may be most eloquent.

“I think his legacy lies in the way he brings across to people who are not African, or of African heritage, the concept of ‘ubuntu‘. These days it‘s easy to devalue his advocacy for tolerance and forgiveness, because a lot of people who didn‘t know him many years ago would say, ‘Of course he‘s going to preach peace, he‘s an archbishop.’ Remember that in the 1970s and 80s he could be very angry. He could communicate well with black and white South Africans, do so in their language and understand where they came from. But when he saw people getting hurt… that really made him angry. The sense of forgiveness has to be weighed against the fact that he was a passionately angry man at times. But ubuntu says we are interconnected – it‘s that sense of shared wellbeing, no matter what you‘ve done to me.”

Just time for one final question: What is luxury to Desmond Tutu? A considered pause, a breath and the look of a mind at work. And then the answer, one just as clear to any person of any creed who has struggled their heart out for a cause: “Sleep”.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *