As a Christian and a priest, Archbishop Desmond Tutu had to speak out when he saw oppression anywhere but he rejected the acid of hatred and preached non-violent resistance


There were many times, Desmond Tutu recalled, when the apartheid rulers were strutting like cocks of the walk and his own people were being treated like rubbish, that he wanted to whisper in God’s ear, “God, we know that you are in charge. Why don’t you make it slightly more obvious?”

For most of his long life, it did not seem obvious at all. He was a black man in a place where skin colour had a cruel and absurd significance. At the height of apartheid, black South Africans were denied citizenship in their own country. They could not vote; their schools were awful; they could not enter white areas except as servants. Inter-racial love was illegal. Anyone who protested against the hundreds of daily injustices might be whipped—or worse.

Yet the diminutive Mr Tutu kept piping up for the voiceless. As a Christian and a priest, he had no choice in the matter. He was God’s arms, hands, eyes, ears; when he saw oppression anywhere, God’s word burned in his breast until he had to speak out. Even as others picked up pangas and guns, he rejected the acid of hatred and preached non-violent resistance.

This was a hard sell, especially to the angry young men in black townships. One day in 1985 he rescued a man who was thought to have been an impimpi, or informer, for the South African security police. The crowd was about to put a petrol-filled tyre round his neck to “necklace” him, or burn him to death. Without pausing to think, Mr Tutu waded into the furious mob and ordered them to stop. Only later did he realise what peril he had been in.

He was born poor, in Transvaal province, to a housemaid and a teacher. He grew up amid constant racial slights, dying many deaths when his father was addressed as “Ja, boy,” by a mere slip of a white girl in a shop. Yet he learned early on that not everyone was bigoted. When he was nine or ten, a white man in a long cassock doffed his hat to his mother. It was Trevor Huddleston, an Anglican priest who taught that all people were equally children of God.

Huddleston deeply influenced him, to the extent that after teaching for a while he turned to theology, and was ordained himself in 1960. He was sure now that a man of God could also be a man of action, and that the sinister, euphemistic bureaucratese of apartheid could be rebutted with simple truths, plainly expressed. He summed up the anti-apartheid struggle in the clearest words he knew: “God is not mocked! You have already lost!” Then he phrased it more politely: “All we are asking you to do is to recognise that we are humans, too.”

He was tear-gassed and arrested for preaching this message. His passport was revoked more than once. And it was not only supporters of apartheid who criticised him. Advocates of gradual reform thought him too hasty when he demanded that apartheid should simply be abolished. Advocates of armed struggle thought his approach too slow. Communists, of whom there were many in the liberation movement, disliked his distaste for their creed.

Yet it was his vision that prevailed. The armed struggle went nowhere. It was economic sanctions and moral ostracism, both of which he championed, that ended apartheid. In 1992 white South Africans voted in a referendum to continue with reforms that led to multiracial democracy. In 1994, at 62, the archbishop cast his first vote. It made him want to sing, cry, laugh, shout “Yippee!”, jump and dance, all together.

He could have retired then, a Nobel peace laureate and giant of the struggle. But he said he found it too hard to shut up. Besides, the crimes of the old era needed to be documented, exposed, repented for and—most important—forgiven. In 1995 he was appointed to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a groundbreaking exercise in restorative, not retributive justice. Perpetrators of atrocities from all sides were invited to tell all and, in exchange for the truth, were given full or partial amnesty. Victims and their families were compensated. The premise, in his view, was simple. People—even those who stood round eating barbecue and drinking beer while a shot black body burned—were not monsters. They could change.

Many griped about the commission’s imperfections, and plenty of bigwigs in the new ruling party, the African National Congress, refused to co-operate. As nerves frayed, he even behaved like a prima donna himself. But the commission added volumes to the public’s understanding of the truth. That truth hurt, but it was the first necessary step towards forgiveness. And those who forgave, he insisted, were not doormats; they were peacemakers.

He hugely admired Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, and chuckled with delight when foreigners occasionally confused them. But he had stern words for Mandela’s successors. The anc’s policy of “black economic empowerment” was enriching a small elite, not the impoverished masses. As for Jacob Zuma’s kleptocratic gangsterism, it was worse even than the apartheid regime; because at least, in that case, you expected it.

His urge to agitate for right spilled far outside South Africa’s borders. He visited genocide sites in Rwanda, including a dimly lit church in which he found himself walking, trembling with tears, over the year-old bodies of the dead. He campaigned for the Anglican church to let gay people take communion, saying he would not want to worship a homophobic God. On visits to Israel, he loudly pleaded the Palestinian cause.

For all the horrors he saw and heard of, he was certain that human beings were made by Goodness, for goodness. Everyone could repent. Many could forgive. He drew comfort even from the evening headlines: if wrong was the norm, it wouldn’t be news. And he loved to turn his pixieish sense of humour on himself. He joked once that, owing to a mix-up at the Pearly Gates, he was sent to hell. A few days later St Peter heard a bang, bang, banging at Heaven’s door, and found it was the devil knocking. St Peter said, “Ja jong, what are you doing here?!” The devil replied, “Since you sent Tutu down to the warmer place, he’s been causing too much trouble! I came here to ask for political asylum.”

Courtesy:The Economist