If Desmond Tutu is guilty of craving fame, he has made good use of it, writes
Tuesday September 26, 2006
About 10 years ago, when the truth commission and the activities of South African death squads were still fresh in people’s minds, a basket of fruit was delivered to my door. A card said it had come from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I shouted at my family to take cover.
After a few prods with a broomstick persuaded me that it was not a bomb, and I had calmed down, I remembered that I had asked the archbishop to launch a book I had written. He had been unable to do so because of pressure of work. The fruit basket was by way of apology.
So I was prepared, when I took delivery last week of a parcel containing the archbishop’s biography, Rabble-Rouser for Peace, and did not have recourse to a broomstick. In fact I was reluctant to open it at all, so gorgeous was the wrapping: shocking pink paper tied with gold ribbon in the shape of a cross, with an ornamental crucifix and a parchment dove of peace.
The wrapping was no doubt the inspiration of the publishers (Simon & Shuster) or the biographer (John Allen), but it was somehow in the style of Tutu: a bit “over the top”.
The question is whether that is evidence of his guilt of the charge that George Orwell, talking about Gandhi, said should be levelled at all saints until they are proven innocent. As with Gandhi, the charge against Tutu is that of vanity. And although Allen, who is Tutu’s former press secretary, may be taken aback by the claim, the biography does go some way towards sustaining it.
This is a man who wants fame, and makes no bones about it. The night before the Nobel prize was about to be announced, he slept badly, he recalls. “It was almost like waiting for exam results,” he said. “It had happened twice before that people said I was a strong candidate and the let-down then was very hard.”
Perhaps more episcopalian was the “holy indifference to the result” for which Natal’s Michael Nuttall prayed while awaiting the outcome of the election to determine the archbishop of Cape Town, in which Tutu was his rival.
Tutu was a man who made much use of public gesture. During a hearing of the truth commission in Bloemfontein, he went on a pilgrimage to the memorial of an Anglo-Boer war concentration camp. “The next day Afrikaans newspapers featured a photograph of him in his cassock, bending his head in prayer in front of a statue of two women and a dying child,” records Allen.
And on occasions, when a shepherd might be expected to be consoling his flock, it was the shepherd who required consoling. So, at the outset of the truth commission hearings, while listening to an account by a torture victim of his treatment by the police, Tutu put his face down on the table “and wept uncontrollably, disrupting the proceedings”.
The charge of vanity is nothing new. Nelson Mandela used the word “arrogant” to describe Tutu in an interview with Allen. Recalling that the cleric had made an offer to call off the boycott campaign against South Africa if the then US president, Ronald Reagan, would meet his (Tutu’s) demands, Mandela is quoted as saying it was as if the archbishop had introduced the boycott.
“He made a statement which was regarded as arrogant by many of us,” said Mandela referring to fellow ANC prisoners then with him in Pollsmoor jail.
Tutu’s presumption as he trod the international diplomatic stage appeared overweening, as on the occasion when he “cut off contact with British officials below the rank of foreign secretary”.
Linda Chalker, minister at the British foreign office, who was herself “cut dead” at a diplomatic function by Tutu, recalled how the archbishop at one stage considered to be in the running to succeed Robert Runcie as Archbishop of Canterbury – even managed to upset the Queen. “I was escorting … the Queen around and remember him coming up with a very sharp remark,” recalled Chalker. “She heard it and said to me afterwards, ‘Why does he have to be unpleasant?’ I said: ‘He’s just angry.'”
But there is a defence for Tutu, and it is not just anger. It is to be found in a remark by the rector of Trinity church, in Wall Street, Daniel P Matthews, who observed that Tutu had “a genius for intuitively sensing his audience”. To appreciate the point one needed to witness such moments as the archbishop jiving to drums around the altar of Cape Town’s St George’s Cathedral in front of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. Or, for that matter, weeping in front of that torture victim, or posing for cameras in front of that concentration camp memorial.
With that intuitive genius comes a confidence and courage that is all the more extraordinary in the South African context. Africa is a continent on which hierarchy of leadership means much. It takes particular courage, for a black man in this part of the world, to describe Robert Mugabe as “bonkers”; to tell the leadership of the ANC, “I have struggled against a tyranny; I didn’t do that in order to substitute another”; or, for that matter, to face down as he did on so many occasions white South Africa.
In an epilogue to the authorised biography Allen quotes a nun, an Anglican solitary, who wrote to Tutu saying: “You have been a celebrity too long and it is taking its toll. You need once more to realise your nothingness before God.” Tutu replied with the agonised protest: “I could not sit by quietly.”