When Nelson Mandela was released from jail in 1990, he held his first press conference at the home of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town. Many people had expected Tutu to take up a political career, like some other clerics who had been vociferous in opposing apartheid – writes Donald Pressly for Ecumenical News International.
“Tutu stayed away from the press conference and kept out of the formal [photo] shots. It was their day, not his,” writes John Allen, a former South African journalist, one time trade union leader and press secretary for Tutu, in his authorised biography of the Anglican leader: Rabble Rouser for Peace.
Weeks after Mandela’s release, Tutu told a journalist he would not take part in negotiations for democracy. “He had been an interim political leader, he explained, standing in for the real leaders. Now that role was over. He was a pastor, not a politician, and he had no intention of entering party politics. He wanted to have a lower public profile. He was more successful in fulfilling the first intention than the second,” writes Allen in the book which will be officially launched in Europe and the United States on 7 October 2006, Tutu’s 75th birthday.
The book captures the spirit of Tutu in its title. The biography of Tutu recalls his colourful use of language, which included the description of the new democratic South Africa as “the rainbow nation”. The books also notes the cleric has not stopped criticism of the new rulers in South Africa, when he believes they need it.
Allen joined Tutu’s staff as his media officer when he became archbishop in 1986. The author also worked with Tutu when he headed South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – which focused on people telling the tale of human rights abuses of the apartheid era after the country became a fully-fledged democracy in 1994.
Tutu was born in humble circumstances in Klerksdorp, near Johannesburg. Later trained as a teacher, Tutu left the profession when apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd began to impose what was known as “Bantu education” on South Africa’s majority black population.
After theological training Tutu became an Anglican priest in 1960, and in 1975 became the first black dean of Johannesburg – a post he held for a year, before becoming Bishop of Lesotho.
Desmond Tutu was appointed the first black general secretary of the South African Council of Churches in 1978. Here he became a vociferous proponent of economic sanctions against South Africa during the presidency of P.W. Botha whose rule from 1978 to 1989 witnessed increasing resistance to apartheid.
Allen records that despite his unflinching opposition to apartheid, Tutu also stood against violence used in the struggle against apartheid including the use of “necklacing”, or placing a burning tyre around the neck of a victim, often singled out, without proof, of being a police informer. Tutu once saved a near victim of necklacing by rushing into a gathered crowd and throwing his arms around the man. The crowd released the man.
Some of Tutu’s critics have accused him of being an attention-seeker, something journalist David Beresford of the British newspaper the Guardian alludes to in reviewing the book. “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,” writes Beresford and he quotes from the book: “‘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.”
From 2000 to 2004, Allen was director of communications at Trinity Church, Wall Street, in New York. He returned to South Africa in 2004 to write the biography.