Review: Tutu: the courage of his compassion

Mail & Guardian

Heidi Holland reviews Rabble-Rouser For Peace: The authorised biography of Desmond Tutu

If Desmond Tutu had become Archbishop of Canterbury — which a new book about him claims the Queen’s counsellors in London were considering in 1990 — the Church of England might have struck a deal over gay and lesbian rights by now, but South Africa would have missed some crucial signposts to the promised land.

Rabble-Rouser for Peace, Tutu’s biography by his former press secretary John Allen, charts the diminutive archbishop’s unique influence on South Africa’s fledgling democracy. It traces the life of the sickly child who, after long periods in hospital coughing blood and thinking he was about to die, decided to become a doctor to study his disease, TB. His father, a headmaster, couldn’t afford the university fees, however, so Tutu followed him into teaching and then, quitting in protest against apartheid education, drifted into the priesthood.

His mentor was the radical British cleric Trevor Huddleston, a neighbour in Sophiatown, who spotted Desmond’s leadership skills and encouraged him to pursue theological training at King’s College, London. Bishop Trev, as Huddleston was known by countless activists, worked behind the scenes with Church of England supremo Robert Runcie to ensure that their chosen one ascended the Church of South Africa hierarchy.

Tutu and his wife Leah loved England and might have accepted the Canterbury offer had it materialised. They couldn’t help noticing that blacks were still a curiosity in the English countryside in the Sixties: one of their four children, Trevor, was once asked in a playground how his mother knew when he was dirty. Tutu endeared himself to the British congregants he met while studying for his master’s by standing outside the church shouting, “Roll up, roll up for your holy handshake.”

He became the first black Dean of Johannesburg in 1975, a controversial choice whose sense of fun, infectious laughter and love of the pastoral ministry combined with formidable powers of persuasion to make him a natural leader of the South African Council of Churches three years later. At the time, the council was one of the few forums for black dissent in the country. Tutu was fluent in six of the country’s languages and “intuitively felt the plight of the weak and burnt with outrage at abuses of power by the strong”, says Allen, who worked with Tutu for 30 years.

With virtually the entire struggle leadership either in prison or in exile during the Eighties, Tutu kept his distance from the political process but never failed to challenge injustice and oppression. One of his techniques in controlling dangerous street confrontations during the township turmoil of the Eighties and, later, the transitional violence preceding the country’s first democratic election, was to poke fun at the police to diffuse the fury.

He became convinced that outside intervention was the key to conquering apartheid. Winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 effectively spread his non-violence message throughout the world. Allen says it was awarded to Tutu ahead of Neslon Mandela partly to protect the archbishop from arrest. Tutu noted at the time: “One day no one was listening. The next, I was an oracle.” His widely televised rescue the following year of a police informer facing a grisly death by “necklacing” was seized by premier PW Botha as an opportunity to declare a state of emergency: it also won Tutu universal admiration for his courage.

Having inherited not only compassion from his mother but African spirituality from his culture, Tutu believed the latter could equip victims of injustice to realise that the oppressor needed help as surely as the oppressed, and perhaps lead to the recovered humanity of both. Long before his colourful chairmanship of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which offered a divided amnesty in exchange for truth and healing in place of retribution, Tutu nurtured the idea of dialogue as the means to accommodate enemies. A fast talker himself, he spent nearly 30 years warning about an impending bloodbath, confronting the police state, keeping peace on the streets and drumming up international support for economic sanctions. Defiantly outspoken on behalf of blacks, he was firmly in favour of reconciliation with whites. Forgiveness, an understudied phenomenon worldwide, became the cornerstone of his ministry once the TRC got underway in 1996.

If Tutu wept too often for some and sprang into the limelight too eagerly for others, he used his status as God’s showman to dazzling effect. During his years at Bishopscourt, where Nelson Mandela spent his first night of freedom and the two talked for the first time, Tutu became the world’s most prominent religious leader to champion gay and lesbian rights. Often the victim of verbal abuse and death threats, he was once asked if he ever feared for his life. Shaking his head vigorously, Tutu quipped: “If I’m doing God’s work, he should jolly well look after me.”

In post-apartheid South Africa, Tutu immediately asserted the church’s independence from the ruling party. Having travelled extensively in Africa, he said he was appalled that the victims of social injustice frequently made others suffer similarly. “It pains me to have to admit that there is less freedom … in most of independent Africa than there was during the much-maligned colonial days.” Alongside Nelson Mandela, Tutu condemned Robert Mugabe’s brutality in Zimbabwe and constantly urged the ANC to care for victims of Aids. When no echoes came from the South African government and Mandela retreated from public life, Tutu began to speak out, challenging the powerful and providing a lone voice for the voiceless once more.

Rabble-Rouser for Peace at 396 pages is a well-written, deeply researched and a at times too detailed tribute to one of the world’s moral guardians.

Heidi Holland’s new book, The Colour of Murder (Penguin), is a true crime story that looks at racism and violence, the enduring fault lines in South African life