The Irish Examiner
Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu turns 75 tomorrow – his acerbic tongue and irrepressible humour as sharp as during his anti-apartheid crusades.
Some 1,200 guests – including former President Nelson Mandela – are due to attend a gala dinner in Johannesburg, capping weeks of celebrations in honour of the retired archbishop of Cape Town, or Arch as he is fondly called.
In typical fashion, Tutu has been finding time for ordinary people amid all the festivities. He gleefully knocked around a ball at the Homeless World Cup in Cape Town last week and was treated to a rapturous rendition of Happy Birthday by some of the world’s most marginalised people just hours ahead of a formal concert on his behalf in the city cathedral.
Far from slowing down, Tutu seems more determined than ever to speak up on issues ranging from crime to Aids to the war in Iraq.
“What has happened to us? It seems as if we have perverted our freedom, our rights into license, into being irresponsible,” he said at a lecture last week about South Africa’s horrific rates of violent crime and rape.
“Perhaps we did not realize just how apartheid has damaged us so that we seem to have lost our sense of right and wrong,” said the man who voted for the first time at the age of 62 and coined the phrase Rainbow Nation of God in celebration of South Africa’s different peoples.
Tutu was named earlier this year as a member of a UN advisory panel on genocide prevention, drawing on his long experience as a tireless campaigner against apartheid. He was named Anglican archbishop of Cape Town in 1986 and awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1994.
He retired in 1996, hoping for a “slightly less hectic life”, but then agreed to a request by Mandela to head the Truth and Reconciliation set up to help the country come to terms with the horrors committed under white racist rule.
Tutu sometimes broke down and wept with the victims as he listened to two years of harrowing testimony about atrocities committed under apartheid – abductions, torture, death squads and bodies torched beyond recognition as their killers enjoyed a barbecue.
He criticised the last white President FW De Klerk for failing to accept responsibility for apartheid’s evils – and also lambasted the current government’s limit of 30,000 rands (€3,000) for victims as mean.
Just as Tutu was a thorn in the flesh of the white government, he has not shied away from criticising leaders of the ruling African National Congress.
He incurred President Thabo Mbeki’s ire in 2004 after he made a stinging attack against South Africa’s political elite last week, saying the country was “sitting on a powder keg” because of its failure to alleviate poverty a decade after apartheid’s end.
More recently he outraged supporters of ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma by saying the popular politician should withdraw from the race to become the country’s next president. He said in a public lecture that he would not be able to hold his “head high” if Zuma became leader after being accused both of rape and corruption.
The head of the Congress of South African Students condemned Tutu as a “loose cannon” and a “scandalous man” – a reaction which prompted an angry Mbeki to side with Tutu.
Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe once called Tutu an “angry, evil and embittered little bishop” after the Nobel laureate criticised the country’s human rights record and said that the president was “a cartoon figure of an archetypical African dictator”.
Tutu typically shrugs off such criticism with boundless good humour and mischievous smile that greets the many visitors to his no-frills office in a modest Cape Town business park.
An authorised biography Rabble-rouser for Peace released to coincide with his birthday made it clear that Tutu was frustrated with his beloved Anglican Church because of its rejection of gay priests.
“He found it little short of outrageous that church leaders should be obsessed with issues of sexuality in the face of the challenges of AIDS and global poverty,” wrote his former press secretary John Allen.
Tutu became a priest because – he jokingly said – he wasn’t clever enough to realize his dream of becoming a doctor. He was a sickly child and suffered from tuberculosis – an incident which led him in later life to set up a TB centre and campaign for more funding for the disease.
He disclosed last year that he had a recurrence of prostate cancer that he was first diagnosed with in 1997 – although it hasn’t had a noticeable impact on his hectic schedule or bouncy step.
He celebrated 50 years of marriage last year to his wife Leah, with Mandela and his wife Graca Machel as guests.
“He’s just an ordinary husband who likes gardening, who loves gardening, but who won’t do any gardening,” his wife said.