CAPE TOWN • Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s voice of conscience during apartheid, is once more at odds with authority over the moral direction of his beloved Rainbow Nation as he approaches his 75th birthday. Ten years on from his retirement as archbishop of Cape Town, the indefatigable cleric has lost none of his ability to make those in power squirm as he points out their shortcomings. The great and the good of the multi-racial South Africa will be on hand to fete the Nobel laureate at a lavish birthday party in Johannesburg tomorrow.
Hollywood megastar Samuel L Jackson and music maestro Carlos Santana are in the city with their families and will join birthday celebration this weekend. Among the stars at the event were Stevie Wonder, Denzel Washington, Santana, Jonathan Butler, Johnny Clegg, Danny Glover, Quincy Jones and former Robben Island political prisoner Ahmed Kathrada.
But Tutu appears in no danger of embracing the establishment in his twilight years, and instead continues to shine the spotlight on the mounting problems facing the country 12 years after the end of white rule.
“What has happened to us?” Tutu asked last month of modern-day South Africa, the country for which he coined the phrase “Rainbow Nation”. “Perhaps we did not realise just how apartheid has damaged us so that we seem to have lost our sense of right and wrong.”
“We have achieved our goal. We are free … We have an obligation to obey the laws made by our own legislators. We should be dignified, law abiding citizens … proud of our freedom won at such great cost,” he said.
Never a member of the African National Congress, Tutu has clashed frequently with the governments of Nelson Mandela and his successor Thabo Mbeki.
He has repeatedly questioned the response to the Aids pandemic and what he dubbed “a culture of sycophancy” towards Mbeki, leading the president to snap back and brand him a populist.
ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma was declared unfit to lead the country by Tutu following his admission during a rape trial that he had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive family friend half his age.
Foreign leaders have also been on the receiving end of Tutu’s sharp tongue, including Robert Mugabe who was called a “caricature of an African dictator”. The veteran Zimbabwean president in turn called him “an evil little bishop”.
International recognition of Tutu’s contribution to the struggle against apartheid-which he had described as “evil and unchristian”-came in 1984 when he was awarded the Nobel peace prize.
Born into a poor family, Tutu dreamed of becoming a doctor specialising in tuberculosis research, according to an authorised biography by his former press secretary John Allen. Tutu suffered from the disease as a child, and also had polio.
His family could not afford to send him to university, and he instead trained as a teacher on a government scholarship. After a short stint as a teacher, his anger over the inferior education offered black children prompted him to become a priest.
“It wasn’t for very highfalutin ideals that I became a priest,” Allen’s book quotes him as saying. “It was almost by default.