October 13, 2006
Author John Allen chats to Bruce Dennill about his experiences working for and writing about Desmond Tutu.
Allen was, for many years, a religion correspondent for a local daily newspaper. This beat, ironically, gave him the ideal opportunity to reflect what was really going on in the political arena, in which many church leaders, including Desmond Tutu, were involved.
Political writers, because they were often not present in situations where the real discussion was happening, were not afforded the breadth of perspective he was.
“St Alban’s Cathedral in Pretoria is right adjacent to Wachthuis – the police headquarters,” says Allen.
“It was always amazing to me that right next to that place you would have blacks and whites mingling and debating in the same area. It was this oasis of sanity.”
Allen’s biography of Tutu, Rabble-Rouser For Peace, is a dense, weighty tome that requires some commitment to get through, but is immensely valuable as a historical document (it should be required reading for high school and/or university history students), as well as as a deconstruction of what makes the Archbishop such an iconic figure in SA. That status is notably different to the only local personality with a higher international profile – Nelson Mandela.
“I remember going with Tutu to Yale in 2000,” says Allen. “He was to receive an honorary degree, but the tradition there is that these awards are not announced, so they’re a surprise to the graduates.
“Tutu’s name was announced last – there was no speech – and as he came forward to accept the degree, this graduating class, all of whom were 21 or 22 years old, rose to give him an ovation. I was hugely surprised – most of these people were about five when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, yet his profile has been maintained,” he says.
“The thing is, most of them recognise him as iconic, but they don’t know why he’s important.”
Mandela, on the other hand, was handed a reputation by being imprisoned for 27 years. In a way, it’s similar to rock stars who die young and become instant legends – they’re revered for their un-realised potential. The difference with Mandela, of course, is that he delivered on that potential despite being incarcerated.
Allen agrees. “Tutu always says: ‘That 27 years was not a waste – you can’t dismiss someone who would sacrifice that amount of time.’”
The author feels strongly about South Africans being the poorer for not having the experiences of the many political exiles, MK members etc, properly recorded.
Tutu’s exploits, as shown by the formidable depth of research undertaken for Rabble-Rouser…, are well known, but Allen would like to see the efforts of others given equal weight.
STRENGTH OF CHARACTER
He also explains how Tutu, as a black man, managed to have so much impact, nationally and internationally during the apartheid years. One point of view suggests that the Archbishop was aware of the protective power of the robes he wore and might have used that to his own ends, but Allen’s impressions are different.
“Tutu always had a fierce sense of calling,” he says. “He would often not consult with others or adhere to mandates, and for this he was criticised. However, I don’t think he ever felt that he could exploit being a man of the cloth. Rather, I think he was simply more driven by his beliefs than many others.”
The combination of Tutu’s personality and education also played a part in forging his reputation.
“He has this extraordinary facility with English,” says Allen. “He knows how to use strong language effectively and he’s happy to let his anger show – something that many others would shy away from.”
The Peace Prize, and the fame it brought Tutu, also made it problematic for any of the apartheid bodies responsible for “removing” enemies of the state to assassinate or otherwise immobilise him.
Taking him out would have, in Allen’s words, “Shut the country down.”
In retirement, Tutu continues to take controversial stances, including his support of homosexuals in the church.
“His view is that, like race, it’s not something people can control, so judging them on that basis is the same as being racist,” says Allen.
Tutu’s famous sense of humour continues to disarm his detractors, though.
Allen laughs. “Yes, I remember him saying at one point that even the devil is redeemable. When people expressed shock, his response was, ‘What can they do? I’m retired!’”
When pressed, Allen reveals his favourite Tutu punchline from the 13 years he spent working for the man.
“We were at Edward Kennedy’s house for dinner, and Tutu told a joke about PW and Pik Botha taking him waterskiing on the Orange River. When someone pointed out that that seemed like a very nice thing to do, he replied: ‘You obviously don’t know too much about crocodile hunting!’”