Review: 2 books look at men who ended apartheid

Tutu, Mandela used hard work, good luck

The Baltimore Sun

By Michael Hill

October 8, 2006

In the current alignment of American politics, there would be little doubt from which point on the social compass a statement like this might come: “We will show that scripture and the mainstream of Christian tradition and teaching know nothing of the dichotomies so popular in our day which demand the separation of religion from politics.”

But before jumping to any praise or denunciation, you should know those words were spoken in 1982 by Desmond K. Tutu as he took over leadership of the South African Council of Churches and unapologetically said that he would use that pulpit to speak out against the injustices of the apartheid regime in that country.

They are quoted in Rabble Rouser for Peace, the excellent new biography of Tutu by John Allen, a South African journalist who became a longtime aide to Tutu.

Among its many virtues, this book reminds readers that Tutu is, at his base, a spiritual man, driven to the spotlight that he seemed to love by deep-seated religious beliefs. Such beliefs are, of course, completely admirable when they drive people to take positions you agree with, and irrationally despicable when they do the opposite.

Tutu, who turned 75 yesterday, is not the only hero of the new South Africa getting feted in print this fall. Nelson Mandela gets coffee-table treatment in Mandela: The Authorized Portrait, an uneven but compelling collection of pictures, text, documents and testimonials that is as hard to put down as a bag of nutritious potato chips, if there is such a thing. Tutu wrote one of the book’s introductions. Bill Clinton wrote the other.

Taken together, these books are a reminder that the miracle that was the relatively peaceful transition of South Africa from apartheid to democracy was not the result of some bolt of lightning. While, as Tutu eloquently states, it might have had divine guidance, it ultimately came about because of a lot of hard work and some exceptionally good luck.

A big part of the latter was that this country produced people like Tutu and Mandela, and that the South African populace responded to their greatness. Both ingredients seem to be in short supply in the current big experiment in democracy-transition, Iraq.

Though clearly designed to put its subject on a pedestal, Mandela succeeds best when it does the opposite. Edited by Mandela colleagues Mac Maharaj and Ahmed Kathrada, with a servicable biographical narrative by Mike Nicol, the book’s power comes when it delivers the person, not the myth.

That comes from seeing its astonishing collection of photographs – many published for the first time – of Mandela as well as many images of South Africa during this time of turmoil and triumph. It comes when it lets you read Mandela’s achingly sensitive letters from prison, many to his wife, Winnie.

And the person also shows up in some of the many stories told by the famous – and not-so-famous -who contribute testimonials. Those that stand out connect the public and private Mandela.

One comes from former President Clinton, who says he asked Mandela how he could emerge from prison without an apparent hint of bitterness. Mandela said that his jailers had taken everything from him except mind and heart. “And I decided not to give them away.” Years later, as Clinton faced an impeachment vote by Congress, Thabo Mbeki, who would be South Africa’s next president, was paying a visit to Washington. Mandela said he should deliver a message to Clinton. Mbeki said he didn’t know what it meant but told the U.S. president, “He said I should tell you ‘not to give them away.’ ”

As Clinton writes, “Mandela will never know how much he helped me get through that period.”

On an even more personal note is the contribution from the British filmmaker Richard Attenborough, who made Gandhi and, with Mandela’s permission from jail, Cry Freedom, about the doomed black activist Steve Biko and his white lawyer.

After his release from prison, Mandela and Attenborough met on a few occasions. When Mandela heard that Attenborough had lost his daughter and granddaughter in the Pacific tsunami on Dec. 26, 2004, Mandela tried to contact him while in England a few weeks later, but they missed connections. Then the phone rang and Mandela, who lost a son to a car crash while in prison, was on the line from South Africa. “Oh my dear Richard, I so wanted to see you because I know what your loss is. And I wanted to hug you. I want to hug you. I want to hold you in my arms.”

What these show is that Mandela’s political stances are rooted in the personal. It was not some staff person jotting off a note to Clinton or Attenborough, it was an attentive human being making that connection. Rare is the person who can translate such personal focus to a national and world stage. Mandela could.

Similarly, Rabble Rouser for Peace connects the publicly political Tutu to the privately spirtual one, showing the seamless flow from one to the other.

Allen brings some flaws to the project. For one, he is a Tutu confidant, so it is not surprising that criticisms are muted. For another, Allen is not an inspiring writer. The book does not take you on a soaring rhetorical journey through the spiritual and political South Africa that nurtured – and was nutured by – Tutu.

But those weaknesses also contain strengths. Allen does not approach the project as a writer, but as a journalist and his reporting is impeccable. His confidant status gave his journalistic eyes access to the inner circles, giving his accounts the weight of authority. He gives a fair accounting of criticisms of Tutu – his occasional rashness, the charges that he was overly ambitious and loved the trappings of his celebrity life a bit too much – without endorsing them.

Tutu did not set out to be a pastor. He would have preferred to be a doctor, but finances did not permit it. So he followed the footsteps of his Anglican teachers into the church. There his inbred sense of outrage at injustice brought him to the fore of the anti-apartheid crusade.

There was, of course, a price to pay. As Allen recounts, Tutu’s intelligence and charisma led to his rise in the Anglican church. He had long stints in England – one as a student and another as a church official – and there are heartbreaking accounts of his decisions to return to South Africa. “Over here I can do what I like,” Tutu’s wife, Leah, is quoted as saying. “In South Africa, I have to walk off the pavement if a white person is coming towards me.” It is a stark reminder of what life under apartheid was like and the sacrifices many made to end it.

Rabble Rouser for Peace ultimately reminds us of the preeminent role Tutu played in the demise of that brutal system. When Mandela was a symbol behind bars, it was Tutu’s constant presence – whether addressing heads of state or putting himself in harm’s way between police and demonstrators – that kept the pressure on.

Two countries that did not back him were Britain under Margaret Thatcher and the United States under Ronald Reagan. Neither would support economic sanctions. Tutu played a crucial role in persuading Congress to override Reagan’s sanctions veto.

Many of South Africa’s transition figures are forgotten, eclipsed by Mandela and his African National Congress colleagues when they reappeared on the scene. But Tutu kept his place. His moral standing was such that he was one of the few who could criticize Mandela and the ANC, and did so. With a personal compassion that fed the strength of his political will, he seemed perfect for his role as chair of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Taken together, Mandela and Rabble Rouser for Peace are reminders of the miracle that is South Africa, especially when Bosnia, Iraq and many other places on the globe demonstrate what it might have been. Tutu would say it was a miracle wrought by God and by men and women working under his influence. Mandela would probably point to the discipline of the ANC and the other opponents of apartheid. It would be interesting to hear them discuss the point.

And, whoever is right, these books remind us how lucky we are to share the planet with people like these.