A legacy squandered

Sunday Herald – 29 October 2006 (Scotland)
By George Rosie

IT is easy to forget just how mind-numbingly petty South Africa’s system of “separate development” could be. Not only were the country’s non-white people denied the right to vote, live where they wanted, and forced to carry internal passports, but they existed under a burden of trivial regulation that must have sapped many spirits. That apartheid survived as long as it did – from 1948 to 1994 – speaks volumes about the forbearance of the black and “coloured” population of 20th century South Africa.

Reverend Desmond Tutu set out to dismantle it. In his eyes apartheid was a standing affront to God. As an Anglican priest his duty, as he saw it, was to take the fight to a white regime that was creating such misery among God’s children. That long, painful, often risky, occasionally violent battle is narrated in John Allen’s new authorised biography of one of that small handful of clergymen who have found a role for themselves on the world stage.

There is certainly no denying that Tutu has done his bit. The son of a schoolteacher from one of the Transvaal’s hard-pressed townships, he became one of the most effective black voices in South Africa. In sometimes lethal street confrontations between demonstrators and police Tutu was on the street, megaphone in one hand, Bible in the other, doing what he could to stop people killing one another. He became as familiar with the smell of tear gas as with high-church incense. But as a representative of the prestigious and white-dominated Anglican church he was one of the few black South Africans able to tap into the world’s media and talk to high-level politicians and businessmen.

Nothing grieved Tutu more than the tensions between blacks. In the early 1990s, Zulus of the Inkatha Freedom Party seemed bent on massacring those loyal to the ANC. In one such killing spree on June 17 1992 the Zulus slaughtered 46 men, women and children in the Transvaal township of Boipatong. Tutu was distraught, but all he could do was help preside at the funeral of the victims while, not far away, a crowd set fire to a young man they thought was a Zulu spy.

As Allen reminds us, the years of “transition” to black rule were among the most violent that modern South Africa had ever seen – he writes that “some 14,000 South Africans died in political violence during the four years between Mandela’s release and the first democratic election in 1994”.

When the great day came on April 27 1994, Tutu was beside himself with joy. “We are on cloud nine,” he said. “It’s like falling in love.” He voted in Cape Town’s Gugulethu township before touring polling stations.. Tutu was greeted with cheers and jubilation at most polling stations.

Allen certainly knows his subject. As a religious affairs correspondent for a South African daily, he chronicled his rise to prominence before serving as Tutu’s press secretary. After that he worked as director of communications for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Tutu headed. Latterly he was Tutu’s aide in the USA. That familiarity is part of the problem with this book. Much of the information seems not worth knowing, while more could be written about why Tutu became a priest in the first place. Allen quotes his subject as saying: “It was almost by default … I couldn’t go to medical school … The easiest option was going to theological college.” Which hardly suggests a man driven by divine inspiration but does hint at Tutu’s political drive.

Still, this is a worthwhile biography. Tutu may not be the inspirational figure that Nelson Mandela was or a hard-nosed political realist like Oliver Tambo but he played a role in the ruin of apartheid. The white regime became so afraid of the turbulence from below that they realised the game was up. That the transformation was (relatively) bloodless owes much to the work of the churches where Tutu was influential.

It is tragic that the nation Tutu helped create is now racked with suspicion, corruption and violent crime. The affluent white population lives in compounds behind electrified barbed wire. The plagues of Aids and TB are spreading. The ANC is in deep crisis.

All of which has prompted Archbishop Desmond Tutu to warn unless the growing lawlessness is curbed, Africa’s “rainbow nation” could fall apart in chaos and misery. And all the good work of the last 40 years could come to nothing.

Copyright © 2006 smg sunday newspapers ltd. no.176088