Archbishop Desmond Tutu Looks Back, Definitely Not in Anger
By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 9, 2006; C01
The cleric is laughing. He laughs a lot. He can’t help it. Desmond Tutu is tickled by his life, his faith, his God, so the giggles just bubble out, cresting sometimes in a hilariously showy cackle. The former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, the David to the old Goliath that was apartheid, Tutu can be seized with this joy at just about any time.
He might be talking about weighty issues like the moral imperative, our inherent sense of right and wrong, and how “everyone has an instinct for freedom because God has imbued each one of us with a gift of freedom,” and here comes that infectious giggle.
Or he’s cracking up as he tells of the “uncanniness” of being at Madame Tussauds’ some years ago and wondering, as he watched a workman carrying the waxen Tutu, “What am I doing under his armpit?” Or he’s expounding on the limits of racial reconciliation in his homeland, South Africa, and how some whites reacted to him as would an “arrogant, racist, superior being who says, ‘What gives you the right to be such a cheeky native?’ ” And then he’s cackling full out, rocking side to side in his chair.
Well, of course he’s cheeky! That’s the joke! Of course, he’s been shameless and pushy in bluntly saying what others at times would not. With a mandate he believes is from God to speak on justice and truth, he is the victorious anti-apartheid campaigner, Nobel laureate, peacemaker and global shepherd who turned cheekiness into an arrow in the quiver of his ecclesiastical mission. It’s all laid out in the new biography, “Rabble-Rouser for Peace,” published this month by Free Press.
The book makes him somewhat nervous, seeing his life set down in black and white. Reading it is like “strutting in front of a mirror,” he says, as if there’s no ego in him.
There, inside the Club Lounge of the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers last month at the Clinton Global Initiative conference, Tutu’s putting on quite the show. He does, indeed, take to the spotlight. Passersby pause, sneaking a peek at him or catching a snatch of his singsong cadence as he holds forth on distinctly unmerry topics of good and evil, torture and terror, apartheid-era South Africa and the United States (he perceives some disturbing parallels).
But now he’s antsy. He wants the interview to end.
“I have an appointment,” he deadpans, “with God.” But he can’t hold it. His face breaks. It’s those giggles, that cackle, all over again.
A Spiritual Shepherd
There is something indefatigable about Tutu. Even in the midst of intermittent treatment for his prostate cancer, the man seems to be everywhere. In that way, he is like former President Nelson Mandela — driven and in demand — though the comparison quickly breaks down, as Tutu is short and impish compared with Mandela’s more stately bearing.
And Mandela, the heroic political prisoner turned father of South Africa’s democracy when he was elected in 1994, now is 88 and no longer jetting around the globe. Not so for Tutu, South Africa’s spiritual shepherd, who is 13 years Mandela’s junior.
Tutu has a lot to say. And he likes to say it. His booking agent stays busy keeping him on the speaking circuit. That is the global cleric at work, still crusading, all over the world, for there still are battles to be fought, souls to serve, in the name of his God.
One day Tutu’s in Dallas speaking at a church. Then he’s at Peace Jam in Denver, hangin’ with the Dalai Lama and other Nobel laureates. On to New York, and Tutu’s with former president Clinton and his globalistas, speaking on a panel with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Then he’s home to Cape Town in time to deliver yet another speech. And that was just his September.
Tutu likens his outspokenness to that of the Old Testament’s Jeremiah, perhaps the most reluctant of all the prophets. Jeremiah did not want to be what God wanted. He did not want to be a voice for God’s word. But even when he did not want to speak it, God’s message nagged him, like “a fire burning in my breast,” so the Old Testament says. It is also the title of a chapter in the new book, for it describes Tutu’s driving force. Tutu feels the fire.
“Religion is like a knife. If you use it to slice bread, it is good. If you use it to slice off somebody’s hand, it is bad,” Tutu said at the Global Initiative, Clinton recalled in an e-mail.
And then Clinton wrote, “We need the Bishop’s voice now more than ever, to slice bread and spread love… . Bishop Tutu is the living answer to heretics who use faith to divide and destroy and to cynics who doubt that any good can flow from an active faith.”
These days, the voice is ringing out on the war in Iraq and all its attendant issues, like detention without trial at Guantanamo Bay and, of course, torture. Tutu’s criticism is not new. It’s been building since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, a war he has called illegal and immoral.
“And this rendition — sending people where it will be easier for them to be tortured — is an admission that this is something that we shouldn’t be doing,” he says. This he calls the “oughtness” of life, as in: We all know, morally speaking, what we ought and ought not do.
So when confronted with sectarian killing in Iraq, genocide in Darfur and torture in places unseen, “why we are appalled is precisely because we are good. If evil and wrong were the norm, there’s no way in which you would get too upset about it… . And even the worst dictators: I’ve never heard them say, ‘You see me? I’m a violator of human rights.’ They all claim to respect human rights.
“Why do they hide it? I mean, if it was something that they said doesn’t really matter, they would do it in the open. They hide it because they know it is unacceptable.”
U.S. detention-without-trial at Guantanamo Bay is especially galling to him because he witnessed thousands of people, from children to the elderly, being detained without trial during the apartheid era. He says he did not believe the United States would do such a thing.
“That they should use the same arguments to justify detention without trial that were used by the apartheid government, for me, has knocked me for a six.” The term is a Britishism meaning, in Tutu’s words: “You are devastated and you say this can’t be true. But it is.”
Acts of Forgiveness
Goodness is man’s basic instinct. Tutu believes this. His faith blends Christian precepts with an African conception of humanity known, in the Nguni languages, as ubuntu . It means humaneness and represents a way of perceiving community, that a person is a person through other people, that humanity resides in mutual respect and interconnectedness.
He sees ubuntu at work in the unlikeliest of places.
“You remember the family of the Palestinian child that was killed by Israeli soldiers? They donated the organs of that child to the Israelis. Can you imagine? What was it in them, instead of crying out for revenge, that they should exhibit this incredible magnanimity? And even in Israel, look at the family whose son was one of the soldiers abducted by Hezbollah, where that family was saying stop the killing.”
“So when you look around the world, I am amazed that when people are given the opportunity, they exhibit an extraordinary level of magnanimity.”
In leading South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 1990s, Tutu saw ubuntu at work when many South Africans embraced reconciliation rather than revenge. The truth commission investigated human-rights abuses, offered amnesty to perpetrators in exchange for verifiable confessions, dispensed financial and symbolic reparations to victims, and attempted to salve a nation’s pain. Tutu presided over numerous acts of forgiveness, of magnanimity. And he saw the extent to which even the worst murderers and torturers know that what they did was wrong.
It is out of ubuntu, his love for his community, he says, that he has of late been speaking out harshly about conditions in South Africa 12 years after apartheid’s end. The high crime. The yawning schisms of race and class. The consumerism and rush for power.
He’s been speaking his mind on such subjects since the days of Mandela’s presidency, when he warned of new parliamentarians hopping on the “gravy train” of power. And he has chastised South Africa’s current president, Thabo Mbeki, for his government’s slow response to the HIV–AIDS epidemic and for its tepid foreign policy approach to the dictatorial ways of Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe.
He is criticized by some South Africans for the sting his criticism carries so soon after the historic victory over apartheid. But Tutu says he speaks what he believes is God’s word. The “change of personnel,” as he refers to the transition from apartheid to democracy, doesn’t mean that he should stop speaking out.
“I mean, I don’t sit calculating, ‘Now what is the most outrageous thing I can say?’ I hope that I am saying what I have been moved to say by God, and I have no guarantee that I may not have misheard God,” he says impishly, a wry giggle escaping his lips.
A Living Symbol
With his flowing magenta vestments, he became a fixture on the anti-apartheid scene in the 1980s, when the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize catapulted him to global stature. Nelson Mandela was in prison back then. His wife, Winnie Mandela, was free but variously banished or banned or beset by security agents. Tutu and a few other famed South African clerics (Allan Boesak, Frank Chikane, Smangaliso Mkhatshwa among them) were, for a time, at the front lines of the anti-apartheid campaign.
At the hands of apartheid’s police, Tutu was tear-gassed and detained; his wife of 50 years, Leah Tutu, was once arrested, too, and threatened with violence. Tutu put his own life on the line over and over again, even stepping between a suspected informer and an angry crowd ready to hang a burning tire around the man’s neck. That dreaded necklace.
The fight was always both moral and quite personal. The forced removals or racially targeted community demolitions that were part of apartheid’s draconian social engineering hit Tutu’s birthplace, his family home, the church in which he was married, the college his wife attended, and ultimately that legendary township called Sophiatown, where Tutu once lived. Demolished.
Against the backdrop of all this abuse being meted out to the nation, Tutu was outraged that President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher continued to view many of the anti-apartheid activists (including Mandela) as terrorists and refused to condemn the abuses of President P.W. Botha’s government.
While Botha’s government imposed a state of emergency, bombed neighboring countries for supporting exiled anti-apartheid activists, detained thousands of people without trial and shot down protesters, Tutu campaigned furiously for economic sanctions. He wanted Washington and the world to put the squeeze on Pretoria.
But Reagan resisted. It was the era of “constructive engagement,” a foreign policy in which the United States maintained friendly relations with Botha’s regime in the hope of spurring positive change not only in South Africa but also in the broader region.
After pushing and prodding and making no headway, Tutu took a no-holds-barred approach. He called Reagan and his policies “racist” and said that the West “can go to hell.”
Tutu’s righteous indignation, coupled with the high-profile activists of the Free South Africa Movement who got themselves arrested day after day at the South African Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, had an effect. Congress finally approved sanctions in 1986, with the House overriding Reagan’s veto of a Senate sanctions bill.
Chester A. Crocker, then the assistant secretary of state for Africa, says today that Tutu did not understand the breadth of the African regional issues at play.
While saying he had “terrific respect for his ability to communicate,” Crocker added in an interview, “He was also someone who, when he decided what he wanted to argue, was a great simplifier. He was a very effective advocate, and he made my work more difficult.”
Back home, in South Africa, the far-right press sometimes ran headlines such as: “Tu-Tu Much” and “Shut Up.” But Tutu would not shut up.
“He called it the way he saw it and in quite tough, vivid English language, which really got under the skin of whites,” says John Allen, a white South African journalist who became Tutu’s longtime assistant and is the author of the new biography.
In his prologue to “Rabble-Rouser for Peace,” Allen describes an episode in which the diminutive Tutu went toe to toe in a shouting match with Botha, the tall, beefy president known in the Afrikaans language as “die Groot Krokodil” (“the great crocodile”). It happened in 1988, in the presidential offices in Cape Town. Tutu had gone to plead for clemency for a group of activists facing the gallows, but the two men ended up arguing over a recent protest march in which police water cannons mowed down clergymen. (Tutu had been arrested at the start of the march.)
There in Botha’s office, the two men shouted and wagged their fingers at each other’s faces. Botha dressed Tutu down for participating in the march. Tutu accused Botha of lying and suggested Botha had been a Nazi sympathizer. Botha called Tutu wicked and issued a warning consistent with the repressive apartheid policies of the previous 40 years:
“If you want confrontation, you’re going to get confrontation,” Botha shouted. “You must tell the people: They’re going to get confrontation.”
Tutu felt bad about it, felt he had gone too far.
“I don’t know whether that is how Jesus would have handled it,” Tutu told Allen for the book. “But at that moment I didn’t actually quite mind how Jesus would have handled it. I was going to handle it my way.”
And Botha handled it his way. A few months after the confrontation, the Johannesburg headquarters of the South African Council of Churches, which led the clerical march, was bombed on Botha’s orders. The church group’s leader, Frank Chikane, was poisoned and nearly killed by a covert branch of the South African military.
The state’s role in these crimes came to light after apartheid’s end, under the truth commission, which also heard testimony about a plot to sabotage Tutu’s car and confessions from covert state agents about a bizarre anti-Tutu plot. One agent confessed to hanging a baboon fetus in the yard of Tutu’s official church residence. Another agent testified that the larger plot — never carried out — was to murder Tutu’s son, Trevor, one of Tutu’s four children, then point to the baboon fetus as evidence of a murderous plot by some fictional anti-Tutu group that used a deadly “muti,” or traditional medicine.
Late at night in London in the early 1960s, the Tutus, husband and wife, would walk to Trafalgar Square. There, they were fascinated by the London bobbies, so unlike the brutal police back home, where blacks had to carry passes to circulate in white areas.
“We found it almost intoxicating that a police officer … didn’t come across to ask for your pass,” Tutu wrote in a long ago letter reproduced in Allen’s book.
“You were free to walk wherever. And we would often go and ask for directions, even when we knew where we were going, just so that we could hear a white police officer saying ‘No Sir, yes Ma’am.’ ”
Britain presented much racial wonderment for Tutu while he studied theology there. Each time a kindness was extended, it surprised him.
A white man, a fellow student, once helped him with his coat, Allen writes, and Tutu responded, ” ‘Do you know, Mervyn, you’re the first white man ever to hold my coat for me!’ and then burst into that typical laugh.”
He would travel miles, and endure decades, before he could experience in South Africa the ease of life, of humanity, that he experienced abroad. There was racism in Britain for sure, or at least a racial curiosity about people with dark skin, like the time a child asked Trevor, Tutu’s son, “How does your mother know you are dirty?”
Race was present in Britain, but the Tutus were not strangled and hemmed in and herded by it, as they would be once they returned to South Africa in 1967.
There, in his homeland, Tutu’s faith was stretched and tested, was honed in the fire of a human struggle in which he would emerge one of many heroes, to the world and to his own country.
But he is humble, today, about his global stature. Perhaps it is a humility born of those days of personal conflict in London, when he felt inferior, felt he did not measure up to academic expectations. Or perhaps it was born of his background as a dirt-poor township urchin who suffered both TB and polio.
He is indeed a global cleric, and yet he shuns such descriptions.
Asked to take stock of his stature, he points instead to other iconic figures. Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Aun San Su Ky, Mahatma Gandhi. They are the ones, he says, to whom the world has looked for guidance.
As for himself, he demurs, “Well I haven’t sat down and said, ‘Now Tutu, what are you, my boy?’ ” And then he lets out one of his huge cackles. “That’s a judgment that’s got to be made by others.”