By Gunther Simmermacher
Besides the pope, retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa is arguably the world’s most famous living Christian cleric. He was instrumental in bringing down apartheid, and then played a central role in forging a measure of reconciliation in his polarized country.
It has been the privilege of South African journalist John Allen to have been close at Archbishop Tutu’s side throughout the crucial years of his ministry, as the archbishop’s and then the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s much-respected press secretary. As an intimate aide, Allen has been privy to unique insights into Archbishop Tutu’s work and character, and so is an obvious choice to pen an “authorized biography,” as Rabble-Rouser for Peace is dubbed.
This is a blessing, for it provides this biography with nuances an outsider might not pick up, but also something of a curse because Allen’s close friendship with his subject by nature inhibits an absolutely forthright critical appraisal.
Rabble-Rouser for Peace, a contradictory yet most apt title, provides an admirable portrait of a man who has had much influence in shaping today’s South Africa.
Born in 1931 into a multiethnic Methodist family, young Desmond grew up in simple circumstances. As a youngster, he moved to Johannesburg where he came into contact with the Anglican Community of the Resurrection, an Anglo-Catholic missionary congregation.
As a student, teacher and young priest, Tutu was not inordinately engaged in politics. This changed when in 1970 he witnessed unconscionable police brutality during a protest at the black Fort Hare University, where he was a chaplain. Soon after that, he was appointed associate director of the Theological Education Fund of the World Council of Churches in London, a job that required wide travels throughout Africa.
These were a formative experience for Rev. Tutu, who began to develop a personal African theology, one that remains useful in the present dialogue on enculturation. The London stint also gave Rev. Tutu and his wife an alternative experience to apartheid, a vision of what could be in the land of their birth.
Returning to South Africa in 1975, Rev. Tutu no longer would bow to docile acceptance of apartheid’s racial order; his “prophetic vocation” began. Almost immediately, he was nominated as bishop of Johannesburg, but lost after a protracted vote. The eventual winner, Bishop Timothy Bavin, appointed him dean of the cathedral, making him the first black man to hold that position.
Allen writes without undue hyperbole: “It was not apparent at the time, but (Tutu) had begun one of the most extensive, high-pressure, prominent public ministries of any church leader of his generation.”
Within less than a year, Rev. Tutu became bishop of Lesotho. He shook up the countrywide diocese and left two years later – reluctantly and at the urging of his fellow Anglican bishops – to assume the position of secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches.
Allen’s account of how then-Bishop Tutu approached that job is instructive. At the council’s Johannesburg headquarters, he introduced staff prayer meetings, retreats and the like. His daily prayer routine remained one of disciplined devotion, including 7 a.m. Eucharist and the Angelus at noon – Hail Mary and all. For all his social concerns, he put God first.
Indeed, his social and political engagement was based on what he discerned to be the mandate of the gospel. Bishop Tutu subscribed to nonviolence in the struggle as a preferential option. By the late ’70s he and other church leaders concluded that peaceful means of fighting apartheid were still possible: by means of international economic sanctions.
In September 1984 South Africa blew up in political protest, with bloody repercussions which would lead to the declaration of successive states of emergency. A month later, Bishop Tutu was in New York when he was revealed as that year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner – a fortuitous circumstance which ensured maximal exposure for the struggle.
Becoming archbishop of Cape Town and thus primate of Anglicans in southern Africa in 1985, Archbishop Tutu unilaterally called a historic protest march against police killings in September 1989. New state President F.W. de Klerk allowed the march to go ahead, the first such concession under apartheid.
The march drew a record multiracial crowd of 35,000 “rainbow people,” as Archbishop Tutu dubbed them that day, and was replicated throughout South Africa. According to de Klerk, it helped push apartheid over the cliff.
Allen’s narrative style evokes his subject’s character: it is thoroughly entertaining, inspiring, uncomplicated and thought-provoking. An “authorized biography” by its nature cannot represent the definitive life of its subject. Rabble-Rouser, however, comes as close to attaining that quality as one might hope for.
Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorized Biography of Desmond Tutu, by John Allen. Free Press (New York, 2006). 496 pp., $28.
Simmermacher is editor of South Africa’s Catholic weekly, The Southern Cross.