As close as one can get to the “real arch”
The Weekender, Business Day
October 14, 2006
Desmond Tutu’s biographer defends himself against an accusation that he was too harsh, in an interview with REHANA ROSSOUW

John Allen
Random House

ARCHBISHOP Desmond Tutu’s official biographer John Allen worked for him for 13 years and was treated as a member of the Tutu family, but he does not believe this disqualified him from the task of narrating “the arch’s” life story.

“The first thing he said to me when I broached the idea was that he thought I would do something when I retired,” Allen says.

“Then he asked if it would be credible coming from me, as I worked for him.

“My response was to use an analogy of a boxer.

“I was in his corner for years but in my view, to be a good second you have to know your fighter’s faults and point them out to him. Then he said okay.

“I have to admit, of course, that I was close to the arch. When we were in Joburg, I slept in his house in Soweto; when we travelled, I prayed with him in the mornings before breakfast and again last thing at night. I lived in close proximity with him and his family for 13 years.

“But he is big enough, tough enough and open enough for his life to be an open book. The letter he wrote to Pik Botha, begging him to intervene to keep his son out of jail, was the hardest thing I found. But at no stage did he tell me not to include it in the book.

“I was never expected to ‘spin’ him when I was his press secretary. He is incredibly open for a political figure.”

The book spans Tutu’s life until two years ago. Allen’s position as an authorised biographer gave him access to an enormous amount of material and people who had been part of shaping the “rabble-rouser’s” life.

He had material from the 1970s and ’80s when he was a reporter covering religion, but also had access to Tutu’s student files; his passport files, which included letters from the Bureau of State Security; and his correspondence with government and other leaders.

Tutu was born into a poor family, and qualified and worked as a teacher before becoming an Anglican priest “by default”. The Tutu family worshipped at St Paul’s in Krugersdorp, a mission founded by the Community of the Resurrection, to which Trevor Huddleston belonged.

When Hendrik Verwoed introduced Bantu education, Tutu decided he could not be a “collaborator in this nefarious scheme” and resigned in 1955.

Huddleston then recommended him for theology studies at the College of the Resurrection.

Allen deals at length with the concern among some church leaders about Tutu being a spendthrift, which Allen describes as “a reputation which dogged him throughout his ministry”; tussles with funders to support Tutu’s family while he studied in England; and the family’s decision that their children would attend private schools after they returned to SA.

Asked if this wasn’t unfair, as there was never a whiff of financial scandal attached to Tutu – who had brought charges against South African Council of Churches employees who pocketed money meant for victims of apartheid, and had been instrumental in charges being laid against former United Democratic Front leader and cleric Allan Boesak – Allen conceded that perhaps he had a “British attitude to money” which coloured his writing.

“Also, I wanted to write a credible biography, I didn’t want to just whitewash him,” he says. “I have little defence to offer, I did leave the [money] issue hanging in the book after I raised it.

“But you must understand, in the Community of the Resurrection community, many come from Eton and Oxford and then go straight to living in a community at Muirfield which, although very spartan, does take care of all their basic needs.

“Then a married man with four children is sent to the UK to study and they are in a tizz when he wants to bring his family with him. They grew up in boarding schools and couldn’t understand why the arch and Leah wanted their children with them.

“The Theological Education Fund, which funded his studies, would not pay for his family to join him. Many other students had remained in the UK after their studies, and they wanted people to go back to their countries and make their contribution there.

“So in a way, they held their families hostage to ensure they went home again.

“But I suppose I prefer the charge that I was harsh, it’s better than being accused of being overprotective. The family didn’t invite me into their lives 20 years ago so that I could write a book about what the butler saw. That’s probably where the book is most vulnerable, but I believe correctly so.”

Allen said he was very careful when researching the book to stick to what was already in public records. The book succeeds in placing Tutu’s life in context with the struggle for justice, but is thin on detail about Tutu’s personal life – particularly his relationship with his wife of 51 years.

“He has a beautiful, sweet relationship with Leah, although it had its rocky patches, especially when they had to return to SA and she wept as she couldn’t bear the idea of living under apartheid again,” he says. “This is part of my whitewashing, I didn’t want too much treacle saccharine sweetness in the book.”

Allen says that as a consequence of history, South Africans don’t know much about their leaders, particularly those who were in exile or prison. “I believe we need a lot more detailed knowledge – and books – about our leaders.

“In SA we also suffer from a romanticism of our exiled leaders, which is a consequence of the repression that they suffered.”

Allen says he believes other people will write about Tutu, they will look at what he produced and find mistakes he has made and issues he has missed. “There will be a new, different perspective. My biography is, of course, coloured by the fact that I had a long, personal relationship with him.

“When I first began covering him as a journalist, he impressed me with his passion, commitment and fearlessness. Tutu was feisty, he was angry and he was prepared to let that all spill out. Yet, through his powers of logic and reasoning, he convinced me about issues like sanctions – I didn’t agree with him at first – and I was no longer the wishy-washy white liberal I was when I met him.

“What I learned most about him is that he has no distinction between the personal and the political in his life. If his family is inconvenienced by his choices, so be it.”

Allen has enormous insight into Tutu’s role abroad in mobilising for sanctions against SA and spreading the word of reconciliation after he headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He says Tutu is “lionised” in America, even though Oliver Tambo and President Thabo Mbeki played a more critical role in building opposition to apartheid abroad.

“The first time I went with him to the US, he preached at St John the Divine, one of the biggest cathedrals in the world,” he says.

“The place erupted when he entered, it erupted several times while he was speaking, and when he left people reached out to touch him as though he was a rock star.”

Allen will not recommend that the ANC Youth League read his book to discover whether Tutu had any hidden sex scandals.

The league’s leadership had challenged Tutu to expose his sexual history after he chided Jacob Zuma for having sex with a friend’s young daughter.

“As a reluctant beneficiary of apartheid, I am in no position to preach to the Youth League,” Allen says. “But I think all South Africans … need to know more about their leaders and what they did to get us where we are today.”