The Weekender (Business Day), Johannesburg, October 21, 2006
READERS of Footloose will be familiar with the phenomenon by which the subjects of authorised biographies suddenly get cold feet when biographers do their jobs properly and dig out the dirt on them.
Nelson Mandela’s success in forcing Anthony Sampson to cut out a reference to his support for necklacing is one example. Another is the row between Nadine Gordimer and her authorised-biographer-who-now-isn’t, Ronald Suresh Roberts.
It is, therefore, with growing respect for Desmond Tutu that Footloose discovered the Arch² plays things differently.
An account of relations between Tutu and his authorised biographer and former press secretary, John Allen, was given by Allen in a little-reported speech to the Cape Town Press Club recently.
In the biography, Rabble-Rouser for Peace, Allen makes the disclosure – potentially damaging to Tutu’s reputation as a man of principle – that in the early 1990s the cleric had appealed to the then foreign minister, Pik Botha, for help in keeping his errant son, Trevor, out of prison. This was after the youngster had been convicted of making a bomb threat at Johannesburg airport.
Allen told the press club he had found the letter of appeal to Pik in church archives at the University of the Witwatersrand. He asked, rhetorically: “What, you might ask, was the Arch’s response to my discovery? Well, he’s never said a word about it to me.”
The only objection to the book by Tutu, it seems, was to its cover, showing Tutu in full flow, haranguing a crowd.
Allen quotes the archbishop as saying to him in an e-mail: “The old SABC could not have done better: dark sinister glasses, wide open mouth and gesticulating, urging the troops on now to abandon nonviolence.”
To which Allen replied: “You once wrote that a gentle Jesus could not fit into a terrain as harsh as the Middle East.
“For me, an irenic (aimed at peace) image of you would not adequately reflect the book, which is about a much tougher, more deep-rooted love.”
October 21, 2006