South Africa Times, London
Written by Elizma Nolte
Tuesday, 17 October 2006
We speak to John Allen, author of Desmond Tutu’s authorised biography, which was launched in London last week.
It was only natural that John Allen should be the person to write the authorised biography of Desmond Tutu. As his press secretary, he spent 13 years monitoring the former Archbishop’s every public spoken word.
When Tutu became Archbishop of Cape Town in 1987, Allen was perfectly placed for the job. As a journalist, he had reported on religion for The Star, before switching careers to work for a journalism union.
It was an exciting time to be reporting on religion, Allen recalls. Since every other part of South Africa was segregated, the church provided the main forum for black and white leaders to talk to each other.
It was this unique role of the church that propelled Tutu into the position of mediator that eventually won him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Allen’s biography, Rabble-Rouser for Peace, released in London last week, recounts Tutu’s remarkable journey.
Glancing at an outline of Tutu’s early life, it is not immediately obvious that he was destined to become the influential figure he did. He wanted to be a doctor, but, due to a lack of funds, became a teacher. He fell in love with and married fellow teacher, Leah and the couple moved into a small home.
It was only when the apartheid government introduced Bantu education that Tutu found himself forced to make a decision and his strong sense of justice shone through.
“I just felt I couldn’t be part of this …” Tutu told Allen. “I said to myself, sorry, I’m not going to be a collaborator in this nefarious scheme. So I said, ‘What can I do?’”
He turned “almost by default” to studying theology, first through UNISA and later at King’s College in London.
During this time Tutu and Leah lived in Golders Green and the book contains a delightful account of how they would often stop and ask a bobby for directions just to hear a white police officer say “No sir, yes ma’am”.
After obtaining his Masters at King’s, he returned to teach in Jo’burg, and later Lesotho, where he first became a bishop. Within a year of him coming back from Lesotho, Allen says, it was clear that Tutu was destined to become a leader.
“He had such a unique combination of skills – his depth of passion and his compassion, together with his phenomenal communication powers.
“Even then, in ’78, I thought: ‘This guy is worth a book’.”
During his time researching the book, Allen came to know Tutu even better as he continually jogged the Arch’s memory for the stories he had never heard before.
Allen not only discovered things he never knew about Tutu – but things that Tutu never knew about himself. Granted access to all of Tutu’s personal files, he had a unique glimpse of what others said about him as a young theology student, such as, for instance, that “he was no good with money”.
In his passport files Allen read how the civil service discussed whether to grant him a passport to study in London. “It really was pure luck that he got it.”
But he also sheds further light on the things we do know about – such as Tutu’s extraordinary compassion for people.“Tutu always said there were no ordinary people in his theology,” Allen says.
The one moment he would be roaring with laughter with the president, the next he would pop into the kitchen to greet the staff.
“It was perhaps a reflection on his mother, who was a domestic servant. She had a very powerful influence on him. I think he got his compassion from her.”
The book tells how during his childhood his mother always instinctively sided with the person who was at the worst end of the argument.
“But he also gets really angry,” says Allen. “Part of what he became was because of the anger he felt at seeing how people were mistreated.
Who can forget the compassion Tutu showed when he openly wept at the Truth and Reconciliation testimony on hearing the testimony of victims?
David Beresford recently wrote in The Guardian that elaborate public gestures such as these also pointed to a certain vanity. Does Allen agree?
Tutu himself confesses that he likes the limelight, says Allen, and he is often heard recounting how his wife Leah teases him about his “big head”.
“But it is not a self-serving vanity.
“If you are going to play such a leading role. If you are going to stand in front of a crowed of thousands of people and convince them not to necklace people, you have to be self-confident. You have to have a strong ego – not in an egotistical sense, but in a good sense. He couldn’t have done what he did if he didn’t.”
In the biography, there is a point where even Nelson Mandela uses the word “arrogant” to describe Tutu when he spoke about calling off sanctions.
Recalling that the cleric had made an offer to call off the boycott campaign against South Africa if the then US president, Ronald Reagan, would meet his (Tutu’s) demands, Mandela is quoted in the book as saying it was as if the archbishop had introduced the boycott.
The decision wasn’t up to Tutu, Madiba said. The ANC would decide whether to call off sanctions or not.
But that’s simply how Tutu is, says Allen – opinionated.
“He had a fiery determination to speak the truth even though it might make him unpopular.
“Whether it was against the church, against sanctions, against necklacing – he was always willing to stand up against the tide.”
And he still is. Today Tutu continues to speak his mind on unpopular topics such as Aids, corruption and Zimbabwe, always urging the government to do what is right.
His words carry weight, not only because he has become the icon of peace in South Africa much like Mandela is the icon of freedom – but also because of his far superior oratory skills that make Madiba sound boring, according to Allen.
Tutu is at his best when he is speaking off the cuff, without notes, says Allen, such as during the many occasions during the ’80s when he was called in to calm unrest and often stood between crowds with bricks and stones on one hand and heavily armed policemen on the other.
“The eloquent powerful rhetoric he produces under pressure makes for the most extraordinary speeches.”
When Mandela’s co-accused at the Rivonia trial were released from prison and saw this vibrant Tutu in action for the first time, they must have been astounded, says Allen.
“They had a different, more quiet approach and I think this was the first time that they saw what made Tutu Tutu. This led to Martina Sisulu, Walter Sisulu’s wife making the comment: ‘you’re just a rabble-rouser’.”
And he was, says Allen, but he used his rabble-rousing skills to achieve peace. He had a way of getting the angry crowds on his side, winning them over and then channeling their energy in a different direction so that they would disperse peacefully, Allen explains.
And thus the biography came by its title.
Tutu’s oratory skills now earn him large sums on the speaker circuit around the world and it is something he continues to enjoy.
“He likes the money,” Allen says, “But mostly he likes communicating with people.”
It seems he is still a teacher at heart.
Tutu, who joins Allen to launch Rabble-Rouse for Peace in New York this week, told the Church Times that he has not yet finished reading the biography. But he told the New York Times reading it was a bit like the first time he saw the statue of himself in Madame Tussauds – it was being carried under someone’s arm and he wanted to shout, “Hey, put me down!”
– Rabble-Rouser for Peace, Rider, £18.99