On the warpath with God’s first warrior

Former aide John Allen’s authorised biography offers an intimate view of Desmond Tutu, says John Carlin

Sunday November 12, 2006
The Observer

Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorised Biography of Desmond Tutu
by John Allen

Rider Books £18.99, pp496

I have talked to a number of friends who have spent time, as I have, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and they feel the same way. There’s no one we know who rattles our non-belief as he does.

There’s no mystery about it. It’s all to do with his perfect pitch. Whether you are in private with him or part of a large crowd, whether the occasion is joyous or tragic, whether the issue is complex or straightforward, Tutu strikes the right chord. He is so unfailingly lucid, penetrating and inspired that you come away with the impression that he has a direct line to God.

And we’re not just talking about words here. He sobs when it is appropriate to sob. And he laughs – no Nobel Peace Prize winner, surely, has ever done so more often or with more gusto – when laughter is what the moment demands. Listening to the tape of a one-hour interview I did with him in 1994 after he had had a comically unlikely public spat with his good friend and President, Nelson Mandela, I counted the number of times he laughed: 47, from giggle to chortle to guffaw. And yet the interview was never frivolous. He spoke, among other things, about his concern that his country’s new rulers might succumb to corruption and about his hopes for peace in Northern Ireland, with wisdom, courage and clairvoyance.

John Allen’s authorised biography charts the inside story of Tutu’s dazzlingly effective part in the struggle against apartheid and the sensitive, judicious role he played afterwards as head of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. One message that comes across powerfully reading Allen, a journalist who was Tutu’s right-hand man from 1987 to 2000, is the political nous which Tutu deployed.

During the fraught Eighties in South Africa, defined by constant street battles between the security forces and the black township youth, Tutu delivered one mightily influential speech after another. A tremendous orator, he inflamed his audiences’ outrage at the injustice they were forced to endure while contriving to steer their passions towards peaceful action. He knew how to seize on people’s anger, drain the violence out of it and channel it into energetic hope. He rabble-roused, as this biography’s title so perfectly conveys it, for peace.

Tutu did this most memorably at the moment when South Africa came closest to all-out racial war. It was in Easter 1993 just after the assassination of the most popular individual in the African National Council after Mandela, the guerrilla commander Chris Hani. At his funeral, Mandela and the rest of the ANC leadership ‘sat enthralled’, Allen reminds us, as Tutu spurred a crowd of 120,000 to repeat after him the chants, over and over: ‘We will be free!’, ‘All of us!’, ‘Black and white together!’ He wrapped up his speech, transforming tragedy into triumph, with a thunderous finale: ‘We are the rainbow people of God! We are unstoppable! Nobody can stop us on our march to victory! No one, no guns, nothing! Nothing will stop us, for we are moving to freedom! We are moving to freedom and nobody can stop us! For God is on our side!’

Where Allen’s biography has an edge over previous and, most probably, future efforts to capture Tutu’s life is that he tells us, with the intimacy only a trusted friend could glean, what was going on inside Tutu’s head: his misgivings, his fears, his disappointments, his ambitions as he wrestled the apartheid beast.

Allen’s wonderfully humanising biography offers plenty of cheerful anecdote and serious insight. None more so, perhaps, than in Tutu’s silent response to the news that he had been awarded the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize. Overjoyed as he was, he paused for a moment to read to himself Psalm 139. Two lines from it read: ‘There is not a word on my tongue/But you Lord know it altogether.’

Just so.