Public enemy of persecution

Hindustan Times

By Renuka Narayanan

New Delhi, November 20, 2006

Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorised Biography of Desmond Tutu
Author: John Allen
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 430
Format: Hardcover

Ask South Africans of Indian origin about race relations in the African country and some lament: “Alas, the gains made by Tutu and Mandela are being rolled back by the whites.”

The new biography of Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu is helpful up to a point. Written by the former religion correspondent of a major South African daily newspaper, the book is written with warmth and with as intimate an acquaintance with Tutu as circumstances have allowed.

John Allen tracked Tutu from his rise to prominence following the Soweto uprising of 1976 and served with Tutu for 13 years, first as his press secretary and then as communications director of South Africa’s poignantly named Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and at Emory University, USA.

Reading through his account of Tutu’s life-story is one long heartache especially for an Indian reader and especially in this year, which is the centenary of the year in which Mahatma Gandhi, then in South Africa, conceived the Satyagraha movement.

Allen tells a gripping tale in spare, tight prose. He wisely refrains from adding more descriptive masala of his own, since the events themselves are so dramatic and the quotes and conversations moving and terrifying in themselves.

The story tells the reader things not generally known before. The social and spiritual context into which Tutu was born, especially the legacy of two Xhosa prophets of the early 19th century who gave spiritual sustenance to a society already under the white Boers and then under siege by the British. One of them, Makhanda, blended Christian precepts with Xhosa tradition to provide a religious framework against British aggression.

Tutu’s own family changes churches from Methodist to Anglican and at age seven, Tutu serves at a church in Tshing. His mother becomes a powerful influence on his life. Wanting to become a doctor to fight against rampant tuberculosis in his country Tutu is eventually ordained as a minister, after which his life takes on his own character: a profound blend of war and peace. Peace as a man of god, whose ministry embraces even P W Botha, the Vlaakplaas commander who was identified by a government commission as “the man who took the State into the realms of criminality” for the abduction, torture and killing of people opposed to the government.

Allen describes Tutu’s dealings with rivals and naysayers within his own group of loyalists, including the nuances of his relationship with the Mandelas, other African leaders and the international community with unbiased clarity. Given the fraught conditions in South Africa, the reader closes this well-told account of a brave life with the fervent hope that Tutu’s courage will indeed help his nation “reconcile faith to justice”.