Mighty fighter in a mitre

10 November 2006

Financial MailBOOK OF THE WEEK

Mighty fighter in a mitre

By Richard Steyn

Desmond Tutu may rightfully be described as the conscience of the nation.

It is not necessary to agree with all his arguments, approve of his occasional histrionics or share his unbounded optimism to recognise that no-one has stood up more consistently for his principles or tried harder to heal the wounds of racism than this turbulent Anglican prelate. Unlike the sainted Mandela, Tutu has never needed to answer to a political constituency. His lodestar has always been his Christian belief, especially its core tenets of repentance and forgiveness. And his courage and humanity since apartheid’s darkest days have been a marvellous advertisement for his faith.

Few people know Tutu as well as John Allen, a seasoned journalist who worked alongside him for almost 20 years. In this well-researched and admirably even-handed biography published to coincide with his subject’s 75th birthday, Allen traces Tutu’s career: from sickly childhood through student life and early career in the church; to his tempestuous struggle, as general secretary of the SA Council of Churches and Archbishop of Cape Town, against successive apartheid governments; and his subsequent chairmanship of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission.

The defining moment of Tutu’s career was undoubtedly being awarded the Nobel peace prize, which transformed him into a figure of international renown and afforded him some protection from those in government who wished dearly to shut him up. It enabled him to become, in Mandela’s words, apartheid’s “public enemy number one”.

Besides exceptional bravery – and a liking for the occasional rum and coke – what distinguishes Tutu from his clerical peers are his inimitable speaking style and his irrepressible sense of humour. To hear “the Arch” preach – and screech – is an entertainment in itself. Lin Menge of the Rand Daily Mail best captured his style in this description of an address at an SACC public meeting: “One minute whites were being swept along, submerged in a black political tirade; the next minute, they were being set down, safe and sound, on the sunny banks of racial amity. And after each dunking, whitey came a little closer to seeing the… black bishop, not as the monster who threw him in, but as the nice uncle who pulled him out.”

Tutu made few, if any, compromises with racism, or with those who advocated violence for political ends. He showed as much courage in speaking out against apartheid from the pulpit or public platform as in calming the masses at political funerals or saving terrified victims from the “necklace”. In the post-apartheid era, he has often castigated the ANC leadership for its shortcomings. No-one else in the black establishment has had the temerity to describe Robert Mugabe as “bonkers” or to say that Jacob Zuma is unsuitable for the presidency of SA.

As Allen observes in his epilogue, unlike Gandhi, Martin Luther King jnr and others who struggled for fundamental change in unjust societies, Tutu has been fortunate to reap the fruits of his endeavours during his own lifetime. Yet how well he deserves to. A sage once described leadership as being the ability to take people from where they were to where they have not been before. By that measure – and on the evidence of this fine book – Tutu’s place in the pantheon of inspirational leaders is secure.