Extraordinary, fallible Tutu

The Natal Witness, Pietermaritzburg
Tue, 12 Dec 2006
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu celebrated his 75th birthday in October. Two books commemorate this celebration. RON NICOLSON reviews them.

John Allen in Rabble Rouser for Peace: the authorized biography of Desmond Tutu captures the history of our life in the last part of the 20th century and lays bare for us again things that those of us old enough to remember have almost forgotten, and that those born after the end of apartheid need to know about. Old names of villains and heroes, old associates, long filed away in memory, come back to life. We have forgotten just how bad things were, how wicked, how brutal, in the last days of apartheid, and how miraculous our deliverance. And in that history, right through to the present day, Tutu stands among the giants.

The book reminds us of the role that religion can play in society. Allen’s book shows there is no escaping the religious conviction that is the foundation for Tutu’s role in South Africa. His passion for justice, his intense love for the oppressed and for the oppressor alike, which has marked the difference between South African liberation and that of other places of upheaval, springs directly out of Tutu’s theological convictions and his relationship with his God.

Allen was Tutu’s press secretary and director of communication for most of his time as Archbishop of Cape Town and as the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He clearly admires Tutu. Yet the book is no hagiography. We see Tutu developing from a sickly and somewhat spoilt little boy to an earnest but ordinary student (his degree at King’s College, London, was adequate but not brilliant) to the great man who, despite his small physical stature, became a colossus on the world stage. Tutu, in Allen’s account, matures over the years. He seems to have been a self-centred young man with an eye to advancement. More than once Allen refers, albeit defensively, to charges that in younger days Tutu was not good about managing his personal finances. Tutu changed jobs more quickly than many liked at the time. As an angry black spokesperson, who often (then as now) spoke off the cuff and in the heat of emotion, he sometimes seemed to espouse the violence which he later renounced. All of this Allen faithfully reflects.

There are other criticisms which Allen does not mention. Tutu did seem to live in the style of a prince-bishop of old. When Philip and Eirene Russell lived at Bishopscourt as Archbishop of Cape Town, the house was faded and forlorn. Eirene did much of the housework herself. When Tutu succeeded Russell, he did not think the house befitted the rank of Archbishop. He ruffled feathers in Cape Town when he insisted that, what seemed at the time, a lot of money be spent on refurbishing. As Tutu’s reputation spread, he sometimes had less attention to spare for old friends who had helped him up the ladder. Tutu lived in the limelight, but behind the scenes he depended on others (Michael Nuttall while he was Archbishop, Alex Boraine in the days of the TRC) to keep the machinery of administration moving behind the scenes and without them his work would have descended into a shambles.

He would be the first to confess these human failings. But the signs of greatness were there from the beginning. His greatness lies in his passion for speaking the truth and in his pastoral love. Father Aelred Stubbs (the man who put Steve Biko on the map, the man who was responsible for Tutu being sent to London for training) once said to me, when Tutu was in some disfavour in the church for abandoning his job as Bishop of Lesotho for the job as general secretary of the SACC and for calling aggressively for sanctions, “But we could see from the start that Desmond has an unquenchable pastoral heart. Desmond loves people. Desmond will come back to being a bishop.”

Tutu loves high society and being in the public eye. Yet at society dinners he would embarrass his hosts by engaging the domestic help in conversation too, remembering their names and the names of their family from previous visits. He has a phenomenal memory for names and personal history.

Before apartheid ended, whites hated Tutu for his stand on sanctions. Significant white liberals were suspicious. Alan Paton disliked him (I am not sure whether Paton ever met him, but the two men were poles apart in temperament). Bishop Burnett, previous Archbishop of Cape Town, thought he confused religion with politics and in later life waged a campaign against him. Many whites were plainly abusive. Allen tells the story of an angry white woman out for her morning jog shouting “you black communist wog” at Tutu, who had just reiterated his call for sporting sanctions. Today most whites adore him, partly because it became clear that Tutu’s love extended to them as well and partly because he is unafraid to speak his mind to anyone, be it George W. Bush for the Iraq war, Nelson Mandela for living with Graça before marriage, Thabo Mbeki for his stand on Zimbabwe or HIV/Aids or the previous Archbishop of Canterbury for his behaviour at the Lambeth Conference on the issue of homosexuality (“I am ashamed to be an Anglican,” wrote Tutu to George Carey. Tutu has made no secret of his belief that homosexuals are often discriminated against just as black people were discriminated against under apartheid).

Why a “rabble rouser for peace”? Tutu is a born orator, able to evoke and yet direct the powerful emotions of a crowd. Allen describes several situations where Tutu took the podium at highly-charged rallies and funerals, with mob violence a hair’s breadth away, and swayed the emotion of the crowd by first giving expression to their feelings and then shifting their feelings from anger to affirmations of hope and engagement. Mvume Dandala, in the book mentioned at the end of this article, describes his own personal experience of just such an occasion.

“Some people think I am a politician trying to be a bishop,” Tutu once quipped about himself. But the truth, as Allen’s biography makes clear, is that Tutu is no politician at all. Politicians choose their words carefully and strategically; they play off their ideals against what is realistically possible. Tutu is spontaneous and, because of his religious faith, utterly idealistic. Allen reminds us how important withdrawal and prayer are for Tutu. In the busiest times he spends several hours of each day in private prayer. He is torn between activism and a life of contemplation.

This is the unseen side of Tutu and the well-spring of his approach to political engagement.

His idealism springs from his deep Christian convictions – that because God loves each person, he must love them too. Because God made and loves the humble black grandmother, she is in a sense the temple of God and must he honoured and respected; but because God made and loves P. W. Botha and the Special Branch torturer, they must be loved and respected too, provided they make even the smallest attempt to be honest and penitent. It is this compassion for the oppressor, this recognition that the oppressor too is a victim of the system, that in the end makes Tutu greater than those who were originally his models like Trevor Huddlestone (Allen describes an incident, late in Huddlestone’s life, when Tutu looks on discomfited and stonyfaced while Huddlestone talks of abiding hate).

Tutu left his mark on the TRC. There have been trenchant criticisms of the TRC – that it was too Christian, that it ironically used a colonial religious dogma (“forgive your enemies, do good to those who hate you”) to quell the righteous anger of the colonised, that it forgave the unforgivable. Allen makes the point that the roots of the TRC were not religious but realpolitik, the reality that unless amnesty was offered no one would get what they wanted. But there is no doubt that for Tutu his Christian convictions are his entire motivation and his manifest agony at hearing the stories gave the TRC the human face that it needed.

Tutu is a man for all people. Perhaps, in part, it is because his mother was Sotho and his father Xhosa. His beginnings were in the townships, yet he enjoys high society. He speaks Sotho and the Nguni languages fluently, as well as Afrikaans and English. He is a man of Africa (I recall him once speaking emotionally about his closeness with the ancestors) and yet his theological education under the Mirfield fathers followed by his time at King’s have made him a man of the liberal West as well.

The book is well researched. It is an enthralling read and not a mere academic tome. It reminds us powerfully of a history we should not forget. There are some fascinating new titbits – for example, the role played by Margaret Thatcher in getting Tutu elected as Bishop of Johannesburg. Yet for a biography the historical thread is difficult to follow. The chapters are grouped largely around themes rather than chronological dates, so the reader is jerked back and forth from one period to another, and trying to find exact dates for events is a nightmare.

But it does give insight into one of the greatest of South Africans, one who loves being in the limelight of the world and yet whose roots lie in Cape Town and even more in Soweto. Schoolchildren and adults alike, black and white and rainbow-coloured (Tutu invented the phrase “rainbow people of God” at a rally where whites, coloureds and blacks all raised their hands in response to his “rabble rousing”) will profit from it.

Lavinia Crawford-Browne, the editor of the second book, was Tutu’s personal assistant for many years. She has compiled a charming set of memoirs of Tutu to mark his 75th birthday, Tutu as I know him. The memoirs are all quite short and range from personal to far-off admiration from a Grade 4 class in Britain. The list of 55 contributors is a testimony to just how South African and yet international Tutu is – from Pieter-Dirk Uys, Mamphele Rampele, Jakes Gerwel to Kofi Annan, Denzel Washington and the Dalai Lama, people great and small. All of them know him. All of them were touched by him. The book is enriched with many photographs and some Zapiro cartoons. It is a much more appropriate 75th birthday commemoration than a dry academic festschrift.

• Rabble Rouser for Peace: the authorized biography of Desmond Tutu by John Allen is published by Random House.
• Tutu as I know him by Lavinia Crawford-Browne (ed) is published by Umuzi.