Feb 1, 2007
John Allen writes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s passion and compassion, his enormous charisma and his extraordinary ability to communicate with people – whites and blacks, enemies and friends, presidents and warlords, racists and liberals.
Inside this man whom much of the world knows as an ebullient, laughter-filled extrovert, a Nobel peace laureate who holds audiences and congregations spellbound, lives a meditative, contemplative person who needs six or seven hours a day in silence. The operative word is “needs,” for his own spiritual regeneration. He makes regular formal confessions and all this in the midst of a schedule, especially in the years he was head of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, (1986-96) that demanded, and saw, massive action in the struggle against the institutionalized racism called apartheid.
Mr. Allen, a white South African journalist and Archbishop Tutu’s press officer for nearly 30 years, writes this authorized biography as an insider but he writes about no plaster saint. Archbishop Tutu could exhibit a flaming temper, and a huge ego which more than once caused him to make serious errors of judgment. Like his friend, the late Canadian Anglican primate Ted Scott, he too often left his family behind as he flew around his huge province and the world. Money interested him but he never let lack of it, or the source of it, prevent him from doing what he thought right, to the despair of his various treasurers.
Mr. Allen’s account of a famous row between Archbishop Tutu and then-President P.W. Botha in 1988 in Cape Town is typical. The Sharpeville Six awaited execution and Archbishop Tutu was there on a pastoral mission to get their hanging, for allegedly murdering the deputy mayor of Sharpeville, stopped. He told President Botha, a Christian, that clemency would be an act of statesmanship. The president, notorious for his belligerent wagging finger, refused on the grounds that the courts were independent and berated Archbishop Tutu for a petition he had signed called for the unbanning of the African National Congress, calling him a Communist
Archbishop Tutu lost it. Wagging his finger back, he yelled at President Botha “I’m not a small boy, don’t think you are talking to a small boy … I thought I was talking to a civilized person.” The archbishop accused the president of South Africa of being a liar. President Botha tore back that Archbishop Tutu advocated armed struggle and “was on a wicked path.” Each said he loved South Africa more than the other. Each accused the other of arrogance. Eventually Archbishop Tutu walked out.
“I don’t know whether that is how Jesus would have behaved,” Archbishop Tutu told his staff, “but at the time I didn’t much care how Jesus would have behaved. I was going to handle it my way.” After months in court, the Sharpeville Six had their sentences commuted to long terms of imprisonment.
The contemplative lifestyle to which he aspired after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and his own retirement at 65 as archbishop eluded him, Mr. Allen writes.
The agonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which he had envisioned and chaired intervened:
“Too often in the church we want a spurious kind of reconciliation … a crying of peace, peace where there is no peace, daubing of the wall with whitewash, a papering over of cracks instead of dealing with the situation as it demands,” Archbishop Tutu wrote.
The church’s calling, he said, is to work for the fulfillment of God’s vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” in which “the wolf will lie down with the lamb.” But this can never be achieved with offending the powerful, he said.
The commission may have been Archbishop Tutu’s finest moment; although in real terms it was not a success, it lanced the boils of hatred and meted out restorative justice. But, Mr. Allen reports, it took a dreadful toll on Archbishop Tutu and his staff. The evidence was so brutal, so inhuman, so lacking in truth and reconciliation that nightly Archbishop Tutu was reduced to tears, sometimes adjourning hearings until he could stop and pray and carry on.
One day, after former President F.W. de Klerk appeared before the commission and refused to take any responsibility for the atrocities of apartheid, Archbishop Tutu was seen by a journalist slumped in his chair, “his shoulders covered in defeat.” He had been desperate for a white South African leader to stand up, acknowledge the past fully and find a way to take responsibility for it so the country could move on.
“Apartheid was a policy, a government policy, there was an avalanche of information … To say they did not know I could not understand. I sat there close to tears. I am devastated. All that was required to say is that we believed in this policy, but it was a policy that brought about all this suffering. It is a policy that killed people. Not by accident, but deliberately.”
Mr. Allen concludes this powerful, detailed, superbly moving biography with a legacy, an African legacy of peace and reconciliation to repair the fractures in society – a uniquely Desmond Tutu model for the 21st century. Ubuntu-botho does not allow perpetrators to escape the necessity of confessing and making restitution to survivors because the society is more important than the individual – the restoration of relationship is what is at the heart of reconciliation.
As Archbishop Tutu once told a priest who challenged his views on the subject: “God’s gift of forgiveness is gracious and unmerited but you must be willing … to appropriate the gift.”
Hugh McCullum is a Canadian author and journalist who lived and worked in Africa for 15 years until 2002. He worked for the All Africa Conference of Churches based in Nairobi, during the time Archbishop Tutu was president of the continent-wide ecumenical body. He travelled extensively with Archbishop Tutu in that capacity to many parts of Africa, including Liberia and Sierra Leone. Mr. McCullum is a former editor and general manager of Canadian Churchman, predecessor to the Anglican Journal.