Rabble-Rouser for Peace
The Authorized Biography of Desmond Tutu
By John Allen. Free Press. New York. Hard Cover. 496 pages
Reviewed by Mahadev Desai
John Allen, a respected and distinguished journalist, who has been a trusted friend of charismatic Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Laureate and spiritual father, whose words and experiences resonate with people of all faiths, has written an engrossing biography of him.
The absorbing biography, with 8 pages of vintage photographs, published to coincide with Tutu’s 75th Birthday, by Allen who has had 30 years of first-hand contact with him has garnered ecstatic reviews over the world. His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, comments, “Archbishop Tutu’s objective of seeking ‘a democratic and just society without racial divisions’ is not only applicable in South Africa, but wherever there are human beings.” Jimmy Carter, former President of the United States praises the biography, ”This book gives remarkable insights into how Tutu’s spiritual worldview and discipline molded him into the preeminent religious leader in South Africa’s struggle against racism and a passionate advocate of human rights internationally.” Anthony Lewis, former columnist, The New York Times, also lauds the biography,” This is a riveting book. John Allen has given us a profound portrait of one of the few great human beings of our age and of the country he did so much to save. He shows Archbishop Tutu in all his courage, his uproarious humor, his passion. And he discloses much that happened behind the scenes in the struggle that finally brought a peaceful revolution to South Africa.”
Tutu was born in October 1931, in Klerksdorp, South Africa. Despite a sickly childhood and other obstacles, he obtained his Teacher’s Diploma and began teaching at his old school in 1954. Tutu and Leah got married in 1955. The Afrikaner Nationalist government of 1948 had made race the fundamental building block of society. Coloreds were stripped of franchise. Harsh Pass Laws uprooted colored people and banished them into reserves. Workers were forced to live away from their families in single-sex hostels. Many lived in ‘matchbox houses’ without ceilings, electricity, bathrooms or hot water. Schools, housing, public transport, even beaches were segregated. Repugnant apartheid permeated in every sphere of life. There was political turmoil in the country. Harold Macmillan warned the government about the wind of change blowing through the continent.
Tutu could not go to medical school, so he decided to be a priest. He went to St.Peter’s College and graduated in 1960. He was ordained as a priest. While there,he showed gifts of leadership, so in 1962, he was strongly recommended to King’s College, London, for the degree of Bachelor of divinity. He earned his degree and went on to obtain Masters in Theology and then returned to South Africa in 1966. He was the first black lecturer at St.Peter’s College.
In 1970, Tutu got engaged in politics when he watched police brutally evicting hostel students from the black Fort Hare University, where he was a chaplain. Some time later, he was appointed associate director of the Theological Education Fund of the World Council of Churches in London. This necessitated extensive traveling in Africa. The travels proved very informative and educative for him.
Tutu returned to South Africa in 1975 and earnestly began challenging iron-fisted practice of apartheid. He became the first black dean of Johannesburg. Within less than a year, he became bishop of Lesotho. And two years later, Secretary –General of the South African Council of Churches. Here he initiated staff prayer meetings, silent retreats, insisting on courteous behavior on part of all.
For his relentless endeavors in promoting peace and racial reconciliation he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. It transformed the way he was perceived. ”One day no one was listening. The next, I was an Oracle.” To fight the racial injustice, he pressed for international economic sanctions.
In Easter 1993, after the assassination of Chris Hani, a hugely popular figure in the African National Council, Tutu exhorted the immense crowd to repeat the chants over and over,’ We will be free!’ ‘All of us!’ Black and white together!’ and concluded with a defiant declaration,”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!” This sounded the death-knell of apartheid.
Allen then describes Tutu’s judicious role as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought forgiveness for all sides. Today, the retired Archbishop continues to appeal to the world’s conscience by opposing the war and seeking help to fight the AIDS/HIV crisis sweeping Africa.
Tutu has many outstanding qualities that has made him a spiritual icon and a living legend. He has an irrepressible sense of humor, infectious gaiety and joy. When he was in London, he was known for calling worshippers to “roll up, roll up, and get your holy handshakes.”! He was unconcerned about his own security, “If I am doing God’s work, he should jolly well look after me.” He also has photographic memory, is fluent in six of the country’s languages and is a captivating orator who draws energy from the crowds.
In the judgment of Fred Williams, ”He (Tutu) becomes transfigured and it becomes transparently real when he’s in the pulpit. There is something of the otherworldly that shines through his eyes and in his smile and in his voice…that just lifts you into the upper realms.” Tutu was proud to be black. In one of his papers after the New York Theology Conference in New York, he wrote,” …we are fundamentally subjects, not objects, persons, not things. Each one of us is an “I” not an “it”…we are each somebody. We matter, we are alive and kicking and black is beautiful.” He is also very compassionate and caring.
Al Gore, the former vice president of the US likened Tutu’s authority to Gandhi’s “truth-force.” Secretary –General Kofi Annan of the United Nations said “He has been a voice for the voiceless and he has really stood for human rights and human dignity around the world…”
Tutu’s vision was built on the metaphor of a rainbow. During the Defiance Campaign of 1989, inspired by thousands of demonstrators which included whites, he described them as the ‘Rainbow people of the God.”
This emotive, compelling, uplifting, insightful and humanizing biography of hardship, resilience, defiance against injustice and apartheid, is a must-read for all who believe in freedom and justice. The biography reminds of the power of one man to change history. John Allen, through his personal experiences, complete access to the Tutu family, and painstaking research has written this outstanding biography of God’s warrior wielding a Holy Bible instead of a sword!
John Allen is a South African journalist who served as director of communications for that country’s groundbreaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and for Trinity Church, Wall Street, in New York. He is a former president of the South African Society of Journalists and has received awards in South Africa for defense of press freedom and in the United States for excellence in religious journalism.