Tutu: Moses of Africa

Tutu: Moses of Africa
The East African, Nairobi

TWO DRAMATIC PICTURES capture the spirit of this book; one blurred shot taken in 1980 in the Eastern Rand, South Africa, shows Desmond Tutu struggling to stay upright as a man about to be lynched clings to his legs.

The second shot, taken nine years later in Gugulethu, Cape Town, shows him in his cassock outside a church, with four other men silhouetted against a rising cloud of tear gas.

The black and white prints tell of the drama, urgency and danger of life was under apartheid. They also say much about the perilous centrestage role that Desmond Tutu — who was later to become the Archbishop of Cape Town — played. Before many knew of Nelson Mandela, Tutu was the man who would deliver black people from oppression. He was the man to declare South Africa a Rainbow Nation before apartheid died.

The most dangerous episodes of his career as a freedom fighter were not captured on camera, like the shouting match he had with former president P.W. Botha before the president ordered church property bombed — or when police operatives nearly succeeded in causing him a fatal accident by shredding one of his car’s tires.

The cold discussion a group of white officers had in Johannesburg on how to plunge a sharpened bicycle spike into Tutu’s back would only come out later as a confession.

Rabble-Rouser for Peace is no ordinary story, as Tutu was no ordinary archbishop. Apartheid was an extraordinary creation, so much so that it now sounds like theatre of the absurd. John Allen, long time journalist under apartheid, brings us the heartwrenching narrative of what it was like back then.

It is the courage of Tutu that forms the central theme of the book. He was born 17 years before the 1948 election of the Boer ultra-nationalist party that was to impose apartheid. His family was forcibly relocated and their land given to white farmers.

Tutu lived his life through sheer willpower. But it was his manner of fighting that confronted apartheid with a weapon the powers-that-be had no answer to. The parade of apartheid rulers who rose up to confront Tutu met iron determination — Verwoerd, Vorster, Botha, were beaten one at a time.

Tutu gave good for evil; he stopped black youth attacking the white police officers who wanted him dead. He was preaching peace at the funeral of Steve Biko in 1976 while kilometres way, his wife Leah was getting whipped with the rawhide whip, the Sjambok. In the end, the South Africa that emerged in 1994 was shaped by Tutu.

WITHIN THE PAGES OF this book, we re-live once more the adrenaline-charged years of hatred, fear and murder.

It is the world of the 1980s, of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev at the height of the cold-war. The first two were the leaders of the “free world,” for whom freedom was not necessarily deserved by black people. For Reagan and Thatcher, Tutu was a spoiler, a man preparing the way for a communist takeover of South Africa. His calls for sanctions against South Africa went against lucrative economic interests.

Thatcher therefore said sanctions would “only hurt the poor black people.” Tutu’s caustic remark was that sanctions could not hurt worse than apartheid.

A rather witless Reagan took the apartheid view that white rule was majority rule since blacks were from different, small ethnic groups.

“He has really been saying that blacks are expendable,” Tutu lashed out at Reagan. “I said he was a crypto-racist. I think I should say now he is a racist pure and simple.”

In fighting Tutu, Reagan and Thatcher were to join Botha and Vorster. In 1980s USA, Tutu was a star. His preaching tours drew thousands of people. As a speaker, his power to move crowds was exceptional.

Attacking the view that black people were small tribes and the creation of the department of plural relations to replace the Bantu affairs department, Tutu’s damaging mockery drew laughter from a New Orleans church, where the audience included vice president George Bush.

“Presumably now we (blacks) were plurals, one of whom would be that very odd thing, a singular plural,” Tutu said. “….and perhaps one coming from the countryside would be a rural plural.”

Through the 1970s and 1980s, it was Tutu, not Mandela, who was the better known anti-apartheid fighter. Of whether he might have become president of South Africa, Tutu said he had been “interim political leader,” that he was a pastor, not a politician, “with no intention of entering party politics.”

It is a magnificently written book, frequently punctuated with stirring narratives of gallantry; Tutu losing his temper while facing President Botha, wagging a finger in his face.

In a way, Tutu was South Africa’s first black president at large. From this book, an image emerges of him as of the biblical Moses — the warrior priest calling down damnation.