Working with a rabble-rouser

Working with a rabble-rouser

From Times Online
October 10, 2007

John Allen spent 13 years following in the wake of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as the author of his biography, he explains what motivated the rabble-rouser and what kept him going through the dark days of apartheid

by Joanna Sugden

He’s been called an “angry, evil and embittered little bishop” by Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe which must be a badge of honour.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who turned 76 on Sunday, can claim so many titles, Nobel Peace Laureate, anti-apartheid activist, chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but in his authorised biography, he is the rabble-rouser for peace. As apt a description as Mugabe’s is offensive.

John Allen, biographer and former pressman for the diminutive Archbishop took the title from Mrs Albertina Sisulu, leader of the United Democratic Front. After rallies in 1980s South Africa, she would gently berate him, “You’re a rabble-rouser!”

But it wasn’t until Tutu really started clashing with the South African government over racial segregation, that Allen thought “this man is the subject of a biography”.

“He doesn’t like confrontation, but when he sees people being mistreated he thinks ‘I have to speak out’”.

Allen followed the Archbishop’s work in South Africa while he was a journalist covering religion, and then worked as his press officer for 13 years. “It was hard to keep up with him – he had a depth of commitment of ministry where you stay with your flock, you do your job, which is to nurture them and be their confessor.”

Tutu was, according to Allen, “called to be with his people” and took that ministry seriously. “He was a rabble-rouser, but more than being an activist he had a fundamental concern for people – the mother or grandmother who just wanted to get on with their lives – it was when people like that, so-called ordinary people, when they suffered at the hands of the government, that’s what incensed him.”

It was also led him to work tirelessly to fulfill the instruction in Micah to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before God.

So how did he maintain the boundless enthusiasm for his work and for life in the dark days of apartheid?

“You can’t talk about Tutu without his prayer life,” says Allen, “It is integral to his faith, and his spirituality sustains him.” Everyday Allen worked with Tutu the Archbishop would rise at four o’clock in the morning spending the hours of dawn in prayer, exercising and in silence. Again in the middle of the day Tutu would, emulating Jesus, withdraw to be alone, as he would each evening.

“To get the ebullient Tutu, who connects with people, you have to give him the hours and hours of silence on which he depends,” says Allen, encapsulating the man as well as any of his grand titles.

Book extract