First published on allAfrica.com on December 26, 2021
Desmond Tutu lived his life with passion, courage, faith and deep insight, but it was a life lived against the odds.
Sickly at birth, as an infant he survived polio, which left him with a permanently weakened right hand. As a teenager he suffered tuberculosis, which left adhesions on his lungs. Later in the 1980s, when he became, in Nelson Mandela’s words “public enemy number one” to the apartheid regime, he survived a number of assassination attempts. And for the last 25 years of his life, he lived with recurrent bouts of prostate cancer.
But unlike two other iconic 20th century campaigners against structural injustice, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., he lived to see the first fruits of his radical but peaceful promotion of fundamental change in his own society. Not only that, he lived to bring the political leaders who liberated South Africa under the same piercing – at times angry – scrutiny to which he subjected the apartheid and other oppressive governments.
Tutu’s advocacy ranged widely, beginning with appeals for sanctions against apartheid and continuing with campaigns against homophobia, for gender equality, against child marriage, against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, against oppression in nations from China and Burma to Panama, and in support of the “second wave” of liberation which saw the growth of multi-party democracy across Africa from 1989.
The common factor which underlay Tutu’s activism was his deep-rooted faith and its implications for how people – and later the environment – should be treated. If there was one thing which enraged him, it was to see the powerful inflict suffering on “so-called ordinary people”— “so-called because in my theology nobody is ordinary.”
He believed that every human being is created in the image of God, to be held in awe and reverence as if he or she is God. Therefore to mistreat a human being is not simply unjust, nor simply painful for the victim: it is blasphemous because it is “spitting in the face of God”.
“When I see innocent people suffering,” he wrote, “pushed around by the rich and powerful, then, as the prophet Jeremiah says, if I try to keep quiet it is as if the word of God burned like a fire in my breast.” As he rose rapidly through the ranks of church leadership in the 1970s, he recognised that he was placing his life at risk. But he felt compelled to speak out, no matter the consequences.
In the 1970s, he was one of a generation of black church leaders who took office in multiracial South African churches, 80 percent of whose members were black, but which had until then been led by mostly white clergy. Emboldened by a confidence engendered by the philosophy of black consciousness, combined with theological studies undertaken abroad in Western democracies, the black theologians transformed churches into harbingers of what a liberated South Africa could look like.
With South Africa’s most militant black leaders in prison, exile or internal banishment, and with the growing militant labour unions operating mainly on shop floors, the church leaders used their pulpits to become the most prominent anti-apartheid voices within South Africa at the time.
There was no difference between Desmond Tutu and most other black church leaders of his generation in their commitment to liberation. What most distinguished Tutu was his extraordinary powers of rhetoric and his willingness to alienate white Christians in declaring what he believed to be the truth.
The issue prompting his then-controversial appeals for economic sanctions against South Africa by the international community was the policy of forced removals. The apartheid government removed an estimated 3.5 million people – more than 10 percent of South Africans – from homes where many had lived for generations and dumped them to eke out an existence in poverty-stricken rural “homelands”.
In sharply-worded, no-holds-barred attacks, Tutu skewered those he held responsible for apartheid’s suffering, using language which got under the skins of white racists in a way few others could. When Cabinet ministers responded with fury, he would raise the stakes with even more defiant attacks. He told the apartheid government that they would go the way of Nero in Rome, of Hitler in Germany, of Amin in Uganda and Somoza in Nicaragua: they would, he said, “bite the dust, and bite it comprehensively.”
When P. W. Botha, the apartheid president who operated military and police death squads, wagged his finger at him during a confrontation in 1988, Tutu angrily shook his finger back and told him: “Don’t think you’re talking to a small boy!” Abandoning restraint, he tore into Botha. “I don’t know whether that is how Jesus would have handled it,” he said ruefully later, but “our people have suffered for so long [and] I might never get this chance again.”
As a consequence, Tutu was vilified and demonised, seen by some of his co-religionists as literally the devil incarnate for his strident denunciations of apartheid and support for sanctions to destroy it. He used to say that he had developed the hide of a rhinoceros in the face of attacks by white South Africans, but he actually found it painful to be the object of such hate. When, in contrast, he was lionised abroad, he became susceptible to the adulation which celebrity brought. But his spiritual confessor used to say that he had an acute self-awareness, and Tutu’s coded acknowledgement of how he loved the limelight could be heard in his phrase, “I love to be loved”.
Once political apartheid was overthrown, and Tutu’s friends had come to power, some of them began to disclose to him in confidence the mistakes their movement was making. He became an early critic of the new government, unable to keep to himself the criticisms which once again “burned in his heart”. Again, he denounced what he saw as misrule, sometimes using language as extravagant as that he had used against the perpetrators of apartheid – even against Mandela.
When “ordinary” people suffered, the old anger would return. In 2006, when Jacob Zuma went on trial for rape, his supporters heaped vilification and abuse on Zuma’s accuser. Tutu pronounced Zuma unfit to rule because he failed to repudiate their behaviour. A month before Zuma became president in 2009, Tutu noted that he was doing so under suspicion of corruption, fraud, racketeering and money laundering: “Is this why people died fighting apartheid?” Tutu asked. “Is this why people went into exile? Is this why people were tortured?”
Again, those he censured often responded with scorn and derision. Typically, he would respond simply by saying he was “sad” when he saw allies in the struggle failing to live up to the high standards he set for them.
DESMOND MPILO TUTU was born on October 7, 1931, the third child of Aletta Dorothea “Matse” Matlhare, a domestic worker, and Zachariah Zelilo Tutu, the principal of a church-run primary school. His older and younger brothers both died in infancy, leaving him with an older sister, Sylvia, and a younger sister, Gloria. The mortality rate in the family – 40 percent – was average for a black South African family at the time.