Not long ago, the world joined the Tutu family and South Africa to honour and celebrate Archbishop Desmond Tutu on his 90th birthday. It was a glorious celebration at St George’s Cathedral where, together with his dear wife of more than 60 years, Aunt Leah, the Archbishop was a joyous and venerable presence. In that celebration, we could not imagine that fewer than 12 weeks later the same cathedral would be hosting his funeral, with his ashes interred at the foot of the sanctuary.
His departure closes the curtain on the live performance of an incredible actor of the human life obligation according to Micah: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
After the very busy few weeks of the Tutu national frenzy that marked the departure of this diminutive prelate who loomed so very large in the minds of church and society, it’s a good time to reflect on the Archbishop and what he has been to us in his life.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu is the premier of my predecessors as general secretary of the South African Council of Churches. I look back with amazement in considering his role together with Father Aelred Stubbs (editor and publisher of Steve Biko’s collection of papers, I Write What I Like), in enabling my theological and ministerial training at the ecumenical Federal Theological Seminary (Fedsem). This was to help answer the burning question for me at the time: “What does it mean to be created in the image of God if you are black in apartheid South Africa?”
I cannot remember when I first met Desmond Tutu, but none could forget his bold statement to Prime Minister BJ Vorster in May 1976, warning that “unless something drastic is done very soon bloodshed and violence is going to happen in South Africa almost inevitably”. This caught the attention of our small core group of political activists that included Steve Biko, who was the centre of our core. Tutu’s message became even more relevant when a month later the student uprising began. Clearly, Rev Tutu had read “the signs of the times”!
US First Lady Michelle Obama shares a joke with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town on 23 June 2011. (Photo: Gallo Images/Sunday Times/Esa Alexander)
What he did in writing that public letter in 1976 had a freshness and a novelty about it. He had just the previous year become the first black priest to be the Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral, the seat of the Bishop of Johannesburg – thus becoming the most senior priest after the bishop in the Diocese of Johannesburg.
Biko and those of us working with him were so very impressed by Father Tutu that it was a no brainer for me to call on him to come from Lesotho, where he was now bishop, to come and bury Steve in 1977 after he was brutally murdered in security police detention. His deep, hand-written reflections of Biko’s murder are part of the archive that the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation has for the exhibition to be opened this year.
At the Biko funeral, Tutu insisted on preaching in the local isiXhosa language, while we were making a case for English to accommodate all the other people who had braved the police harassment travelling from afar. He said to me something like: “I want the people of this place, who are mourning the direct loss of this life, to hear what God has to say to them through my message.” But he heard me and mixed the languages in his sermon. This was the first of many political funerals on which we would work together in the future once I had become a priest.
In his nine decades of life, Archbishop Tutu was radical (from the Latin word radix, for root, as the Archbishop would qualify his radicalness). He had a radical freshness and a newness in the manner he unpacked and interpreted common-sense things, such as he did with the age-old concept of ubuntu-botho, which he incorporated into his theology and the praxis of his public engagement. In this vein he would often pronounce undeniable truths in a startling manner.
What Archbishop Tutu has said and has done has sustained this startling effect because of its freshness and disarming veracity – “God is not a Christian!” So startling, yet so very true! “If I got to heaven and found that God was homophobic, I would turn my back from heaven!”; how disarming is that for a church that believes that God is set to condemn gay people to eternal damnation? “Justice, like freedom, is indivisible!” he would say, pointing out that you cannot have one standard of justice or freedom for one group and a different one for another. So profound and yet so simple!
It is this that informed his position on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Most Western countries that otherwise warmed to his voice and instructive humour found his stand on justice over Palestine as not so welcome or appreciated.
He said: “I have witnessed the systemic humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces. Their humiliation is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the apartheid government.”
Leah and Desmond Tutu at Spier Wine Farm in Stellenbosch in 2005. (Photo: Supplied)
In that context he supported sanctions against Israel, similarly to what he did against apartheid South Africa, saying that “in South Africa, we could not have achieved our democracy without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the apartheid regime.”
Under South Africa’s apartheid government, he risked treason charges for advocating for sanctions; and under what he saw as the Israeli version of apartheid, he risked the displeasure or even opprobrium of both the Jewish and Christian Zionists.
He argued that “those who turn a blind eye to injustice actually perpetuate injustice. If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
And his position was well articulated when he said that “we are opposed to the injustice of the illegal occupation of Palestine. We are opposed to the indiscriminate killings of Gaza. We are opposed to the indignity meted out to Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks. We are opposed to violence perpetrated by all parties. But we are not opposed to Jews” (my emphasis).
As the new and first black Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Archbishop Desmond became the only official black resident of the whites-only, lush suburb of Cape Town, Bishopscourt. The suburb is named after the official residence of the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town. In terms of South Africa’s apartheid Group Areas Act that designated residential areas according to race, the election of a black archbishop, with the right and requirement to reside at Bishopscourt, was a prickly matter, and there was government talk of removing him.
And there was the newspaper headline that “the Anglican church has challenged the South African government on the removal of Archbishop Desmond Tutu from his home in the White area of Bishopscourt”.
He remained at Bishopscourt at sufferance, rather than approval. Then he went on to do the unthinkable – he invited black kids from the townships to come and frolic at the swimming pool at Bishopscourt! It was an extravagantly generous act, irksomely goading the apartheid regime!
In the 30 December sermon that I preached at the Desmond Tutu memorial service at St Alban’s Cathedral in Pretoria, I identified three motivating factors in the Archbishop’s energy for social justice anywhere in the world. These were:
That Tutu had a deep sense of vocation; a sense of being called to what he was doing;
An acute consciousness of the One who had called him – God, the source of his vocation; and
Tutu was alive to the relationship with the One who called him; and this informed his social justice spirituality – the framework of his relationship with God who called him; with a rhythm of meditative listening; and a life of worshipful thanksgiving.
I suggested that these three things gave him the sure-footedness that characterised his conviction — “what appeared to be fearlessness and the absolute confidence that injustice and evil cannot have the last word! A spirituality of social justice!” I suggested. I shall not dwell on these in the current reflection, but it is worth keeping them in mind as we remember some things about the Archbishop.
Much has been written and said about Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu. In that context, I shall not say more about his courageous pronouncements to both the apartheid government and to the democratic government of our time. I shall not go into his amazing presentation titled Divine Intention, to apartheid’s Eloff Commission that sought to discredit the work of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) for public good. I shall not talk about the episodes at funerals of victims of apartheid brutality when he charged into angry crowds baying for the blood of a perceived informer. I shall not talk about how he dared apartheid police and soldiers, against forced removals and township massacres, armed only with his resolve for truth, justice, mercy and his faith in the God with whom he walked humbly.
Rather I wish to reflect on a few episodes of our life with him, and what these episodes illustrated about the nature of his ministry, anchored by the message of Micah the prophet, that what is required of us is “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”.
Tutu was a man of myriad social justice causes, here I reflect on a few.
He was a compassionate leader; and his compassion was born of his very strong sense of justice. When both my wife Thoko and I were banned in King William’s Town, as SACC general secretary, Bishop Tutu would visit us. On one such visit, the bishop stayed the night at our little four-roomed home to pray with and strengthen us. He would say he has come to gain his inspiration, when in fact it was the other way round. We were so strengthened by his making time for us in this way. These visits for a such a busy person spoke not only to his love and care for others, but to his stand against the unjust apartheid banning orders.
His sense of justice was practical. When I was a young priest in Cape Town, I was detained by the security police. This was in the wake of the hand grenade release by a guerrilla that police were trying to apprehend in Gugulethu township. This was down the street from our home, and the police believed that I had helped the man escape. They detained me on the opening morning of the synod of the Diocese of Cape Town. After the opening Eucharist, the Archbishop demanded that the police release me, and told them the synod will not proceed before I was released to come and participate. He pressured them so much that I was let go to attend.
While the manner of his personal relationship with people and situations, as exemplified in these two instances, will remain an exemplar of Christian leadership in the service of others, his revulsion at injustice was a strong part of his energy.
A paragon of the spirit of peace and reconciliation, Archbishop Tutu became the “flint” we used to light up the pathway of peace in the apartheid state-sponsored political conflict of Uitenhage in the late 1980s. We had resolved in the Social Responsibility Unit of our congregation to act to stop the violence and mutual killings between, on the one hand, AmaAfrika associated with Reverend Mzwandile Maqina and a man in Uitenhage known as Kelman, and the United Democratic Front (UDF) on the other hand. When we began the peace-making, I invited the Arch to come on a visit to our church at KwaNobuhle township. We invited all the leaders of the warring groups to the service where the Archbishop would preach. At the end of the service, he made the differing leaders shake hands. This was followed by the physical talks that we brokered, involving both Mr Raymond Mhlaba of the ANC and Mr Jafta Masemola together with Reverend Stanley Mogoba from the PAC, resulting in the celebrated Peace of Uitenhage.
In 1985-86 I was the secretary of the Langa-Gugulethu-Nyanga (Lagunya) Ministers Fraternal; an interdenominational association of church ministers in the three Cape Town townships. At that time and a couple of years before, the apartheid government was trying to break up the sprawling Crossroads squatter camp, which had become a handsome hiding place for ANC guerrillas operating in the Western Cape.
Crossroads had different areas under the influence or even authority of various strongmen who functioned as some kind of chieftains of their areas. Some were sympathetic to the UDF, and others had a conservative worldview that made them more amenable to the apartheid state machinations of vigilantism. The government strategy was to set these chieftains against each other, getting some to attack the others, reportedly promising them diverse rewards.
The government-aligned vigilantes wore white headbands and hence were referred to as “witdoeke”. This was the time Crossroads was being dismantled and Khayelitsha (translating to “New Home”) was being developed.
As local church leaders we sought to intervene against this government mischief and try to convince the Crossroads leaders to stand together. Our fruitless efforts were halted when some of the hostile groups mounted an open attack on the others, and they were being backed by the apartheid police. The witdoeke would loot the homes and load their loot in police armoured vehicles known as hippos; then they would burn the homes. We quickly organised ourselves with strong leaders like Reverend Mlamli Mfenyana and Reverend Mongameli Bukashe and went to challenge this blatant police support for violent aggression and looting of homes. We were teargassed and chased by the police. We were joined by Reverend David Russell, of the old Dimbaza fame (who later became Bishop Russell), who collapsed and fell under the effect of the tear gas. We had to lift and carry him off to safety.
Following this we drafted a stinging pamphlet condemning the witdoeke and their government-force mayhem. Having drafted the document, I was away at a meeting of my church at Makhanda when the beautifully printed copy was ready for all members to sign for authenticity, and therefore my signature did not appear on the final copy distributed in the townships. Unbeknown to me at the time, my absence in Grahamstown on the day the clergy signed would have a major significance later.
Meanwhile, I called on Bishop Tutu, then Bishop of Johannesburg, to come and help broker peace in Crossroads. He agreed to come, but upon arrival, insisted that he could not sleep in Cape Town without presenting himself to the witdoeke and formally inviting them to a meeting. Otherwise, he pointed out, they might think he’d spent the night scheming with their opposition. He asked me to accompany him into the heart of witdoek territory, which I did in my car.
When we got there, we were surrounded by hordes of witdoeke who were shouting: Bulala! Bulala! (Kill them! Kill them!). One said, “no, it’s Tutu”; another said, “but he’s with Mpumlwana, kill him!” To the bishop I said something like, “let’s get out of the car and not be killed inside, they will burn it with us inside; rather let them hack us outside the car.”
As we were coming out, Bishop Tutu, as cool as a cucumber, lifted his arms and called for calm – “khanime, ndizokunimamela, ndizele ukunceda” (“Please stop! I am here to listen to you! I am here to help!)
Then one man said: “Wait, stop, Mpumlwana’s signature is not on this pamphlet, he’s not one of them!” He was brandishing the pamphlet I had actually drafted as secretary, and just happened to be away on the day the signatures were appended to the fancy copy – a pure chance which now became significant.
Short as he was, surrounded by the angry mob, Tutu prevailed in calling for calm. Having just been spared a horrible death, I was ready to leave. No, Desmond Tutu asked to be taken to meet the leaders to declare his mission. We met Mr Johnson Ngxobongwana and Mr Mali Hoza who were the leaders, with their advisers, and they accepted Tutu’s request for a meeting the next day which they insisted must be at the new Khayelitsha location of Site B or Site C, with their delegation led by Mr Hoza.
They would not declare the specific location upfront, but we would arrive at an agreed checkpoint. Tutu accepted this with some discomfort, as it ensured that the witdoeke remained in control. It was an awkward proposal for the convenor of a peace effort to be unable to control the venue for the comfort of both sides in the peace-making. In the event, Bishop Tutu changed the format, and said that the next day’s meeting was to be only with the Hoza delegation as an initial step to build trust that would allow for the convenors to determine future logistics.
The three of us with Bishop Patrick Matolengwe, with whom Bishop Tutu was staying the night, had to persuade the UDF-aligned side that the mediation would remain on course, with separate trust-building meetings. And that after Tutu had returned to Johannesburg, Bishop Matolengwe and I would remain to lead the process.
Upon reflecting on the Crossroads episode as we came away to Bishop Matolengwe’s Newlands residence, Bishop Desmond made the profound point that the work for peace is often not peaceful; but lasting peace must be mounted on a foundation of justice and truth, and both these would be difficult for our meeting the next day – and they proved to be indeed!
We spent that evening analysing the realities of injustice before us, and the challenge of justice and truth that we would have to address. Desmond Tutu said it was easiest for people to fold behind whatever is the popular position within their group, and not wish to stand out for a different view, even if the popular position is toxic. He remarked on the fact that one man’s voice was the difference that kept us alive when the witdoek crowd was ready to lynch us. He said that the quest for peace based on justice is a radical call for people to shift from the comfort of the accepted narratives to explore beyond, and have the courage to embrace the imperatives of justice and truth, especially as they often go against the grain.
This would be our task the next day.
For the Arch, peace, justice and reconciliation are common ingredients for the building of a united South African society. It is not a matter of political convenience, it is a theological imperative deeply rooted in his spirituality; driven by such fundamentals as are suggested by Prophet Micah, as required of us “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”.
It was from this that Archbishop Desmond spoke of the “Rainbow Nation”. He did not talk of the “Rainbow Nation” because it had been accomplished. Rather, “Rainbow Nation” is an aspirational phrase towards which Tutu would have willed the recalcitrant South African society. For, lasting peace depends on reconciliation; something that needs conscious and deliberate activism; and that is why the more common phrase of social cohesion does not do it.
South Africans cannot simply cohere without the conditions that divide them being actively dealt with and addressed in order to reconcile for peace.
The SACC extends its understanding of reconciliation – often seen as only referring to racial or ethnic reconciliation – to include addressing poverty and inequality, economic transformation, the challenge of family life and the declining public trust in state institutions.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu introduces Nelson Mandela to the crowd at Cape Town City Hall on 9 May 1994 after Mandela was elected state president. (Photo: Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive)
Reconciliation is best understood as a process and integral to its realisation is the healing of past wounds, restoration of relationships, and addressing structural injustices. The healing has to take place across generations. The wounds inflicted by our past are often unconscious and show up in the fracture of the social fabric and the desolation that characterises our human relations. These are the concerns that Desmond Tutu carried on his chest at prayer, till his last breath.
On Human Rights Day, 21 March 1996, in pursuit of reconciliation and peace, the Arch, together with other South African Nobel Laureates, signed founder patron pledges to create the South African Nobel Laureates Peace Park at the Wilgespruit property entrusted to the SACC in Roodepoort. The pledge citation says:
I, Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, together with Chief Albert Luthuli’s Family, Vice President Frederick Willem de Klerk, President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela,
In pursuit and perpetuation of our vision, offer and pledge to be a founding patron of the SA Nobel Laureates Peace Park to be established at the Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre in Roodepoort, Gauteng Province, as a living memorial and as a guardian of the spirit of reconciliation and peace.
They each gifted symbols pledged for peace – the Luthuli family gave the ashes of Chief Luthuli’s apartheid identity book, the dompas, that he burnt in 1960, preserved in a canister; Mandela gave a piece of the Robben Island limestone from which he had quarried every day of his imprisonment on the island; De Klerk gave a piece of the Berlin Wall that fell in Germany, symbolising the breakdown of divisions for peace, an inspiration he used to release Mandela and unban liberation organisations.
The Arch gave the Coventry Cross that had been given to him as a symbol of peace and reconciliation, originating from the cross of nails from the benches of Coventry Cathedral bombed by the Nazis in 1940. The Archbishop’s possession of the cross brought him into the “Community of the Cross of Nails” and bound him into the commitment to peace, justice and reconciliation, for which Desmond Tutu needed no persuasion.
The Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre is now the locus for that commitment, and a challenge for us to fulfil. The SACC will partner with the foundations of the South African Nobel laureates, to see to the realisation of the joint dream of their founders – the South African Nobel Laureates Peace Park at Wilgespruit.
The Church, South Africa and the world are poorer without Tutu; but we are all much richer for his legacy. Our faithful attention to his inspiring work and example; and taking up those things he had set his heart to have fulfilled, will bring some comfort to Mama Leah Tutu and their family. To use his frequent words of blessing: May God bless us richly!
Tshezi is now an inspirational ancestor to us all. Lala ngoxolo Tshezi! Tenza!
May his blessed soul rest in eternal peace, and rise in the glory of his Lord! DM
Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana is general secretary of the South African Council of Churches.