He demonstrated consistency and bravery in the face of repression and injustice, whether in apartheid South Africa, Palestine, or Iraq.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who passed away on December 26, 2021 at the age of 90, served as South Africa’s moral beacon.
Small in stature, his giant personage was a prophetic voice who courageously spoke truth to power, with an admixture of humour, humanity and humility; love, respect, and tenderness.
Tutu’s anger did manifest when speaking out against the most egregious acts that demanded no less. His position ensured that political actors remained faithful to the moral and ethical, and true to the values South Africa’s liberation movement once espoused.
His voice was a constant presence on South Africa’s landscape, first as a strident critic of the Apartheid regime; then appointed by Nelson Mandela to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as the country transitioned towards an inclusive society grappling with an ugly past; and then as an unflinching critic of the post-apartheid African National Congress (ANC) government, when it became mired in AIDS denialism, corruption, and a failure to deliver on its promises to the poor.
Tutu was enraged when the government he fought for refused a visa to his close friend, the Dali Lama, in deference to China's growing influence in the region. He then described the ANC as “worse than apartheid … and that one day we will pray for its downfall”. Mandela, a friend of Tutu, described him as “sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid, and seldom without humour; his voice will always be the voice of the voiceless”.
Tutu was intersectional in his quest for a just society, expressing the spirit of Ubuntu as, “my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together”. His quest for a common humanity was loudly expressed in the face of xenophobic violence that gripped South Africa, or as a vocal advocate for LGBTIQ rights, or as a supporter of the ordination of women priests.
A Nobel Laureate in 1984, this deserved award afforded Tutu an international platform – one he was unafraid to use to address many burning issues.
A vociferous critic of the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, Tutu called for the US' George W Bush and UK's Tony Blair to face charges in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, as Asian and African leaders were forced to. He even withdrew from a conference in South Africa rather than share a platform with Blair.
"If it is acceptable for leaders to take drastic action on the basis of a lie, without an acknowledgement or an apology when they are found out, what should we teach our children?", Tutu wrote in an op-ed, and presciently added that the war "has destabilised and polarised the world to a greater extent than any other conflict in history".
He raised his voice for Palestine when it wasn’t popular to do so. Speaking at the tenth international Israeli Apartheid Week, Tutu castigated those who called for neutrality in any struggle: “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”.
He stared down the pro-Israel lobby who attempted to tarnish him as an anti-Semite and strongly supported the BDS campaign while instilling a sense of realism to advocates for Palestine: “your struggle will be harder than ours, as Israel’s apartheid is even worse than South Africa’s. We never had F-16s bomb our Bantustans killing hundreds of our children. Remember that.”
Tutu also humanised the enemy. He famously said: "Peace comes when you talk to the guy you most hate. And that's where the courage of a leader comes, because when you sit down with your enemy, you as a leader must already have very considerable confidence from your own constituency." There was an incident where a conspirator with apartheid was being lynched and faced certain death. Tutu waded in and saved his life.
As described by his Foundation, “Tutu spoke out against illegal arms deals, respect for the rule of law, HIV/Aids, Tibet, China, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and vociferously campaigned for gentler stewardship of the Earth, and against the coming ravages of climate change, a very real example of how human survival rests on our ubuntu-spirited ability to cooperate and work together”.
The South African Council of Churches or the Anglican Church will never be the same after Tutu. His abiding contribution was the notion of a theology of liberation in the broadest sense. Whilst the Apartheid regime was buttressed by the conservative Calvinist NGK Church, Tutu and other clerics challenged their reading of the bible, shaking the foundational basis of Apartheid and other forms of discrimination. It also inspired an Islamic theology of liberation in South Africa.
He left a lasting legacy in the formation of the interfaith movement, which saw a broad coalition of religious leaders unite in the struggle against apartheid.
Dr Rashied Omar, Imam of the Claremont Main Road Mosque, and a leading figure in South Africa’s interreligious solidarity movement wrote: “South Africa has a unique and unparalleled interfaith and interreligious solidarity movement, thanks in large measure to the wise leadership and sterling contributions of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mphilo Tutu.”
“Under [his leadership], St. George’s Cathedral emerged as a centre for interfaith mobilisation against apartheid in the city of Cape Town. People from all faiths or none, found inspiration and comfort in their struggle against the evil and oppressive system of apartheid in the Cathedral”.
South Africa has lost one of its last great figures – a moral compass, a fearless warrior, an internationalist, an indomitable spirit, a deeply spiritual being with a love for humanity, with an infectious laughter and absence of malice.
He was an ardent cricket lover who frequented the Newland Stadium in Cape Town during international matches. He leaves behind his pillar of strength and life partner, Ma Ma Nomalisa Leah Tutu, and four children.
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