The heat is on, protest chants are bouncing off of the city walls. A crowd of 30 000 people heave and sway, it’s an epic congregation. They clench their fists, punch the heavy air and stomp. Foot to foot. Foot to foot. On and on. It’s a tension-invoking dance that the locals call toyi-toyi. Placards sweep the sky to the African rhythm, screaming at all that is wrong in South Africa. Barricades of police, fingers braced over shotgun triggers, line the street. They have seen this all before, they’re awaiting orders. Marshals, men marked with armbands to signify their task, work the crowd. They’re diffusing minor skirmishes that could set the tinder alight.
Commerce in the city has come to a halt. People lean from office windows and gape at the melee. It’s as if they’re watching an overloaded truck careening down a highway, moments from an almighty smash. What is the driver up to, is he in control? And then a man steps from the stone edifice of St George’s Cathedral.
A determined stride wafts the hem of his magenta-coloured cassock. His nostrils flare to balance a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles, eyes wide. Archbishop Desmond Tutu raises his hands and booms over the fever pitch. He bays for a peaceful protest march to City Hall. His delivery is determined, theatrical almost, and on the button. This massive act of open defiance goes down without confrontation and represents another milestone in the country’s journey towards democracy. The Archbishop has done this sort of thing before. He’ll do it again.
Tutu was the only kid in his neighbourhood who owned a bicycle. His father would send him into town on errands. Desmond, a spirited urchin, was prone to detours and it was from the saddle of his bike that he would assimilate a mental stock of his country’s social injustices. It puzzled him to witness police stopping people to ask for their passes. Black people couldn’t just walk the streets.
A young white girl once referred to his father as “a boy”, a deep insult to a Xhosa man. His dad shrunk back, sucked it up in front of his impressionable son. What else could he do? It was South Africa in the 1950s. There was more. The young Tutu endured racial slurs, was once considered a beggar for not wearing shoes and would frequently witness black kids scavenging from the garbage bins of white schools.
The bins contained parcels of fruit offered as a government service to the education system. Privileged white kids had no use for these petty handouts and impoverished black learners did not qualify for luxury grants of any sort. It was in retrospect that Tutu realised that these experiences registered as extraordinary inconsistencies in his young mind and set him, unconsciously, on his path to becoming a social activist. What he was conscious of was his insatiable desire to read and learn.
The son of a schoolteacher, Tutu had a head start on his peers and if there had been money for the tuition, he’d have used the opportunity to study medicine. He took up a government teaching scholarship instead, a second choice that paved his life’s purpose and entry into the church. By 1966 Tutu had attained his Master’s degree in Theology from King’s College in London. Enough said.
Back home, things weren’t going so well for black folk in the struggle against apartheid. Nelson Mandela was serving a life sentence for treason and government clampdowns had driven the senior leadership underground or into exile. Tutu stuck to the programme and progressed through the ranks of the church, following the work of God and displaying unimpeachable standards of integrity and moral fortitude throughout.
In 1975 Tutu returned to South Africa as the first black person to hold the position of Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg. It was a prestigious appointment and meant that he and his wife would need to make an application to take up residence in the church’s whites-only neighbourhood. It didn’t sit right with the Tutus.
The couple rejected the notion and took up residence in Soweto, Johannesburg’s black township. The decision ruffled the press as a political statement and a snub to the church. Tutu took note of the reaction and hit his stride. “I realised that I had been given a platform that was not readily available to many blacks, and most of our leaders were either now in chains or in exile. And I said, well, I’m going to use this to try to articulate the aspirations and the anguishes of our people.” No kidding. The man led a tirade against apartheid.
His oratory crusade for human rights and battles against inequality and injustice, armed only with a bible, earned him the applause and close attention of the foreign media. Not to mention the scrupulous scrutiny of the South African government. He faced arrest and had his passport confiscated, this at a time when agitators regularly ‘disappeared.’ But Tutu held his ground, as always, and consistently managed to wriggle from rebuke. It’s a remarkable trait, a kind of charm that he plays to his advantage to this day – through all of the stands that he has taken, he has always maintained his sense of humour, and never comes off as condescending or imperious. He takes joy in life, and is not shy of showing it.
Desmond Tutu is a nuisance. The man has spent decades dodging a political muzzle, all the while voraciously speaking his mind, pointing fingers at the most dangerous people and standing firm against blatant wrong doing. How does he get away with it?
Tutu has only ever advocated peace, a moral high ground, and insisted on reconciliation. That’s how. Even in the darkest times. Like when the Soweto uprisings saw children shot in the streets, Tutu held prayers for peace. He begged his people to forgive. The authorities couldn’t get to him. It’s tough to silence an influential orator who religiously enters into the fray without a loaded gun.
While the armed struggle took up the battle against apartheid by engaging in skirmishes, bombings and inciting urban violence, Tutu took the plight of his people abroad. As the Secretary General of the South African Council of Churches he garnered the support of most religious denominations and called on the world to impose an economic boycott of the country. His efforts were tireless. By 1985 the United Kingdom and the United States withdrew their investments. More countries followed in their wake. The exodus smashed the value of the Rand and placed immense pressure on the government to move towards political reform.
The closer his country sailed towards a civil war, the louder Tutu cried from the pulpit and the media. Tutu denounced violent action on both sides. He insisted that there was a better solution and men like the former president, FW de Klerk, began to agree. It was if South Africa had been snapped out of a bad dream. It wasn’t long before Nelson Mandela was released from prison and widespread reforms were struck at the shackles of centuries of oppression. But then, a chilling blow. The popular South African Communist Party leader, Chris Hani, was assassinated in 1993.
It was the kind of spark that would surely strangle the hope of peaceful resolution. Tutu stepped to the forefront, again. Standing before a crowd of 120 000 angry mourners at Hani’s funeral he repeated the chant, “We will be free. All of us. Black and white together.” The mass echoed his cry, chanting it word for word. Over and over. “We are the rainbow people of God,” Tutu beamed. “We are unstoppable. Nobody can stop us in our march to victory. No one, no guns, nothing. Nothing will stop us, for we are moving to freedom. For God is on our side.” One year later the country entered into its first democratic election and Tutu had the honour of presenting Nelson Mandela as its saviour.
It may be fair to suggest that the archbishop’s most noble work had only just begun. The country’s long history of deep divide carried a river of bad blood. Atrocities were committed on both sides. If mudslinging and blame had been allowed to prosper in the early days after reform, this new democratic country may not have survived its first decade.
Under Tutu’s leadership the Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought every activist, political convict, leader and militant to the fore. The commission heard the full extent of their actions and granted amnesty to those who had acted in faith of their political beliefs. It was a bitter period, but Tutu held fast to the belief that the only way to heal deep wounds is through forgiveness. He raised his arms, a plea of support for his moral high ground, and Nelson Mandela leaned in for a hug.
When Tutu retired as the Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996, Nelson Mandela had this to say, “His joy in our diversity and his spirit of forgiveness are as much part of his immeasurable contribution to our nation as his passion for justice and his solidarity with the poor.”
Tutu could hold his head high. A nation saved from brutal conflict, a Nobel Peace Prize in his pocket and decades of tireless service to his God and people. He’d deserved a quiet retirement. But now the world was calling for the attention and blessing of this champion of equality. Tutu turned himself into a global human rights activist.
His work has spanned the plights of vulnerable children, issues related to education, charities in the developing world, the plight of Tibet and the fight against HIV/AIDS. He is a member of the Council of Elders, an esteemed group of philanthropists dedicated to standing up to the world’s fiercest challenges.
His recent announcement of retirement from public life has come as a relief to those who prefer to pay respect to living saints rather than those tinted on stained-glass windows. Tutu’s retirement buys everyone a bit more time to reflect on his contributions to our world. For the reverend, now is the opportunity for slowing. He says that he wants to sip rooibos tea with Leah, his beloved wife of close on 60 years, hang out with his grandchildren and pass precious hours in reflection and in prayer.
It’s comforting to imagine Tutu happily milking the moment from a recliner inside of his suburban home. But God knows he won’t really rest. He’ll continue to stick thorns into the sides of those who step out of line. He can’t help himself, and besides, the media loves it when he wags a finger. But what will be missed are the public appearances of the brave and wild-eyed cleric who is seconds away from a damning statement, a hearty cackle or a spirited dance routine.