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Tutu – the irrepressible, indomitable champion of justice

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Tutu – the irrepressible, indomitable champion of justice

Lord Peter Hain pays tribute to his long-time friend and fellow campaigner for justice, the late great Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

When we first met in 1998, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was being awarded an honorary degree from Cardiff University, and I was the guest of honour as a Labour government Minister.

‘Arch’, as he was affectionately known, burst into one of his characteristic giggles on the platform as he looked at me in the front row. “A pair of anti-apartheid subversives like us being honoured by the establishment!” he declared with an infectiously riotous laugh at the irony of it all, shoulders heaving, the audience joining him giggling. Not many could get away with such conduct in the middle of a formal ceremony.

He had an impish irreverence and provided warm camaraderie, as well as being engagingly self-deprecating. 

Only Arch could have given no offence with this response when asked what qualities he had to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984: “A short name like Tutu, a big nose and sexy legs,” he replied mischievously.

Fearless, passionate, inspiring – and for some, uncomfortably honest  – Desmond Tutu, along with Nelson Mandela, was one of the most special people I have ever had the privilege to meet.

His blunt honesty in speaking truth to power – whether to the old apartheid rulers or to the new post-apartheid ones – caused them to resent him, and the rest of the public to increase their respect for him. No one could ever curb Arch’s courage or independent spirit.

Tony Blair and George W. Bush should be taken to the International Criminal Court in The Hague over the Iraq war, he demanded in 2012, adding that different standards appeared to be applied to Western leaders like both of them: “In a consistent world, those responsible should be treading the same path as some of their African and Asian peers who have been made to answer for their actions in The Hague,” he declared, giving expression to a sentiment that many still hold.

Possessing an inspirational way with words, he seemed always to capture the moment so perfectly. A fearless preacher able to rouse a great audience to raucous excitement, he could also drop to a whisper, pausing, holding everyone in the palm of his hand, as he did so memorably at the venerable Westminster Abbey at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in March 2014.

He was a visionary activist who cut through to all, revolutionary or ruler, poor or rich.

Almost invincible

But it was his irrepressible eloquence as a Christian leader that made him almost invincible in the 1980s, as general secretary of the Inter-denominational South African Council of Churches, Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg and then as the Archbishop of Cape Town. 

When Mandela and his fellow anti-apartheid leaders were two decades into their imprisonment on Robben Island, Arch came to increasing prominence as an opponent of racist tyranny, speaking at rallies and funerals, leading protests, his voice heard across the world.

Apartheid’s brutal police state had assassinated, tortured, jailed and silenced critics, but they couldn’t really do that to the Archbishop of Cape Town, with his multi-racial congregation and his increasingly prominent global Christian platform.

Arch’s initial joyous engagements with Nelson Mandela in February 1990, after Mandela had finally been freed, epitomised the triumph of good over evil, these two great figures heralding the onset of the new ‘rainbow nation’.

“Mandela,” he memorably pronounced, “became the icon, the moral giant so revered by the world, because he had demonstrated that former enemies could become friends.”

Desmond Tutu also epitomised integrity.  So when Winnie Mandela appeared before him in 1997 at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established by President Mandela, Arch was firm about her tragic descent from brave fighter for justice and victim of police oppression, into criminal complicity in murder. “I beg you, I beg you, I beg you, please apologise,” he implored her. She wouldn’t. 

He was also firm with former President de Klerk, who’d released Mandela, but refused to apologise for Apartheid crimes committed on his watch even whilst negotiating the transition from Apartheid. De Klerk stormed out of the Commission in high dudgeon after it had heard evidence of awful, bloodcurdling atrocities committed by Apartheid security agents.

Even soon after his close friend Mandela became President, Arch was not silent. MPs were under fire for accepting big salary increases, and he quipped: “The government stopped the gravy train long enough to get on it.” A few months later, Mandela announced a cut in the salaries of MPs and of the President.

After his divorce from Winnie, Nelson Mandela was increasingly accompanied at official functions from mid-1995 by the outstanding African figure, Graça Machel, visibly enchanted by her warmth, grace and love of children. But this ‘living in sin’ arrangement occasioned some criticism from Desmond Tutu, until they married on Mandela’s eightieth birthday – 18 July, 1998. 

Worldwide influence

Known globally for his uncompromising anti-Apartheid campaigning, he was an inspiration for human rights activists globally, speaking out for example against homophobic laws in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa where gay rights have been viciously suppressed. 

He supported the democracy movement in Burma/Myanmar, yet wrote with sorrow and honesty to Aung San Suu Kyi, about her collusion over the Rohingya massacres.

He was also well ahead of his time on other agendas. Very unusually for a Christian leader of his generation – passing late last year, aged 90 – he publicly favoured assisted dying. 

He was a remarkably progressive Anglican trailblazer, trying to persuade the church to ordain women and opposing the exclusion of priests from the LGBTQI+ community.

In South Africa after the transition to democracy in 1994, Tutu found himself becoming the unflinching custodian of the ‘rainbow nation’, critical of Mandela’s successors, first Thabo Mbeki for his HIV-AIDS denialism, then Jacob Zuma for his shameless corruption and looting which has left the once proud ANC badly discredited and the economy in bad shape, with poverty and unemployment rampant.

Despite its contemporary troubles, South Africa still remains a beacon for the triumph of hope over evil, for non-racialism over Apartheid, and a wonderful tourist destination. 

Both the ANC’s, and the country’s future depend upon listening to and acting on the wisdom of the remarkable, unique Desmond Tutu and striving to emulate his legacy. 

The same is true for leaders in the rest of the African continent. 

*The Tutu Foundation and King’s College University of London, the Archbishop’s alma mater, are establishing a Desmond Tutu Chair in Religion, Reconciliation and Peacebuilding and to uphold the philosophy of Ubuntu – the recognition of our common humanity and interdependence – which the Archbishop embodied. For donations see www.tutufoundation.org

Former anti-apartheid campaigner and UK Cabinet Minister, Peter Hain’s memoir A Pretoria Boy: South Africa’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’, was recently published in Africa by Jonathan Ball, and in the UK by Icon Books.

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