The ultimate test of faith

Desmond Tutu, chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in The Mark Gevisser Profile

WONDERFUL! Wonderful! Wonderful! Ever since I spent time with Desmond Tutu a few weeks ago, I have caught myself, repeatedly, doing The Arch whenever something has pleased me. Head thrown back, arms extended upwards in an angelic “V”, spasms of praise oscillating through outstretched fingers, exaltant voice asqueal with wonderfuls. Over the course of 24 hours, I must have seen him perform this ritual more times than he prayed (which is a lot: he even called for divine assistance before I turned the tape recorder on, “so that at least I can have someone on my side”. His prayers were heard: my tapes remained blank.)

If the grave and plodding Mandela is our reliable father, then that hyperactive little figure in ermine at his side is our naughty uncle; the one who carries all the family’s emotional baggage, weeping for us when we grieve, dancing when we celebrate. Ready for retirement, he neither sought nor wanted the chairmanship of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. What better man, though, to play the lead in the drama of Truth and Reconciliation, manifesting externally all the emotions of restitution and contrition — and ultimate catharsis — that we, black and white alike, are expected to feel?

Tutu has minted our political discourse: it is he who appropriated the term “rainbow” from Jesse Jackson and imported it into our New South African vernacular. It is he, in fact, who coined the term “New South Africa” years before FW de Klerk started chucking it around. And it was he who first started speaking about reconciliation. When he was appointed first black Anglican Dean of Johannesburg in 1975, he wrote an open letter to John Vorster in which he said: “I am deeply committed to real reconciliation with justice for all, and to peaceful change to a more just and open society …”

The Desmond Tutu who will chair the first hearings of the Truth and Reonciliation Commission in East London should thus be even more exuberant than usual. He is presiding over the realisation of his very own dream. And yet the Tutu who has appeared in public in recent weeks has seemed subdued, introverted, even slightly depressed.

On the TV programme Two-Way a fortnight ago, the man who spoke about reconciliation at Steve Biko’s funeral had to sit and listen while Biko’s widow said, bitterly: “I don’t see the Truth and Reconciliation Commission solving my problem …” He had to sit and listen while Griffiths Mxenge’s brother said: “What is really annoying us is that we understand that the previous government [did nothing]. But the present government, for which my brother and sister-in-law died, they sit back and do nothing … Bishop Tutu delivered the ceremony at my brother’s funeral. He was witness to the fact that people said that when this government took over, justice will be done.”

Here he was, Nobel Laureate of Underdogs, accused of being a sellout for presiding over a process that will grant perpetrators amnesty rather than meting tough justice out to them. And his accusers were the very people he put his life on the line for. Usually Tutu, a little man, uses his animated hands to make him seem bigger. Wrapped tight in a black jacket, the ermine just peeping through, he seemed here, however, to shrivel into dimunition.

In the cool chambers of his own space he is compelling, setting “justice with ashes” against “amnesty with the possibility of continuing survival for all of us”: “It’s realpolitik, this forgiveness thing. It’s not just something in the realm of religion or the spiritual. If justice is your last word, you’ve had it. You’ve got to go beyond it.”

“Beyond justice” is a peculiarly Tutuesque combination of Christian faith — “which is ultimately a faith of grace” — and African communalism: “Ubuntu says I am human only because you are human. If I undermine your humanity, I dehumanise myself. You must do what you can to maintain this great harmony, which is perpetually undermined by resentment, anger, desire for vengeance. That’s why African jurisprudence is restorative rather than retributive.”

In the Two-Way studio, though, faced with the wrath of a few high-profile victims, he retreated to churchy sentimentality — to the comfort zone of religiosity — and sanctimoniously reminded viewers of Christ’s words on the cross, “Forgive them, for they do not know what they do”.

With scant resources, an enormous task to fulfil, a wrenching moral conundrum to resolve, and 17 wilful commissioners to lead, his job is nigh impossible. And though he doesn’t admit it, he is having a rough time. When he talks of the need for political compromise, he is told to stop being a politician and to behave like a clergyman; when he talks like a clergyman, Marius Schoon writes, with righteous indignation, that he has no right to use public television to impose his “Christian views [on forgiveness] on all of us”.

Certainly, the very notion of a truth commission comes from Christian ideas of confession and absolution (even if Tutu does say it’s about “realpolitik”). But sometimes it sounds just a little too easy. It’s one thing for Tutu to jump up at a Dutch Reformed Church synod, as he did in 1990 after NGK clergymen apologised profusely for the sin of apartheid and proclaim: “I cannot, when somebody says ‘forgive me’, say ‘I do not’.” It’s quite another, however, to grant forgiveness to monsters who simply list their atrocities and expect amnesty without contrition, as the Truth and Reconciliation Act allows.

Tutu’s faith, says a source in the commission, is “his greatest asset, but also his greatest blind spot. It allows him to be a visionary leader, a symbol of reconciliation, beloved to all. But it also imbues him with the theological fatalism that, at the end of the day, a force higher than us will make things happen. At times this leads to a lack of managerial rigour and attention to detail.”

It’s not just clerical thought that is hampering Desmond Tutu in his current assignment, it’s clerical style too. He comes from the Anglican Church, one of the most rigid hierarchies imaginable. Here Father is father, and Arch is king. Tutu led both the South African Council of Churches and the Anglicans from the front. He would pronounce, often brilliantly, and the rest would have to come panting up behind.

But the last thing the 17 very assertive members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission want is a Father. They are politicans, they are lawyers, they are on the move. They are tough as nails. Many of them, even those who have a deep affection for him, see his clerical paternalism as offensively patronising — and they have told him so. “He would try,” says one source in the commission, “to be the big father with his his little chicks. And the little chicks told him to get lost. That astonished him — in the church, you don’t answer back!”

The result had, according to this source, a profound effect on the work of the commission: “He found himself lost, not knowing what to fall back on. This made him sad and unsure of himself, and he became defensive — threatening to leave — or ineffectual. It would take ages to reach decisions, because he wasn’t able to move them forward and he didn’t want to let go of something if he disagreed with it. We’d never finish an agenda because he responded to criticism with long-winded anecdotes.”

That, say the commission’s critics, is one reason why it has taken four months to set up a body that is only going to last for one-and- a-half years. There is still — shamefully — almost no communication and public education coming out of the commission, and there remains much fuzziness about how reparation will work, or even about how much money will be available. Tutu, of course, cannot shoulder all the blame for these problems: given that the TRC is itself a political compromise, every decision it makes becomes a mini-Codesa. The largest amount of its time, for example, has gone into haggling over affirmative action appointments. One commissioner notes that: “We are an impossibly diverse bunch. And in fact, to the extent that we have any coherence, Bishop Tutu takes the credit. He has this amazing capacity to get people talking.”

Perhaps, too, The Arch will begin to

shine from Monday onwards, once the backroom stuff is over and the dancing and weeping can begin. For one of his greatest assets — and it is an asset — is that he loves the limelight; it burnishes rather than diminishes him. If there’s action, he’s in it.

He really is an international superstar.

Hang out with him and you’ll feel it immediately. He has handlers, he has whims, he needs his space. I spent a good a deal of time waiting to speak to him — following him as he moved from engagements, observing silence as I chased him on a brisk trot through Orlando West, hanging out in his comfy and stylish Soweto home — while he performed his inviolate daily rituals. It was worth it, though, for when he engages with you, he is there. He manages to combine folksiness and dazzling intellect like no one I’ve ever met.

It’s an intellect which can be cold and

brutal. I heard him on a talk show a few months ago, defending his position that gay people should be ordained into the church. His arguments were righteous and heartening, but when ordinary folk phoned in to rant about Sodom and Gomorrah, there was none of his usual paternal indulgence — these are lost sheep, let me help them see the truth. Rather, he was sharp and dismissive, and dealt with them like the blinkered fools they are.

Those who know him say that he is like this when he is unsure of his ground. Perhaps that’s why he is having a hard time negotiating, publicly, the truth and reconciliation domain. One thing about him that is worth cherishing, even if it does sometimes cause problems in its wake, is that he says what he believes is right, and damn everyone else. Thus he defends gay clerics, advocates abortion reform. Thus he lambasts his friends in the new government for boarding the gravy train.

But the same impulse leads him, at a meeting of violence victims in Guguletu this week, to describe the “political trials” of Eugene de Kock and Magnus Malan as “taking up the courts’ time and costing millions of rands that could be spent in more productive ways”. This is clearly a counter-attack on those opponents of the TRC baying for “justice”. Tutu may be right, but it’s not the politic thing to say if the intention is to bring high-profile malcontents like the Bikos and the Mxenges on board.

Back in Orlando West, it’s after breakfast, and The Arch At Home performs the Eucharist in the magnificent little chapel behind his house. I’m reminded of something he once said in the bad old days, that South Africans have an hour of sanity a week, when people of all colours drink the blood of Christ out of the same glass. Today it’s nothing so grand, just his wife Leah, his assistant and his bodyguard taking the wafers. It’s still an event, and in liturgical fervour, the archbishop breaks his bejewelled crucifix. After the service, he says to Leah: “I dropped my cross. I’m such a bleddy domkop.”

“Yes,” she replies, embracing him, “you’re a bleddy domkop.” And she kisses him. It’s hard not to love these people, even if you hardly know them.

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