On March 16 1988, Archbishop Desmond Tutu met Die Groot Krokodil in his, PW Botha’s, dimly lit study at Tuynhuys, Cape Town. It was an urgent meeting, at the heart of which was a plea for presidential clemency.
At stake were the lives of the Sharpeville Six, sentenced to death on account of the notorious common purpose doctrine, and scheduled for execution within two days of that meeting. In terms of political power and body size, it was a meeting between David and Goliath.
Once Botha got going, his famous wagging finger came out, his scolding voice rose and, shaking with anger in his seat, he started remonstrating with Tutu.
As Tutu biographer John Allen puts it, Botha “excoriated the archbishop for instigating an illegal march; … for supposedly marching in front of a communist flag; for advocating sanctions; for supporting the outlawed liberation movements … and for having the temerity to invite Thatcher, Reagan and Kohl to interfere in South Africa’s domestic affairs”.
Well, Tutu pretty much did all of the above and more. He said and did pretty much everything the apartheid regime required him, by law and intimidation, not to. This Goliath was never going to get an apology out of him.
“I take exception,” Tutu would say repeatedly as he tried to get a word in. Tutu even tried talking to Botha as a father, husband and grandfather.
Eventually Tutu lost it. “Look here, I am not a small boy … I’m not here as if you are my principal.” Then the meeting descended into a chaotic shouting match between David and Goliath – a shouting match that ended with Tutu walking out. But not before Botha told Tutu to “take his exceptions” with him and shouting: “You are leading people to confrontation … You must tell the people: they’re going to get confrontation.”
The foregoing picture of a militant Desmond Tutu, a fearless defender of the defenceless, absolutely defiant, resolute and determined is slowly being lost. In recent times Tutu has mistakenly come to be defined and understood only through his historic leadership of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). As with those who erroneously see the historic walk out of prison on February 11 1990 as the moment that made Nelson Mandela, there are some who see the TRC as the event that made (or broke) Tutu.
Admittedly, both the TRC and the release of Mandela are signal moments in the story of democratic South Africa. But they are far from being the moments that made or define Tutu and Mandela.
There would have been no TRC if the militant Tutu had not existed long before the TRC could even be imagined. Apartheid, Tutu used to say, “is evil, totally and without remainder”. His fearlessness knew few boundaries; it extended to the people he led. When things got out of hand in the 1980s as the black community started to turn on itself, Tutu was there to condemn and to stop the inhuman practice of the burning of people perceived to be sell-outs.
Yet Tutu is a humble man. Throughout the years of struggle, his most repeated words to the apartheid government were: “Our real leaders are in prison, you must release them.” There was never any inkling of confusion in Tutu’s head about his role and the roles of the likes of Winnie Mandela, Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe and Mandela.
Nor did he ever seem to misunderstand his priestly calling – often to the chagrin of those who wished to see him adopt party political agendas. Tutu has no party political membership card. As archbishop he even tried to prevent members of his church from taking up membership of political parties. Tutu’s political activism stems from his deep theological convictions and not from any political ideology as such. For him, the temptation of (party) political leadership never arose.
He is, of course, not the only prominent cleric who took on the powerful apartheid state. He stands in the company of the likes of Alan Boesak, Nicolas Bhengu, Joseph and Ramarumo Lekganyane, Beyers Naudé, Sam Ngcobo, François Bill, Khoza Mgojo, Frank Chikane, Itumeleng Mosala, Mvume Dandala, Isaiah Shembe and Takatso Mofokeng, Bonganjalo Goba, Gabriel Setiloane, and Manas Buthelezi, among many others.
According to Tutu it was Trevor Huddleston who “single-handedly made apartheid a world issue”. However, in the last lap – the mid-1960s to the 1990 – few people made apartheid a world issue as effectively and as spectacularly as Tutu has done. He did it with a bold kind of humility. If anyone thought being imbued with Ubuntu meant becoming a doormat, the character of Tutu will rapidly disabuse them of such a notion.
Is it not ironic that someone who as a youngster was variously described as “slim and frail”, whose “slightness” dictated that he play scrum half in “the most junior of the school’s rugby teams”, one whose right hand atrophied as a result of polio so that he had to learn to write with his left hand, lived to become what United States President Barack Obama has called a moral titan?
Mark Gevisser, former president Thabo Mbeki’s biographer, once called Tutu the nation’s naughty uncle as opposed to Mandela, the stern-looking father of the nation.
But we must not be fooled. Tutu means business and he is fiercely serious about his central messages. The humour and the dramatic turns are mere tools in the hands of a masterful communicator.
Like all great leaders, Tutu’s messages are simple but profound: “We are all made in the image of God”; “Umuntu ngumuntu nga Bantu (A person is a person through others)”; “There is no future without forgiveness”; “God is not a Christian”; “We are a rainbow people of God – all of us, black and white together” and “God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed”.
If ever someone tries always to reach out to the human core inside both the perpetrator and the victim, the insider and the outsider, men and women, black and white, gay and straight, Palestinian and Jew – that person is Tutu. His brilliant story-telling techniques and his legendary sense of humour are part of his relentless pursuit of the human core. All his jokes and all his stories have the proverbial sting in the tail designed either to offend or to humour people into action. Indeed, many of the jokes are about Tutu himself –his height, his size and his big nose.
Behind Tutu the apparent jester is a radical ethicist and an engaging social theoretician.
It would be wrong to portray Tutu as a self-made action hero. The truth is that Tutu is a product of a heroic and resilient people. He is born out of the South African struggle of liberation. He is a product of the church – local and global. The manner in which he continues to honour his life partner and wife, Leah Tutu, is something heartwarming.
Desmond Tutu is the quintessential global citizen who has tirelessly fought for the powerless and excluded not just in South Africa but everywhere. Name a worthy cause from anywhere in the world – Tutu has been there to support it. He was and remains the archbishop without province, without diocese and without borders.
Tutu is a survivor. When he saw that, as a teacher under the newly installed apartheid regime, his role would have been that of a collaborator and active agent of government, he quit and joined the priesthood.
As a child, living in the conditions of poverty black people were confined to, Tutu contracted polio. The disease hit him so hard that his father, Zelilo Zacharia (ZZ) Tutu, was almost preparing for a funeral. The boy survived. Later, in high school, he contracted tuberculosis and survived again, thanks to the timely intervention of monks of the Community of the Resurrection. Of the five children born to ZZ Tutu and Aletta Dorothea Matse Tutu, only three survived and Desmond was one of them.
His survival instincts, his unshakeable faith in God and in humanity, persuade me that, whatever health setback Tutu may be having at this time, he will survive. His other name is Mpilo – Life.
Professor Tinyiko Maluleke teaches at the University of Pretoria. The views expressed here are his own.