/ 26 December 2021

Tutu’s death a moment to reflect and reconcile with South Africa’s past and future

Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Desmond Tutu delivers a speech during a conference for "One Young World", the World's largest gathering of Young Leaders, in London on February 8, 2010. Photo by Carl de Souza/AFP)

Those who remember Archbishop Desmond Tutu from their early days as activists in the struggle against apartheid reflected on the news of his death on Sunday 26 December that his inalienable message of love and redemption extended to all sides of any moral divide, and beyond the borders of the country.

“We lived with a prophet among us,” Reverend Frank Chikane said.

“For him it was not about black and white, it was about justice, about God’s justice.”

Chikane, an emeritus pastor of the Apostolic Faith Mission and a former director general of the presidency in the Thabo Mbeki administration, recalled that careful planning went into his re-emergence from underground after his election as the secretary general of the South African Council of Churches in the 1980s, and it was decided that it would happen at Tutu’s home in Orlando, Soweto.

The police got wind of the plan, nonetheless, but Tutu firmly turned them away.

“He stood between me and the police and said: ‘You can’t arrest him in my house.’ And so they left because they could not do much about it.

“I am pleased that I lived during this time, when we had people like him.

“Even during the time of the liberation struggle there were people who did not understand him because some of them thought for him to be with them, he must carry arms together with them … they didn’t understand the different roles people had to play, that there are those who need to be in the trenches, there are those who need to speak out, there are those who need to facilitate negotiations.”

Chikane said Tutu not only spoke uncomfortable truths in the democratic era, when he believed the former liberation movement was losing the way, but during the time of the armed struggle.

“When he stood between the angry mob and somebody who was suspected of being an informer, some of those young people got angry — and he would say you cannot talk with your matches and destroy everything. During that time he spoke against apartheid, but he also spoke against abuses that angry people would commit.”

The courage was on display when the Anglican Church in South Africa refused to renounce apartheid, and Tutu, who became the first black bishop of Johannesburg in 1985, spoke out, eventually leading others in the church to do the same.

“[…] in the new democratic society he was the clearest, he was the first one to say if the ANC does not change, I will pray for the downfall of the party,” Chikane said. 

“That is a very radical statement that he used during the apartheid days, and so with Desmond you could not miss the issue that this is not a matter of blacks and whites, it is a matter of justice and righteousness.”

Chikane said Tutu’s message was always one of forgiveness and understanding, including during the insurrectionism of the 1980s and long before he headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“And angry people will find that [message] very difficult,” he added, saying that, like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki, Tutu belonged to a generation influenced by mission schooling and who understood the need to “choose engagement over destruction, [over] self-destruction, of enduring bitterness”.

“They had a common understanding of justice. They understood that you cannot destroy the future because of the past … that we needed to liberate ourselves of the past and move towards the future.

“Unfortunately, as you know, things have not gone as we expected them to go and in the last few years things have turned into a beast that we don’t understand, a beast of corruption, a beast of people who use their position to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor.

“This is not the quality of society [Nelson] Mandela or Desmond would have struggled for. I think the passing away of the archbishop will be a moment of reflection for this nation, and looking at where we come from, where we are and what we need to do to turn things around.”

A moral colossus 

Political analyst and former Umkhonto weSizwe soldier Aubrey Matshiqi, who was baptised and grew up in Tutu’s parish in Orlando West, Soweto, movingly recalled the huge influence the cleric had on him and other young activists in the mid-1980s. He was not only “our bishop”, as a member of an Anglican family, but became Matshiqi’s moral and political beacon.

“During a march, or anything like that he would loom very large over such events … Remember, this was a small man, so if you were part of a march and you were not one of those at the front, you would not see him because everyone towered above him … But he was a giant and a colossus in terms of his moral courage.”

Tutu loomed large too in Matshiqi’s decision on whether to join the armed struggle. He said that when he decided to join the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, “I was convinced that I was making the right decision … and even though I was going to use violence against the apartheid government, I knew morally I was making the right choice because that choice put me on the same side as people like Archbishop Tutu”.

“And it struck me this morning [on hearing of Tutu’s death] that this man had this moral influence over the kind of choices some of us made, even when they went against his belief in peaceful engagement and non-violence.”

Matshiqi said Tutu filled a political vacuum in the struggle against apartheid at the time because so many of the leaders of the liberation movements were in prison, in exile or, in the case of Steve Biko, dead. At this point, the movement was to the minds of those involved a collective of organisations, including the Pan Africanist Congress, the Azanian People’s Organisation, the Black Consciousness Movement, and the ANC.

“He steps up to play that role, very importantly in a non-partisan way, so he stands above the ideological divisions, to speak truth in a non-partisan way. He therefore avails himself.”

It was perhaps, he added, a source of frustration for young activists facing the same difficult choice as he did that Tutu would not condone violent resistance, because they longed for the moral legitimacy he could confer.

“My own interpretation is that we needed the weight of his moral courage to lend credibility and legitimacy to the idea of armed struggle. I think that is why we were upset with him; we were upset precisely because we recognised that when it comes to moral courage he was a colossus and we needed his blessing.”

Matshiqi said despite the place Tutu occupies in history, he doubts he ever saw himself as a leader.

“He saw himself as one who had no choice — as a priest, as a man with a calling — to perform a prophetic mission: to provide comfort, to be a shepherd, not only to those who are oppressed but to those doing the oppressing.

“Because his message is directed at the hearts of the oppressors, he is saying to them, there is another way. So he availed himself both to the oppressor and to the oppressed because I believe this was his understanding of his role.”

Matshiqi said a message he absorbed from how Tutu lived his life was that redemption was not reserved only for those on your side but included, as an absolute necessity, the oppressor.

“What I learned as a young activist is that love and freedom are indivisible. Love and freedom cannot be reserved only for those who are like us. If they must be reserved, they must be reserved especially for those who are not like us.”

Tutu’s understanding of this, meant that he was not restricted to speaking out against the oppression of South Africans only, but to that of the people of Tibet, Palestine and elsewhere and “at the same time speak to the hearts of those who are doing the oppression … he still had compassion for the heart of the oppressor, and if the heart of the oppressor can change, it means all of our hearts can change and therefore a better world can emerge”.

Matshiqi said that, with Tutu’s passing, he hoped South Africans would reflect that the struggle to forge a better South Africa was and remains bigger than the ANC and that the future was wider than ruminations about the failures of the party.

“People are going to be tempted to talk about what the ANC has become because of how Tutu preached and spoke about what the ANC had become,” he said.

“I choose to do something different. I choose to say what makes me sad about the passing of Archbishop Tutu is because it reminds us that he passes on at a time when we must reflect about what we have become — and that is much bigger than what the ANC has become.

“Because what we were was larger than what the ANC was. And therefore what we are is larger than what the ANC has become, and his passing is a moment for us to reflect on us becoming better, reaching for our higher selves, and for the country to become better and do better and reach for its higher self, especially with regards to issues such as social justice for those who remain downtrodden in this country, or those who remain the wretched of the earth even after 27 years of so-called freedom.”

Humour and timing

In Tutu’s last moments, Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille was with his family bidding farewell, “when he said goodbye to us”. 

De Lille said Tutu was opposed to racial discrimination and all other forms of discrimination and injustice. 

“Whether it was economic injustice, gender injustice, sexual orientation, religious, culture, geographic and environment and many more,” she said. 

Tutu’s humour and a great sense of timing were among his greatest assets, the man she came to know and love as “the Arch”. 

“He had an extraordinary ability to defuse tension, contain anger and remind people of their human essence. He used humour to convey important messages and he had a particularly contagious laugh.

“He spoke truth to power during the time of apartheid, but he also spoke truth to power now during the time of democracy.”  

What it means to be human

Family spokesperson Mamphela Ramphele spoke of Tutu’s many ailments during his life. He had suffered from prostate cancer for more than two decades, she said, adding that in all of that time, “all you heard from him was the chuckle, the joy, that deep sense of gratitude”. 

“As we mourn the passing of this great man, we would really like for South Africa and the world to focus on the teaching moments of this man’s life,” she said.

“Here was a man who was not given any chance to survive his childhood because of polio. He didn’t have a chance, people thought, to survive his youth because of TB … As we mourn the passing of this great man, we would really like for South Africa and the world to focus on the teaching moments of this man’s life. It is in recognising that whatever his vulnerabilities were, he had to use every moment to make sure that people do not suffer whatever he suffered. He was a great promoter of wellbeing and healthcare and supported people across the spectrum.” 

Ramphele said it was equally important for Tutu to raise awareness among South Africans about prostate cancer, adding that black men were more likely than white men to be diagnosed with it. 

“In all of this the archbishop wants us to focus on Ubuntu bethu. What does it mean to be human? He didn’t preach about being human, he lived the core values of ubuntu, and those values shone through in his care for the lowest among us, for the most distressed but also for a nation that has had such a traumatic history. He made himself the ritual master in the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission]  to help us to get on a healing journey, it was saddening that we didn’t go very far on the journey that he set us [on]. 

“He was brave enough, small as he was, towered over by his very beautiful tall wife. But in terms of courage, she would tell everyone that he had the heart of a lion. Who would ever forget that he saved people from the necklace murders at a time when people wouldn’t dare [intervene]. He didn’t stop there, he continued to be a person who speaks truth to power in the hope that we may rise to our responsibilities as a nation — [one that has his] wonderful heritage to guide our democratic process and our nation building.” 

Ramphele said the greatest tribute South Africans could pay Tutu would be to mark the day of his death (26 December is celebrated in South Africa as the Day of Reconciliation), as the start to a journey of healing. 

ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte said the archbishop “led the TRC hearings with compassion but called for the prosecution of those named. Sadly the procrastination of that trust he put in the National Prosecuting Authority is yet to happen. Lest we forget, and remember him as a man who worked for reconciliation and peace only, I remember him on the streets leading marches to end the vicious cycle of apartheid and its poverty traps we still live with. Rest in peace, Bhaba Tutu.”