Archbishop Tutu — a man of God who liked to laugh

Archbishop Desmond Tutu will be remembered differently by many people around the world. He was a Nobel Peace prize laureate, a man of God, fervent freedom fighter and a man of peace with an amazing sense of humour. Tutu was an architect of the South African democratic society. He fought and led during the most difficult time in the history of South Africa — a time when many political leaders were either in exile or prison. 

When the uprisings in Soweto were at their pinnacle, Tutu was there to give political direction. He was in the forefront at the funerals of victims of apartheid’s brutality and was always present at political marches and rallies calling for the liberation of black South Africans. 

He was also there when voices of reason were needed to calm volatile situations. In 1985, he battled through an angry mob and rescued a man who was about to be set alight for being a police informer.

He chaired one of the most important political processes in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC was a court-like body established by the new South African government in 1995 to help heal the country and bring about a reconciliation of its people by uncovering the truth about human rights that had occurred during the period of apartheid. South Africans of all backgrounds, victims and perpetrators of injustice approached the commission “to report and confess past violations and abuses during apartheid”. 

Tutu never stopped — even in retirement he continued to fight for democracy. He was an integral part of the group of The Elders, an independent group of global leaders working together for peace, justice and human rights. He continued to be vocal against injustice around the world and gave direction to global politics. 

When former president George Bush led the US to invade Iraq in 2003, Tutu was swift in his condemnation. In 2012 he called for Bush and ex-UK prime minister Tony Blair to face trial in The Hague for their role in the Iraq war. 

He was also very critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and “he drew parallels between Israeli occupation and apartheid in South Africa”. 

He was equally troubled by high levels of corruption and mismanagement in post-Mandela South Africa. His relationship with a former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, took a nasty turn when he criticised him for his handling of the Aids pandemic and political chaos in Zimbabwe. 

He also had strong words against those who failed to openly debate and challenge Mbeki’s controversial views on HIV and Aids, arguing that South Africa was “a democracy and not a dictatorship”. He briefly emerged from retirement during the administration of president Jacob Zuma. Speaking to journalists in 2016 in Cape Town, Tutu said “Mr Zuma, you and your government don’t represent me. You represent your own interest and I am warning you. I really am warning you out of love. I’m warning you like I warned the Nationalists. I am warning you. One day, we will start praying for the defeat of the ANC government. You are disgraceful. I want to warn you. You are behaving in a way that is totally at variance with the things for which we stood.”

Most of all, “The Arch” as he was passionately referred to by many in South Africa, had an amazing sense of humour, he laughed spontaneously and was an amazing storyteller. “My wife Leah always accuses me of name-dropping. I told her: ‘Funny, the Queen said the same thing about me’,” he joked on one occasion. 

One of his funny anecdotes involved the former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. When Mandela became the president in 1994, he swapped formal suits for Indo-Malay style shirts. Tutu accused Nelson Mandela of having a “weird fashion sense”. “I find this very funny coming from a man who wears dresses,” Mandela retorted. 

There are many other anecdotes by The Arch that got many around the world laughing. He will certainly be missed, a nice guy who enjoyed a good joke and laughter.

This is an edited version of an article first published on Thembisa Fakude’s Medium account and republished here with his permission.

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Thembisa Fakude
Thembisa Fakude is a senior research fellow for Africa Asia Dialogues and a research fellow for the Al Sharq Forum

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