The only time I was upset enough to complain about a grade was when I nearly failed jurisprudence because I insisted “ubuntu” is not real. It was the hardest I’d ever prepared for a test. I manically read the whole textbook in a fit of rage, and just thought it was fictional.
The lecturers had taught the course for years, had written the textbook and were unimpressed by my assertion that the term was nothing more than a place-holder for appeals to “the unknowable political whims of Nelson Mandela or Desmond Tutu”. It was my strongest, longest held and wrongest opinion. Yet I still felt discriminated against by the ideas of people too old to understand South Africa.
What I did understand is that as soon as South Africa made a compact for reckoning, the price of the ticket became unbearable, and then something changed, but we weren’t allowed to know why.
Desmond Tutu was a hero. Despite murmurs, you may or may not remember hearing, he was so — unequivocally, uncontroversially, uncomplicatedly. Having an opinion about him is inescapable but, since he died, I have been reminded that almost everything I have known or believed about him is unbelievably vague, though not unknowable.
Unlike figures such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Tutu is not just sanitised and used as a blank canvas for any notion of peace and unity. His historical narrative is as cheap as caricature, but much less coherent and seldom explicit. This is because of his legacy-defining stint as the chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Tutu was not universally beloved. If anything, he was closer to universally resented. Not because of the ways in which the TRC process failed, but largely because of the ways it succeeded.
The toughest thing about reckoning is the reckoning. Truth is not satisfying. It is not sufficient. And democratic South Africa is a hell-hole. It is perhaps the most unequal place in the world, one of the most brazenly corrupt “liberal democracies”, world-beating in unemployment, racism, violent crime, gender-based violence, alcoholism and virtually every metric of preventable death and suffering.
The transition out of apartheid was, by every reasonable account, a world-wide democratic miracle. But it was like leaving Egypt for the wilderness. We feel like we are trapped in the global capital of injustice. Much of our recent political scholarship, from the insightful to the incompetent, interrogates the staying power of systemic injustice. But the theories are interesting mostly to academics. Political discussion is mostly academic.
We are stagnant and discontented, and that is the dominant sentiment that motivates people to question why they should feel grateful for our exodus. What they even have to show for the miracle of democracy or the works of heroes. Least of all the public face of “reconciliation”, a concept we now treat as synonymous with pacification and normalisation of the unconscionable. I found easy confirmation for my belief that emancipatory rhetoric and neo-liberal whitewashing of formerly revolutionary concepts was an obvious reason more and more people believe democracy to be overrated. And even before I knew the first thing about his work, I understood Tutu to be the figure who told us to be satisfied with peace without justice.
That is an illiterate opinion. It’s an impulsive response to an incoherent question. It is entirely a politics of dissatisfaction, which perhaps is the only rational way to feel when our leaders decided to reverse course on reckoning. But I was raised to be ignorant of the TRC’s actual work.
I am Zulu. I know exactly what ubuntu means, and I was raised in the church, so I can understand that a Bible can as easily stand for forgiveness, docility and mercy as it could for righteous rage. A year before Tutu died, I was trapped in a bedroom far from home, unable to escape my thoughts and curiosities, and eventually started trying to figure out where I’m from. I was surprised and relieved to discover Tutu was just as angry about the things I had blamed him for but, to be honest, these were never more than a mirror.
I have never encountered anything more complicated than the TRC. The only way to understand it is to go through it, to watch it. It was built to be a record, it was built to be available to the whole nation. A new nation, confronting the most traumatic things. An insurmountable challenge for an unimaginable community. I was born in a war zone. Grew up in an Inkatha Freedom Party town. Studied history and political science, did debating and worked in constitutional law. Which is to say I took all the shortcuts to consider myself reasonably politically literate. But I never realised the TRC hearings were all on YouTube. I never read the reports. Yet it’s all a click away. And it’s about you.
Apartheid was unspeakably barbaric. It was insane. And it was yesterday. It was not just unbelievably cruel and dehumanising, it was bizarrely elaborate. People did and believed things that simply don’t make sense. And I’ve always understood I can only ever have a limited understanding of that. I was born before the 1994 election but not before the war ended.
My earliest memories were driving around and seeing burned houses and bombed businesses and abandoned petrol stations, and hearing adults speak in hushed tones about near-death experiences and militias and hiding under tables or being expected to go out and patrol territories on behalf of political parties they didn’t belong to. And constantly meeting people who had been my parents’ friends when we were babies but had fled the region as war refugees.
When I was an embarrassed adult and asked my older sister about it a year ago she looked harrowed by the memories, and we concluded that our family had claimed it was not polite to talk about it because the violence was political and we were a Christian family, but it was actually because they were civilians trying to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder over a war they had no say in. One that officially never happened.
Then politicians made deals, warlords became statesmen and nobody ever talked about it. In school, they taught us about the miraculously peaceful transition. Everyone in town treated certain topics as forbidden and, despite our curiosity, there were glaring signs we never questioned because we knew that it would cause pain to people who knew the answers. And that compartmentalisation isn’t just a thing you teach to toddlers wondering why homes in their neighbourhood were burned down. It’s an amnesia we all learned. It’s the South African settlement.
So reconciliation could not have happened because the wars never spiralled to the point of destroying us. You can’t have war heroes if you never had war. I used to get annoyed with people expressing radical discontentment with South Africa’s political order. It felt nihilistic and, worse, insincere, because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what people thought of as an alternative. But I have come to believe it’s the only way to live with the unbearable. To cope with the unforgettable and reckon with the unforgivable. And that is devastating, but humanising. Or at least simply human. And I think that’s how I imagine Tutu’s work.
The only coherent reason I have heard advanced to hate him was the feeling that he scapegoated Winnie Mandela by begging her to apologise at the TRC hearings. The ANC and its friends certainly felt betrayed by the TRC, probably because to them the process equated crimes of resistance with crimes of oppression. That’s why the ANC government, not the TRC, decided nothing should come of the process. They prosecuted none of the crimes and ignored all the progressive recommendations, tried to scrub the process to nothingness. Nothing but truth, and a fraught but enduring peace.
But Winnie Mandela was the one person to be honest about what would become the reason people pretend Tutu’s legacy was complicated. She said “a Desmond Tutu, judging me, performing for Stratcom, asking me to apologise as if I was responsible for apartheid”. And many people agree with the view that he had no right to question her decisions. She outranked him and meant more, and gave more, in times of war; that she was being scapegoated by pacifying forces. And so it was reasonable for her to accuse all her detractors of playing into the hands of the apartheid secret service. That is the only coherent version of the “selling out” narrative. It’s dumb.
But she says something telling, when reflecting on how wounded she was. She not only suggests he was unworthy and disloyal, she says that he asked her to apologise “as if she was responsible for apartheid”. Which is not remotely what Tutu said. But it is a difficult question for all of us. Her accusers are unimpeached and well-known civil servants to this day. The people who testified were the families of victims who were murdered in cold blood by people who claimed her as their leader. Tutu’s crime was grieving with victims, rather than towing the guerilla party line.
You can make up your own mind about whether she committed any crime, but it seems the prior question is whether it was par for the course to murder black people in the townships on suspicion that they were collaborating. That was the only controversy. It was slanderous and scandalous but, above all, painful for all of us.
I’m not old enough to have heard the song uMkhonto uyeza at a time when occupied and conquered people believed that armed resistance, guerilla war, terrorism was the only hope of liberation. But I come from a place where hundreds of black people were murdered and terrorised in political wars in which they had no say. By liberation forces. The ANC and IFP murdered scores of innocent civilians. And who can say whether that was justified and when that was necessary? Well, you can watch and decide for yourself. But is it something we can tolerate?
That decision was made long before Tutu carried the mantle of asking the impossible. He said humbly, yet audaciously, that the goal was not for us to be stuck in a game of “tit for tat”, but to “understand” what happened. I always found those terms unsatisfying, but I can’t explain why I expected them to satisfy. Why I expected a silver lining? Describing apartheid Israel, the archbishop said something that echoes the moral courage of James Baldwin; the simple, classical gospel point that when you do the unconscionable you not only destroy the oppressed but risk doing irreparable damage to your own moral soul. And to again quote Baldwin instead of preachy old man Tutu; “To accept one’s past — one’s history — is not the same thing as drowning in it. Invented past can never be used. It cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.”
I know nothing about Desmond Tutu. I feel like he was deliberately erased, but even if he hadn’t been bearing bad news, he would be easy to resist from the distance as it was too close for comfort. If you have questions, though, the truth is all online. And you can learn a bit about yourself and your home. And before you worry about whether you’re a fan of the icon, be prepared to consider how you feel about us. Like staring into a mirror at midnight; a horrible face, but one’s own.