/ 27 December 2021

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: A legacy of love and speaking truth to power

Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Desmond Tutu dances on stage in Radhuspladsen during a "Time for Climate Justice" public event in Copenhagen on December 13, 2009. (Photo by Adrian Dennis/AFP)

Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu exemplified the prophetic vocation of “speaking truth to power”, but he went further: he also spoke truth about power. He did so by living the power of truth.

He taught us that power ultimately has no defence against truth. All it can do is go on the attack. He had to endure many.

For more than 40 years “the Arch” has probably been the single most influential person in shaping my vocation as a social worker, a Christian peace activist and someone who also tries to speak truth to, and about, power.

Our bond was formed during a dramatic episode that occurred in April 1980, in a packed students union hall at the University of Natal in Durban when I was still a student. The “Arch” was still but a “Bish”. He was just four years into his episcopacy. It occurred at the start of the “Free Mandela” campaign that Percy Qoboza, editor of The World had initiated.

I retell this story as some consolation to those who are mourning his death, and to encourage us all to “choose life” in the midst of death, suffering and injustice.

“In five to 10 years we will have a black president,” Tutu said in April 1980. Pointing to Zinzi Mandela who was sharing a platform with him, he added with a confident glint in his eye and warm affection in his voice “and, I believe that person is going to be that lady’s father”.

The accuracy of his prediction earned Tutu regard as something of an oracle. However, if we recall the rest of what he had to say to the gathered masses, I believe it is more correct to describe him as a prophet. It is not his prediction but his prophecy that has made him such a remarkable person — and why so many of us who journeyed behind him over the ensuing years cannot give up the national peace-building project that he initiated.

He said: “What the white community still has in its power to do is to decide whether that president is going to end up there through a process of reasoned negotiation and discussion at a conference table or whether he will have to do so after bitter fighting and bloodshed.

“I think we have a very good chance of pulling off the first alternative. And we need Nelson Mandela because he represents all our genuine leaders, in prison and exile. So to call for his release is really to say, ‘please let us sit down, black and white, and work out our common future, so that we can move into this new South Africa which will be filled with justice, peace, love, righteousness, compassion and caring’.”

But what isn’t generally known is the extraordinary circumstances that preceded Tutu’s bold prophecy. His first words were in fact words of a loving priest, spoken into a situation that was trembling on the edge of violence because a handful of embittered white Zimbabwean students had chosen the highly charged occasion to heckle and hurl racially tinged insults from the upper terrace of the students union hall. Below them in the main body of the hall a massive throng of mostly black and coloured students had come to pay a rare visit to the mostly white Howard College campus to hear their heroes speak. It was a highly incendiary situation.

“Biggest event in our student political lives, by a long way”, is how Chris Swart, the student representative council (SRC) president at the time, described it as we reminisced together a few years ago.

The ‘Saint’ is in the detail

At the time Tutu was not yet the internationally revered and respected icon of peace, forgiveness, truth and reconciliation. Most white South Africans in fact despised and criticised him. The drama I witnessed on that extraordinary eventful day illustrates why the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to him four years later was so thoroughly deserved.

It was the second major public event (after the one at Wits University a few weeks before) of the Free Mandela Campaign calling for the unconditional release of Mandela. Tutu was general secretary of the South African Council of Churches at the time, which had fully endorsed the campaign.

Amplified by Qoboza’s newspaper, word of the upcoming event had travelled fast, far and wide through the media and word of mouth (no Twitter or Facebook back then). The SRC from the medical school — which in terms of apartheid policy was reserved for black, coloured and Indian students only — had mobilised their constituency to come to the “white” Howard College campus for the event, to cross the geographical, racial and political divide. 

Moreover, a boycott was under way in all so-called coloured schools which were protesting against many other apartheid injustices and indignities. The event provided an educational experience far more relevant to prepare them for life than anything in the official syllabus, which was one of the bones of contention of their boycott.

So, besides an assortment of radical, reactionary and revolutionary university students, hundreds of high school students purposefully attired in their various school uniforms had swelled the crowd to proportions never seen before (or I doubt since). The normal seating capacity of the hall was perhaps about 1 000. To say that there were some 6 000 bodies crammed into the hall is not an exaggeration.

Normally lunchtime student body meetings were greeted with general apathy from the overwhelmingly white student community on the Howard College campus. The relative unfamiliarity of now having an overwhelmingly dark skinned audience packing out every available seat and standing area was already enough to make me insecure in my role, notwithstanding my three years of experience in student politics. But the incendiary effect of a small group of embittered white Zimbabweans (and some white South African sympathisers) hurling racial insults sent the needle up the scale of my adrenaline pump from “insecurity” toward “panic”.

The Zimbabweans were understandably feeling angry because most of them had seen combat in the bitter Rhodesian guerrilla war. A few weeks before they had seen a sworn “terrorist” enemy, Robert Mugabe. become the first democratically elected black prime minister of their country.

This same historical fact was of course interpreted very differently by the throng of black visitors. They were (also very understandably) clearly not prepared to put up with any more racial abuse and oppression. Mugabe’s pre-independence electoral victory was a source of great confidence to them, and to Tutu himself, which is perhaps why he was able to make such an optimistic prediction.

Fortunately, a student leader on the otherwise ideologically and geographically separate medical school SRC (whom I only got to know by his first name, Vish) came to my rescue. As a member of an SRC affiliated to the National Union of South African Students (Nusas), I had never met him before that day because the black medical school SRC was very strongly supportive of the Black Consciousness thinking of Steve Biko, who had been a student at the medical school. 

Biko’s death in detention three years previously had served to further conscientise that student body and a strict policy of “no contact” with the “white” English speaking Nusas-affiliated campuses was enforced. This meeting was a rare exception. As deeply offended militant black students stood up with rage in their eyes intent on retaliation against the “embittered” white reactionaries, we found ourselves thrust into a situation that required us, without the benefit of any practice or rehearsal, to form a “mixed doubles” pairing to try to restrain them.

The majority of visiting black students had arrived earlier and were packed like sardines in the main body of the hall downstairs. The troublemakers, having arrived later from morning lectures, found a safe vantage point in the upper terrace to commence their bombardment of verbal taunts and heckles. Fortunately, the sheer volume of people, mostly scared looking high school learners from the coloured schools, were fortuitously packed tightly between the most strident of the antagonists of both sides, serving as a human barrier to prevent them from getting close enough to trade something more injurious than verbal insults.

From their commanding position, the Embittered hurled their racial insults from above while the Militants below struggled to retaliate. My level-headed medical student partner shielded me to prevent them from snatching the microphone while I tried to put my unfinished learning in conflict resolution to work. I could not recall anything in my social work textbooks that quite approximated the situation I found myself in. Saul Alinksy’s Rules for Radicals was the closest but even he says “the threat is usually more terrifying than the actual thing”. Not helpful when the actual thing turns out more terrifying than the threat. 

Besides the human barrier of people, the PA system was the only other advantage we had to try to calm things down above the escalating clamour. The strategy seemed to be working and I consoled myself with the knowledge that the SRC president would soon be entering the hall with Tutu and Zinzi Mandela to hopefully take able command of the situation.

But then someone intent on sabotaging the meeting switched off the electricity supply to the hall. The large hall was plunged into murky twilight. Some shafts of sunlight from a few un-curtained windows still allowed enough light in, but trying to shout above the frightening chaos was impossible. Moreover, the light was enough for the “militants” in front of the stage, prevented from using the PA system, to put into operation another way of settling their scores with the “embittered” upstairs. How permeable would the human barrier be?

Fortunately, the fear and awe-struck majority that separated the Militants from the Embittered exercised their not inconsiderable influence by preventing the Militants from moving through their composite sea of humanity.

Vish and I decided the time had come to turn to “Plan B”, which only came into existence when the switch was thrown by the anonymous saboteur moments earlier.

“We have a megaphone upstairs in the SRC offices,” I said to Vish, “let me see if I can find it.”

The human barrier thankfully proved to be just permeable enough to push my way out of the hall and upstairs to the SRC offices.

“OMG!” (Although I might have uttered a very un-Tutu like expletive). Alas, the megaphone was not in the cupboard! Moreover, there was no one around to help me find it, as they had all made their way downstairs — or so I thought. Unbeknown to me Bishop Tutu, Zinzi Mandela and Chris had entered the elevator to get to the hall two stories below. The electricity had been cut at the precise moment that the doors had closed. They were trapped in the lift.

Then I found myself running up two further flights of stairs to the deserted sports union offices, where I found the megaphone in the first office I opened. Using the megaphone to help me through the throng, I slithering and pushed my way through the seething mass of students again, to reach Vish who had been holding his ground at the podium. 

Inexperienced as I was in crowd control, while he pushed Militants off the stage (still intent on snatching the megaphone), I somehow had the presence of mind not to try to scold the Embittered as that would have simply provoked them further. While he commanded the necessary authority and respect to engage the Militants at close quarters to prevent them from making me a surrogate target for their angry retaliation, I tried to sooth things with characteristic weak jokes and other distractions. We managed to contain the situation, anxiously waiting for Tutu and Zinzi Mandela to appear — not realising that they were in fact trapped in the lift.

Fortunately, with a bit of effort they managed to force the doors open manually and were able to use the stairs to make their way to the hall, only to confront another obstacle — the throng of student’s jam packed between the entrance and the podium.

Spotting them, I announced through the megaphone “Bishop Tutu and Ms Mandela have arrived. Please make a space so they can get to the front of the hall.”

The mood began to change as the “black sea” between the podium and the entrance, hitherto impervious to the Militants, miraculously parted like another sea of another hue, in another time and place in history some 3 000 years before, (but come to think of it, in a not too different socio-political context).

Tutu, thoroughly composed and sporting the characteristic reassuring grin on his face, despite enduring a few last salvos of insults emanating from the “Embittered” in the upper terrace, took the megaphone.

“You fellows up there. I just want to tell you… We… love… you….

Not exactly the sentiment in the minds or hearts of most of us in the hall, least of all the Militants. Yet, as if to confirm the momentousness of the occasion, at the precise moment that he uttered those disarming but empowering words of love, the hall was bathed in light. Power of a more earthbound physical nature surged back through the wires, obedient to the changing tide of history. The PA system crackled back into life and Tutu was able to dispense with the megaphone, to continue with his amazingly portentous speech.

After 10 years of various struggle efforts, including 83 000 signatures on the petition, Mandela walked free.

Recalling the experience with friends who shared the extraordinary day with Tutu, I was told that when he arrived at the SRC offices the first thing he asked for was for a place for some privacy so that he could pray.

Let no one try to tell us that prayers are never answered.

There were many more occasions, even more dangerous incidents where Tutu’s intervention and mediation made the difference. He was characteristically very modest whenever he was asked to explain how he managed to handle such situations.

“There was an amazing number of people praying in the situation which released spiritual forces that carried things forward. I was the visible aspect but there was a lot more happening behind the scenes of people praying fervently,” Tutu once said.

When I asked him if the extraordinary incident described above was an accurate recollection of what happened 30 years before, he laughed. “An old man like me! My memory is getting so bad, I get up to go into a room but when I get there, I have forgotten why I went there. But the circumstances you describe are so improbable they are probably true”.

Before my book The Promise of Justice was published, I asked him if he would be willing to endorse it with a blurb.

The Arch did not lend his name to anything without prudent thought. After looking at the book he counselled me: “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, John.”

That necessitated another edit to strain out any residue of vinegar and acerbic attack against the antagonists featured in the book. I had to make sure I was being “hard on the problem and gentle on the people”, as befits a social worker and peacebuilder. Once cleansed of vinegar and laced with some honey, the Arch duly endorsed the book.

“This story reaffirms our experience during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Unless we exorcise the ghosts of the past, they will return to haunt us in the future. Let’s pray that in our Jerusalem — the cities where wealth and power are concentrated — the message from John Clarke’s ‘Road to Emmaus’ experience with the Mpondo will be heard and understood in our hearts,” he wrote.

Alas, the concentration of the power of the ANC and its systematic theft of the wealth of South Africa over the past decade has meant that even as the beloved Arch will now rest in peace, South Africa will not. Many “ghosts” of the past have returned to haunt us. They have been joined by some additional demons that have been quick to take occupation of vacated spaces.

But his prayers are still being answered.

In June 2011 Tutu told reporters in Cape Town that he would pray for the downfall of the ANC. It was in reaction to the ANC government’s failure to grant his friend the Dalai Lama a visa in time for him to participate in Tutu’s 80th birthday party because the government did not want to upset the Chinese government.

It prompted a response from Bheki Cele (then national police commissioner): “Tutu must go home and shut up. He must remember one thing: He must follow Jesus and Jesus advises all of us. He is not a vice-Jesus Christ, he is not a deputy Jesus Christ”.

I wonder what Cele has to say now, 10 years later, given the ANC’s defeats in the recent local government elections having fallen in popular support below 50% of voters.

I wonder if President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government is going to give the Dalai Lama a visa to attend his friend’s funeral?

I knew the Arch to be a truth-teller rather than a soothsayer. It was not his prediction but his prophecy that woke me up 30 years ago. He was not a talisman providing the media with idle amusement for a superstitious public. He was a true prophet who has shown me, and doubtless thousands of others, to read the “signs of the times” in the present and to interpret these within the larger movement of history and a shared sense of God’s will: a call to responsible engagement rather than fatalistic resignation. 

His focus on the future was to discern emergent terms and conditions that are shaped by current behaviour in the present. He did not escape into fatalistic resignation to a predetermined end result but instead inspired hope, notwithstanding the discomfort his words evoked among those already corrupted by power and privilege.

The verse from scripture that sums up Tutu’s life and ministry for me is from the prophet Micah.

“This, and only this, is what the Lord asks of you:

Act justly, love tenderly,

And walk humbly with your God”. (Micah 6:8)

This is an abridged and edited extract of an article first published on John GI Clarke’s Medium account and republished here with his permission.