When the battle against the sinister force of apartheid in South Africa which was dismantled with the emergence of black majority rule led by Madiba Nelson Mandela in 1994 is told, one name will forever remain prominent. That name is Desmond Mpilo Tutu.
Tutu initially wanted to be a medical doctor but his parents’ abject poverty threw the spanner in the works of that noble dream to save lives. He then turned his attention to the teaching profession and qualified as a teacher in 1951. He spent four years there and encountered his first brush with apartheid when in 1953 the white minority National Party introduced the Bantu Education Act which further entrenched apartheid in the teaching profession in the later to be known Rainbow Nation. Disillusioned with this, the then young Tutu and his newly married wife, Leah decided to quit the profession.
Tutu decided to become a clergyman as he saw the priesthood as a way of greatly influencing minds for good especially in the face of mounting tension in the country as a result of the evil apartheid regime which was getting more brutal by the day.
He was ordained an Anglican Priest in 1960 and in a twist of fate returned to the teaching profession after a move to East Jerusalem in 1966 where he studied Arabic and Greek before his return to the country. He was able to combine both professions effortlessly well.
He used the pulpit to air his views against apartheid and threw his weight behind the international calls for an economic boycott of South Africa as a way to dismantle the oppressive regime.
Tutu was a highly controversial figure in his lifetime who was viewed with suspicion by everybody both for and against the struggle. The militant wing of the then banned African National Congress hated him with a fiery passion since he didn’t endorse the armed struggle which they stood for. Marxists didn’t like him because of his anti Marxist position which was at variance with what they stood for. Caucasian conservatives who were pro apartheid found a common foe in him while white liberals found him too radical.
His popular interview in 1979 when he hosted some Dutch journalists where he called for an economic boycott of South Africa led to his passport being confiscated by the regime. This greatly raised his profile as a freedom fighter. When his passport was returned to him in 1981, he embarked on a tour of Europe and North America where he met some world leaders including the then United Nations Secretary-General, Kurt Waldheim, Pope John Paul II, where he called for an end to apartheid and gave a sermon in Westminster Abbey.
When he returned to South Africa, the then President Botha ordered that his passport be seized for a period of 17 months which prevented him from receiving some honourary degrees from some universities. In September 1982, he addressed the Triennial Convention of the Episcopal Church in New Orleans which received a large acclaim by both the listeners and the press.
He built a cult like followership in the United States and was often compared to the legendary Dr. Martin Luther King Jr though some of his critics in Uncle Sam dismissed him as a communist sympathizer.
He was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981, 1982 and 1983 before he finally won it in 1984. Some analysts posited that the selection committee was looking for a less controversial figure than Mandela to give the prize to. By the 1980’s his stature as a liberation figure was second only to Mandela. The white controlled white media back in South Africa heavily criticized his choice and greatly downplayed it by dismissing him as a lightweight. The award was a gargantuan plus to the struggle as it showed that there was an international endorsement for it.
The heady days of the 1980’s saw frequent violent clashes between angry and embittered black youths and the security forces. Tutu was often invited to speak at funerals and rallies where he still maintained his anti-violent stance. He used his highly influential position as the Bishop of Johannesburg which was the country’s largest diocese to lend his voice against the brutal regime of Botha. The ANC called on all black South Africans to make the country ungovernable which Botha responded with a state of emergency leading to many foreign multinationals divesting which led to a surge in the unemployment rate among the youths. He called for a strike against the apartheid regime which angered the trade unions as the latter weren’t first consulted before his pronouncement.
In 1986 he received the Martin Luther King Jr Non Violent Peace Prize and held the record of being the first Black South African to be made Bishop of both Johannesburg and Cape Town.
After apartheid was dismantled and Mandela became the first Black South African President, he was made the Head of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee between 1996 and 1998 to heal the wounds and unite the country. He ensured that there were no reprisal attacks on the Caucasians who the blacks still bore lots of hatred for.
Despite Tutu’s efforts in the anti-apartheid struggle, he was still hated by some youth members of the ANC who still saw him as a saboteur for not backing the armed struggle. They ensured that he wasn’t invited for Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013 and he had to smuggle himself in and give a speech.
He retired as the Bishop of Cape Town in 1996 but was still vocal on human rights issues from a global perspective. He lent his voice to the sturdy backing of gay rights and had a famous quote where he said: “I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this”.
I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. “No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place”.
His efforts led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the Rainbow Country in 2006 making it the first African nation to do so. One of his daughters, Mpho Andrea Tutu, a lesbian married her Dutch partner with his blessings and physical attendance. He also publicly backed euthanasia – the right to assisted dying which is still illegal in South Africa and campaigned vigorously in support of it.
His two human rights causes of gay rights and euthanasia pitched him against the conservative evangelicals who blasted him for pushing radically liberal causes that were at odds with human values. He was a darling of the liberal western media who pushed him as a living legend at par with Madiba.
He fought a good fight as a human rights activist and clergy man; we are assured of his immortality as good men never truly die.
May his soul find eternal rest after his earthly labours where he came, saw and conquered!