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Tribute to the Arch: A selfless giver

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu visited Andile Primary School in Gugulethu outside Cape Town as part of a TB campaign in January 2011. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht(SAPA)

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu visited Andile Primary School in Gugulethu outside Cape Town as part of a TB campaign in January 2011. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht(SAPA)

Published Dec 28, 2021


OPINION: At a perilous time when fearless heroes and iconic role models are quite rare to come by, when greed and selfishness abound, when the few take what belongs to the majority, the Arch’s demise ends an era of truly outstanding ethical leadership that our world is in dire need of.

THE universal, spontaneous, fond remembrance of Nobel Laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu – by citizens and leaders alike in South Africa and abroad – is testimony to his committed, principled and courageous struggle for social justice and the quest to restore our common humanity. His widespread national respect saw this man of all seasons officiate at the funerals of Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe and Chris Hani.

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Recovering from polio and burns as a child, tuberculosis as a teen, diagnosed with prostate cancer in later life, he survived the apartheid system, which he abhorred. He devoted himself to social justice in South Africa and wherever else oppressive regimes brutalised their citizens. A deeply spiritual and compassionate human being, he was comfortable in his belief. Not for him the need to scream out the gospel or profess his faith. He openly embraced leaders and followers of other beliefs globally, without an iota of insecurity.

Our Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) could not have been led by anyone else. The Arch brought his unique alchemy and repertoire of talents to the TRC process, visibly affected by the horror stories he heard, appropriately showing his emotion. He was unfairly blamed for the TRC’s limitations, which were part of the political compact reached – alluded to recently by FW de Klerk – and the deliberate neglect by previous ministers of justice to bring perpetrators to book. This contributes to a lack of social cohesion and the inability to bring closure to our painful past that will continue to afflict us.

I have realised that there are three types of adults in the world, approximating to what social science calls the bell-shaped curve. On the one end are the givers, and on the opposite end are the takers. The rest of us are somewhere in between these givers and takers. While many pretend to be, the Arch is one of the fast-diminishing breed of selfless givers who expect nothing from us besides just being good to one another in the image of God as the Arch would say. Sadly, on the southern tip of the African continent, the bell shape has become increasingly skewed. The shameless takers are alarmingly growing all around us, feeling entitled and self-absorbed.

At a perilous time when fearless heroes and iconic role models are quite rare to come by, when greed and selfishness abound, when the few take what belongs to the majority, the Arch’s demise ends an era of truly outstanding ethical leadership that our world is in dire need of.

Despite this tremendous loss to all of humanity, it is appropriate to briefly reflect on some of the life and times of a remarkable human being, who meant so much to so many who not only knew him but who were otherwise touched by his tremendous contributions in various forms, beyond his theological ministry.

We in the South African Students’ Organisation (Saso) got to know him after his appointment as the Federal Theological Seminary’s first black lecturer in the late 1960s. He also served as Anglican Chaplain at the neighbouring University of Fort Hare. He ventured into Black Theology, an adjunct of Black Consciousness, that inspired generations within and beyond Saso. Black Consciousness was, for the Arch “a movement by which God, through Steve, sought to awaken in the black person a sense of his intrinsic value and worth as a child of God”.

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Among the leaders who he helped shape, and who in turn shaped him, were the University Christian Movement’s Reverend Stan Ntwasa, the Black People’s Convention’s Kenny Rachidi, our inaugural Human Rights Commission chair Reverend Barney Pityana and Bishop Ruben Phillip. I recall animated discussions with the black clergy, including some in the Anglican Synod, that often ended late at night. More began to appreciate the essential Black Theology message, of a freedom-loving Christ who fought tyranny and sought to actively change the lot of the majority.

Dispatched to Lesotho after he was not chosen as Bishop of Johannesburg, he was a thorn in the side of conservative Anglicans who wished to avoid the inevitable Africanisation of the church and their selective arrogation of the gospel in the service of apartheid instead of liberation from it. The South African Council of Churches brought him back to Johannesburg as its general secretary. He eventually did become Bishop of Johannesburg, another in his sterling list of firsts.

When PW Botha gave his 1981 Easter message praising his boys on the borders, the Arch paid “tribute to our own boys on the other side of the border”. He constantly pushed the envelope of resistance to the evils of apartheid, calling on the church to bear witness, urging sanctions, pleading for solidarity against apartheid in various countries, imbuing overseas university students and congregations to oppose the horrors we were experiencing, and inspiring ordinary people here to stop participating in their oppression and exploitation.

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A couple of months after my longest imprisonment – from September 1974 to December 1982 – I discussed the formation of a National Forum to bring together various political, religious and civic entities that were opposed to and working outside the apartheid system. The Arch agreed, requesting Thomas Manthata to represent him if he was unavailable. He made it very clear that “certain youngsters” should be avoided, lest we invite problems before we start. Another National Forum leader, Lutheran Bishop Manas Buthelezi, said “I cannot insist that I’ll only speak to someone if they accept my interpretation of the Bible.”

Tragically, the “black-on-black” violence that ensued – clearly aided and abetted by the apartheid security apparatus and its infiltrators within the liberation organisations – wreaked havoc, fomenting internecine bloodshed, dividing us against ourselves. Their trainees and converts remain, accounting for physical and character assassinations, which account for some of the evident fratricide and factionalism that beset us. Who can forget his intervention in Duduza on July 11, 1985 that prevented the burning of a man suspected of being an informer; a precursor to the horrific “necklacing” of Maki Skosana on July 20, 1985, which he denounced.

Anticipating when our meetings were likely to be contentious, the Arch would deflect this with “Let us pray!” The short prayer was enough to temper our emotions, ending with a mutually-satisfying outcome. During my doctoral studies in Boston, he thanked me for agreeing to chair the Archbishop Tutu Scholarship Fund in Hartford, Connecticut. Through him, I met the Dalai Lama. Both remain among the most serene persons I have encountered. Down to earth, unaffected, wise, good listeners, yet able to laugh at their own foibles and their characteristic finding humour in grave moments.

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At the International Congress of Psychology opening ceremony on July 22, 2012, he was given the inaugural Steve Biko Award for Psychological Liberation by Nkosinathi Biko and Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, and wowed the 6 000 delegates from 103 countries with his wit. He lent his name to many good causes, including the International Union of Psychological Science’s Achievement Against the Odds Award, of which I was the first recipient. His proclamation of the Rainbow Nation, his resurrection of Ubuntu often seem unattainable, but is a legacy worth pursuing.

The Arch influenced so many people, from all walks of life everywhere, with his incredibly warm personality and caring common touch, showing his immense appreciation of the human condition at its best and worst. His was a calling that defied the sectarian, the bigoted, the violent, stirring the conscience of those who wielded raw – often unchecked – power, pushing apartheid to its limits with his numerous campaigns for its eradication.

Similarly, he criticised the troubling signs of self-serving politicians and self-appointed prophets who promise heaven – which they reserve for themselves and their cronies – but who create hell for the rest of us.

His indefatigable fight against oppression, exploitation, injustice, discrimination, exclusion and other human rights violations in our fractured and divided world has inspired both the young and the old. He embodied the quintessential liberatory spirit, always on the side of the downtrodden, the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalised. His demise ends the era of principled anti-sectarian leaders who held all of us accountable, not least those who presume their right to lead, ignoring the consequences of being privileged to lead.

We can do worse than “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world”, realising that “we are family, that we are made for togetherness, for goodness, and for compassion.” Wish that more Tutus rise from the ashes of our beloved Arch!

* Cooper is past president of the Psychological Society of South Africa and the International Union of Psychological Science