With sheer honesty, integrity and humour, he transformed the world
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OPINION: He was a voice of the voiceless – since no other opposition leader could speak directly, because they were all banned or imprisoned. He rallied a people’s movement and the world behind the anti-apartheid Struggle in a way that made him the stand-out prophet of the age.
by Chris Chivers
This phrase was part of the last email I received from Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
It was written in response to some news that I’d shared with him about one of our sons who he affectionately referred to as his “high fivers”, since that’s how they’d got to know each other by simply exchanging high fives.
It was utterly typical of the most euphoric Christian I’ve ever known.
The archbishop and I met in person shortly after South Africa transitioned into democracy and was restored to the Commonwealth. It was at a service in Westminster Abbey in 1994 where the Arch had preached at his most irrepressible.
I doubt those present anticipated that there would be so much laughter. For years, the Arch would joke that I had tried to upstage him on this occasion as a photograph of him dancing outside the abbey with the former dean, Michael Mayne, appeared in every South African embassy and High Commission for several years.
He'd say: “You threw me completely off my step in front of the camera and ruined my dancing and the photograph!”
Several years later, when he was again preaching at the abbey for his own hero’s Thanksgiving service, he asked: “Have you come to upstage me again?” turning from the two distinguished women with whom he was speaking just to chat with me for about 10 minutes.
It was only at this point that he turned back to the two women and said: “Oh Chris, do meet the queen of Denmark and the queen of Spain!”
He was always eminently interruptible – which was doubtless a nightmare for his personal assistants and chaplains. For him, God was always revealed in the minute particulars of human interaction and pastoral encounters.
He had seemingly infinite time for people. When he was with you, he had that rare gift not simply of making you believe that you were the only person he wanted to talk to, but of actually making this a reality.
He attended to people with infinite Christlike patience and rapt attention, and was as happy speaking to world leaders as he was with a street-child on the steps of the beloved People’s Cathedral.
He could never, however, be diverted from his God-given mission to defeat injustice wherever it was encountered.
From the time, he came to prominence as Dean of Johannesburg in a feisty exchange of letters on the evils of apartheid with apartheid Prime Minister John Vorster.
In the years he spent heading the South African Council of Churches he was hounded, people so often forget, by the security police at every turn. This continued right up to his years as Bishop of Johannesburg and later Archbishop of Cape Town.
He was a voice of the voiceless – since no other opposition leader could speak directly, because they were all banned or imprisoned. He rallied a people’s movement and the world behind the anti-apartheid Struggle in a way that made him the stand-out prophet of the age.
No one who ever heard him speak during the 1980s could doubt his righteous anger, his terse condemnatory tones, his absolute abhorrence of the utterly indefensible racism of which he and his fellow South Africans were all victims.
But equally, the seeds were already being sown in this still controversial but “essence of Tutu” recognition that all South Africans were apartheid’s victims. For him, this of course never meant that white South Africans had suffered in the same way that the majority had suffered under apartheid.
The suggestion by some that he was – like his close friend Madiba – some sort of sell-out and in thrall to a whites-driven agenda simply flies in the face of reality. His ideology was premised on a South Africa embracing all ethnicities that could do justice to the divine reality in Christ. That the there can “never be Greek nor Jew, nor slave nor free, but all as a new creation”.
This was axiomatic for him as a Christian and aligned with his and Madiba’s pragmatic recognition that to ensure civil war did not engulf South Africa, a negotiated way forward for all ethnic groups was the only answer to the horrors of apartheid. Those who with hindsight suggest there were other solutions are simply flying in the face of reality.
In this, the Arch, whose stance had already in 1984 been recognised through the award of the Nobel Peace Prize, always sought to transcend anger with its source: the perfect love that casts out fear.
Like Aaron in the book of Numbers and taking his incense burner – Tutu was always by instinct an Anglo-Catholic incarnationalist – he ran into the middle of the plague, the scourge of apartheid that was tearing his people apart, stood between the living and the dead, and at length the plague ceased.
When, for instance, on the death of Madiba he was asked to preach at a thanksgiving service in Westminster Abbey, and I pointed out that the South African High Commission was not allowing the use of Afrikaans anywhere in the service, he was emphatic in asserting that this was against everything Madiba stood for.
In a master stroke he thus began his sermon: “In die naam van die Vader, en op die Seun, en van die Heilige Gees.”
In all of this, humour was never far away. He could indeed be extremely naughty.
Spotting a tiresome former apartheid cabinet minister when I was chatting with him in the cathedral car park, he remarked somewhat laconically: “Time, I suppose, to smile with old foes.”
He simply never gave up on people.
He was one of the only Christians I’ve ever met who actually practised the forgiveness he preached – something all too few Christians seem to manage.
He was a person who made of himself a lightning conductor for such pain and saw the hints of a rainbow emerge during the storm itself, and dared to chase the end of this rainbow because it heralded the dawn of hope itself.
Such is the reality of what we have lost. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.
* Chivers was formerly Canon Precentor of St George’s Cathedral Cape Town and now teaches at UCL Academy, London