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Desmond Tutu, a towering figure in the history of South Africa

Former president Kgalema Motlanthe accompanied by his partner Gugu Mtshali greets Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Thanksgiving service to celebrate the life and work of Nelson Mandela held at Westminster Abbey in 2014. File picture: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS

Former president Kgalema Motlanthe accompanied by his partner Gugu Mtshali greets Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Thanksgiving service to celebrate the life and work of Nelson Mandela held at Westminster Abbey in 2014. File picture: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS

Published Dec 31, 2021


By Kgalema Motlanthe

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu’s passing has robbed South Africa, the continent, and the world of an icon of rectitude, a reservoir of wisdom, a spiritual leader and a moral compass. The Arch, as he was affectionately known, had a strong aversion to social conflict while embodying a deep sense of justice.

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The qualities propelled him to the forefront of the fight against the pernicious system of apartheid and injustice wherever it reared its head.

While advocating for peace, he recognised it was unattainable without social justice, for which he campaigned vigorously.

The apartheid regime pulled all stops to no avail to silence him, arguably because he consistently chipped away at the cornerstone of the racist doctrine of a God-ordained hierarchy of races.

Archbishop Emeritus Tutu believed that all human beings were made in the image of God and, therefore, any theology that preached segregation based on race was heresy.

Archbishop Emeritus Tutu was at the forefront of the battles our people waged on other fronts, notably mass mobilisation and international solidarity work, two of the four pillars of the struggle that included armed struggle and underground organisation.

He helped to form the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983 and became its patron. With the Arch in the forefront, the organisation ushered in a period of rolling mass action of labour strikes, consumer boycotts, and other protests.

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The mobilisation of the masses contributed largely to making the apartheid regime finally realise that it was gradually losing control of the country.

The Arch played a cardinal role in convincing the international community to impose sanctions on South Africa and for foreign companies to disinvest from the country.

The campaign led to significant capital flight and forced the apartheid regime to the negotiating table with the liberation movement—an aim that the Arch had single-mindedly pursued for over two decades. He correctly believed that dialogue was the only solution to the political quagmire that South Africa found itself. He embodied peace, and this quality did not escape the international community’s attention.

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Archbishop Emeritus Tutu belongs to an assemblage — together with Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk — one of only four South Africans to have been awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.

He stood for peace and non-violence in pursuit of political goals but still understood why the liberation movement had deemed it necessary to go the armed struggle route in the early 1960s. Because of an understanding that non-violent tactics had delivered little change and had been met with brutality, he would testify for Umkhonto we Sizwe operatives in 1984.

As South Africans, we must never forget Archbishop Emeritus Tutu’s role in delivering the non-racial democracy we today enjoy. When the country teetered on the brink of a race war in 1993 following the assassination of Comrade Chris Hani, the Arch stepped up to the plate to cool tempers and remind us all of our joint destiny as South Africans. He famously declared: “We are the rainbow people of God! We are marching to freedom! Black and white together.”

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The Arch assisted South Africa to navigate a fraught terrain of race relations through fostering reconciliation and social cohesion. He led the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with aplomb, exposing the extent of the human rights abuses the apartheid regime visited on many those who resisted racial oppression and dared to speak of freedom. The ideals of reconciliation and social cohesion that he held dear are yet to be achieved; however, he and his illustrious generation have laid a solid basis on which we could build.

Archbishop Emeritus Tutu did not limit his activism to South Africa but was an internationalist interested in social justice and resolving conflicts worldwide. He spoke vehemently against discrimination based on sexual orientation, keeping with his belief that all human beings were created in God’s image. The Arch took a keen interest in resolving conflicts in faraway polities including Palestine, Tibet and Northern Ireland. While his outspokenness did not endear him to some, he was not one to remain silent in the face of wrong.

Archbishop Emeritus Tutu would not even mollycoddle the post-apartheid government he fought so hard to bring about. Whenever he identified wrong, he would not hesitate to speak out. He spoke truth to power. The Arch possessed moral authority that few could match and which he earned because of a long record of commitment to justice.

He will undoubtedly remain a towering figure in the history of South Africa alongside luminaries such as Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu.

While the loss of a man of his calibre would naturally elicit shock and sadness, let us all take comfort in and celebrate the fact that he has bequeathed South Africa and the world a template of uprightness, responsible citizenship and selflessness. I send my heartfelt condolences to his wife, Leah Tutu, and his children and broader family.

My thoughts and prayers are with them during this sombre moment.

*Mr Motlanthe is the former President of South Africa

** The views expressed here may not be that of IOL.