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Still speaking truth to power

05 October 2011

It is Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday. Solomuzi Mabuza pays tribute

I WAS born in Springs, a city in the East Rand, in Guateng province, South Africa.

The first incident that brought the name Desmond Tutu to my attention was the “necklacing” (setting fire to a petrol-filled tyre round a victim’s neck) of Maki Skosana, in July 1985. This young woman, who came from my township, was accused of being a sell-out — an impimpi — by her comrades, who were angry at the killing of eight young Congress of South African Students activists.

Miss Skosana’s execution was particularly brutal. What is more, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commision investigated her death, in 1998, it found that she had been falsely accused.

Dr Tutu cried aloud during Miss Skosana’s funeral. He called for a stop to such killings, and warned that he would leave the country and move overseas with his children if this type of killing continued. In contrast, necklacing was “blessed” by Winnie Mandela and many other political leaders.

Dr Tutu did not leave South Africa, as he had threatened. He stayed, and became the most influential voice to challenge the kangaroo-style justice meted out to alleged criminals and collaborators in the townships.

It was the mark of a brave leader who was willing to go against the tide and challenge fellow-Africans. If there was a man who really loved people and life at that time, it was Dr Tutu — whose middle name, Mpilo, means “life” in isiZulu.

THESE events took place during the state of emergency in South Africa. It lasted from July 1985 to 1990. President P. W. Botha had announced the Tricameral Parliament, with White, Coloured, and Indian repre­sentation. Africans were excluded entirely, and people were justifiably angry.

In September 1985, the Kairos Document was published by a group of South African theologians, based predominantly in the township of Soweto. The Kairos Document cha­llenged the Church to respond to the policies of the apartheid government. It was the first clear document to challenge apartheid as a heresy.

After the Freedom Charter — a document issued in 1955 that demanded a non-racial South Africa — there was nothing more authentic and grass-roots in South African history than the Kairos Document.

Yet Dr Tutu declined to sign it. As a cleric, he said that he could not put his signature on a document that was overtly political. His reasons are not really clear or acceptable to me; but they are yet another sign of a man with strong convictions.

DR TUTU is an enigma. He speaks his mind freely, without fear or favour. He is not known to be in favour of consultation before he makes his viewpoint known. Con­sequently, as a leader of the South African Council of Churches, he was not rated highly in democratic pro­cesses by those who worked with him.

He played a significant part, however, in articulating the concerns of the marginalised and oppressed under apartheid.

His own life was not smooth. He was offered many opportunities outside the country, by virtue of his stature and position, but, in spite of the attempts by the apartheid security apparatus to silence him, Dr Tutu did not stop doing the right thing — speaking out against the evil of apartheid, and its devastating impact on what he understood as ubuntu (a Zulu word expressing interdependence). He saw, in apartheid, a system that robbed the oppressors of their humanity.

In the eyes of the people, he was close to Nelson Mandela, who was silenced for a time by the apartheid regime. During the long years that Mr Mandela was in prison, Archbishop Tutu spoke out against the regime — and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his efforts.

If the apartheid regime could have stopped Dr Tutu from receiving his Nobel Peace Prize, it would have done. But it failed in this, as well: Dr Tutu is a man who was appointed by God to prophesy against the evil of apartheid.

When Dr Tutu enters a room, he has a similar appeal to that of Mr Mandela. His laughter and humour pierces his audience whenever he addresses matters of significance in South Africa. He maintains an ability to tell the truth in love and frankness.

Dr Tutu’s kind of candour knows no boundaries. He not only called the apartheid regime to order: ask the ANC, from Mr Mandela down to Jacob Zuma, if they did not feel the sting of Dr Tutu’s unwavering commitment to justice and equality. Not even Robert Mugabe, once a revered leader in Africa, escaped Dr Tutu’s prophetic rebuke.

And when most influential leaders were scared to address Mr Zuma during his bid to become President of the ANC, and subsequently of the Republic of South Africa, Dr Tutu was the only one who spoke without fear.

ALTHOUGH his ethnicity did not stop him from declaring what he believed was correct, some people saw Dr Tutu’s stance as an ethnic- superiority complex reflecting divisions between amaZulu and amaXhosa. This did not bother him, and he spoke his mind.

He would not keep his silence again when the ANC-led South African government refused the Dalai Lama a visa to travel to South Africa. This time, he did not find public support when he challenged the government for bowing down to diplomatic pressure from China.

On his 79th birthday, Dr Tutu announced his retirement from public life. But this has not stopped him from continuing his work for peace with justice in Palestine and elsewhere in the world.

His continued presence has made life a challenge to his immediate successors, Archbishops Njongon­kulu Ndungane and Thabo Mak­goba. But both of them have graciously embraced him, and rejoice in his special gift to the Anglican Communion and the global village.

Among the many African Anglican archbishops and bishops, Dr Tutu is the only one who has spoken clearly in favour of the humanity of homosexuals. On the occasion of his 80th birthday, he shows us as South Africans, and justice-and-peace-loving people, that our humanity is bound to each other. “I am because we are” remains one of his defining motifs.

In Dr Tutu we celebrate life, for his name’s sake: Mpilo meaning “life”. May the Lord continue to bless this man with wisdom, and help him to pass on the baton to the younger generation.

The Revd Solomuzi Mabuza is a minister in the Evangelican Lutheran Church in South Africa. He is currently working for the Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research at the School of Religion and Theology, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.

When one of his twin children suffered weight problems, shortly before birth, he named him Mpilo, after Dr Tutu, who had also had serious health difficulties as a child.

A life in brief

DESMOND TUTU was born on 7 October 1931 in Kierksdorp, in the Transvaal.

He married Nomalizo Leah Shenxane in 1955; they were to have four children.

He became a teacher in Johannesburg, but resigned in 1957, in protest against the poor conditions enforced on black students.

Influenced by an Angli­can priest from Mirfield, Fr Trevor Huddleston of the Com­mun­ity of the Resur­rection, a prominent opponent of apartheid, Dr Tutu trained for the priest­hood, and was ordained in 1960.

In 1975, he became the first black Dean of Johan­nesburg.

He grew to political and international prominence at about the time of the 1976 rebellion in black townships.

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

He became Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986.

In November 1995, the then President Mandela asked Dr Tutu to head South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

He retired from his position as Archbishop in 1996, and stood down from public life on his 79th birthday, last year.

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