*** DEBUG END ***

Paul Vallely: Tutu’s legacy belongs to the future

31 December 2021

He combined conviction with political pragmatism, declares Paul Vallely


Archbishop Tutu hands over the final report of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the country’s then President, Thabo Mbeki, at the Union Building in Pretoria, in March 2003

Archbishop Tutu hands over the final report of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the country’s then President, Thabo Mbeki, ...

THERE is something fitting about the fact that the funeral of Archbishop Desmond Tutu will take place on the first day of the new year; for, although he is one of the great church leaders of the past century, his life story speaks to us as much of the future as of the past.

His place in the history books is, of course, assured. During South Africa’s turbulent transition from apartheid to democracy — throughout the pivotal years in which the leaders of that country’s black community were all in prison or in exile abroad — the first black cleric to be appointed Archbishop of Cape Town became the voice of a voiceless people.

It was his deep personal faith which made him so effective in that post. His passion was rooted in a sense of religious righteousness, which was abundantly evident in his public rhetoric. It was tempered by a canny political pragmatism which made that righteousness bear fruit.

There was a telling example of this in the moving tribute to Tutu on Radio 4 this week. In it, the former General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, Brigalia Bam, revealed that, at one point, during a meeting with the white government, Archbishop Tutu suddenly set aside the cold language of diplomacy and cried out: “Why are you making us suffer in this way?”

The white Prime Minister, F. W. de Klerk, replied: “Since you speak that way, I will also speak to you from my heart: We are afraid of a change because we think that black people will revenge.” Tutu replied: “I promise you, our people can never revenge, because our people have not lost their humanity.”

It was a bold and even reckless promise. But Desmond Tutu was a pragmatist as well as an impassioned rhetorician. This, after all, was the man who, in the teeth of the opposition of politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, met privately with Western bankers and persuaded them to throw their weight behind the economic sanctions against South Africa, which were eventually instrumental in bringing about the overthrow of apartheid.

He conceived a practical device to deliver on his promise to de Klerk: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He chaired a series of long and fraught hearings across the country, scrutinising decades of human-rights abuses — and then offered amnesty to perpetrators who admitted to crimes that were deemed to have had a political purpose. This restorative rather than retributive justice provided a model for the end of conflicts elsewhere.

Not all the victims of apartheid were happy with the approach, seeing it as a denial of true justice. But, for Tutu, primacy had to be allocated to forgiveness. We must not allow ourselves to hate our enemies, he once said. Apartheid, he preached, was as dehumanising to the oppressors as it was to the oppressed. When some African leaders proved as corrupt as the white leaders whom they had replaced, he was unstinting in his condemnation of them, too.

A beacon of fearless conviction, personal integrity, and religious authenticity, Tutu does not simply tell us a story about the past. He offers us a lesson for the future.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)