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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.

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