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Memorably close encounters with Desmond Tutu

28 January 2022

Cole Moreton recalls meeting the great South African campaigner

PA Images/Alamy

Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1931-2021)

Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1931-2021)

THIS is a story about Desmond Tutu, the great South African campaigner, but it starts in Jerusalem in 1999, when this thrilling, clashing city was fully open to visitors for the moment. I was there to do a piece on pilgrimage, for a national newspaper, with a bunch of people from the Church in Wales — pilgrims of a kind I felt friendly towards, even if I didn’t share their faith any more. I knew their stories and the sacred texts. But I had lost my faith, during a difficult part of my life, a couple of years before, and I wasn’t quite sure where I stood.

The Welsh were on what they called a Living Stones pilgrimage. They would go to see the Holy Land and all the usual sites, but they would also visit fellow-believers in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. Life has not been easy for Christians in those places. It’s not been easy for anyone. So it was that we took a coach out of the city to a place two hours north, where the Bishop in Jerusalem was to celebrate communion and we were to meet Palestinians.

There were not many of us — from memory, only 30 or so — who gathered in a chapel to take the bread and wine that are, for some, the body and blood of Christ. I was there as an observer. At least, that’s what I told myself. Then the Bishop announced that he had a friend coming to speak to us, and in walked a man that some considered a living saint and I certainly saw as a hero: Desmond Tutu, Archbishop of Cape Town, hero of the struggle against apartheid, leader of the attempt to bring truth, reconciliation, and, therefore, healing to his country, against all the odds. Friend and ally of Nelson Mandela. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Blimey. The congregation received him with a joy that would only have been matched by the actual Second Coming.

TUTU was approaching 70 at this point; he looked more tired and older and smaller than I had seen him on the telly, but we later learned he was on a private visit to meet members of the Israeli government and Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority. That must have been a bit stressful. The old peacemaker was trying to work his magic here. And when he spoke, it was electrifying. Even in weariness, his voice had an intensity that lifted us, an authority that came from experience and a clarity that was thrilling.

He drew a clear parallel between the suffering of black people in South Africa under apartheid and that of the Palestinians. I wrote down what he said: “I told my people, ‘These others might think that you are nothing. They may trample on your dignity with hobnail boots, but know that God loves you with a love that will not let you go.’” Then he turned to the Bishop and said: “Our God. Your God. The same yesterday, today, for ever.”

If change could come to South Africa, he was saying, it could come anywhere, including here. I could almost believe it, in that moment. Being with him felt special. Was that because he was a wonderful human being? I wasn’t sure. He was energetic, and he had an entertaining way of chuckling, a persuasive way of jabbing the air while he was making a point, frowning for the difficult bits and breaking into a wide, winning smile. But I also had the feeling this elfin man was really quite human — and I was about to find out how true that was.

AFTERWARDS, there was a lunch with extraordinarily good food, and stories that warmed and broke the heart, as well as some lengthy and stupefying speeches. A 12-year-old girl sang a song about the lives lost during the uprising called the Intifada.

But I was actually sitting there the whole time frantically trying to remember what I knew about Tutu and what on earth I could ask him, because somehow I had managed to persuade his people that it would be OK — even a good idea — if he let me interview him. “Sure,” they said. “After the lunch. We’re driving back to Jerusalem. Come with us. Sit in the back and talk to him.”

This was astonishing. A career-defining moment for a kid who had not been on the nationals long. The chance to get a story out of a man who had been at the centre of one of the biggest stories of our time in South Africa, and who was now apparently at the centre of another, even bigger story: the Middle East peace process. More than that, on a personal level I was about to be close up with a man I really admired. I spent half the time trying to think of sensible questions and half the time panicking that I was not up to this. Not by a long shot.

And then the time came. The speeches ended. Goodbyes were said. Tutu and his people moved towards the cars. Again, from memory I think it was a black diplomatic car, of the kind you find at embassies, presumably with bullet-proof windows. The minders were in suits, with sunglasses hiding anxious eyes. They knew what was happening, though. They knew it was OK for me to be there. They knew it was all right if I opened the door of the car. They watched me get in.

I got in.

And he screamed.

He yelped, maybe. I know it was primal. I know there was panic and fear in it. I know it was a shock to find him yelling at me: “Get out! Get out of my car!” The Nobel Peace Prizewinner shouting in my face. And with good reason. Nobody had told him. He didn’t know who I was. He didn’t know what I wanted. He saw only this big, blonde stranger get in next to him, in this troubled foreign land. He must have thought he was about to die. I would have screamed, too.

I got out fast, the minders shrugged, and the car left in a hurry, without me.

Gone. Absolutely gone.

I stood there, watching the dust cloud settle again, feeling a bit stupid. Wondering what had just happened. With the connection I was longing for, the moment of humanity between us, broken in tiny pieces on the floor.

THE next time I saw him was in South Africa, 14 years later. The country was mourning the death of Mandela, and I was sent there to report. Giddy and confused and still adjusting, having been there before, but still learning, trying to find something to say about this great moment of national and international convulsion, and sorrow but also celebration. So I found myself, that Sunday, at another mass, to celebrate Mandela’s life — this time in Soweto, at the Catholic Church of Regina Mundi, Queen of the World.

A thousand people were there to remember Mandela. Some wore ANC scarves, others their own colours. The Sodality of the Immaculate Heart came in their powder-blue uniforms, looking like holy nurses. They danced to songs and hymns in English, Zulu, and Xhosa, and it was strange to be standing among them with other members of the media, wishing I could dance, too. Watching the photographers move among them, cool and dispassionate at first, thinking of nothing but getting the shot, even if it meant blocking an aisle, being in the way, focused and intent — but slowly being won over, because the music, and the dancing, and the smiles, and the tears, and the warmth, were contagious.

So, by the end, their body language had changed. They were smiling, their cameras down, letting the moment and the emotion touch them.

They’d got the shot, yes. But they’d also got the point.

This is an edited transcript from Cole Moreton’s new podcast series,
Can We Talk?, which is to be launched on 8 February 2022. Listen to an interview with Cole Moreton on the Church Times Podcast

The first series will include stories of Cole’s encounters with Scarlett Johansson, Tiger Woods, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, the Queen, and Zahra, an Afghan refugee who crossed the channel in a rubber boat on Christmas morning. Listeners will be invited to share their own stories of encounter.

Listen to an interview with Cole Moreton on the Church Times Podcast.

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