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Remembering Desmond Tutu: Advocate of racial justice and non-violence

Written By | Dec 28, 2021
Death, South Africa, Apartheid

Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s apostle of racial justice and reconciliation, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his struggle against apartheid, has died at the age of 90.

After the fall of apartheid, Archbishop Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that sought to heal the wounds of the apartheid era. The archbishop became an international spokesman for human rights around the world.

He explained his devotion to social justice in religious terms, saying that his Christian faith demanded that he speak out for the oppressed.

His decision to become an Anglican priest was in part the inspiration of Bishop Trevor Huddleston.  The Bishop that one day tips his hat to Tutu’s mother while passing her on the street.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Tutu once told Washington Post journalist Steven Mufson for the book “Fighting Years: Black Resistancd and the Struggle for a New South Africa,” “a white man who greeted a black working-class woman”.

Huddleston, a vocal opponent of apartheid became Tutu’s spiritual mentor as well

John Allen, a white South African journalist who later became Tutu’s official biographer, recalled that during the years of apartheid,

“Tutu was the devil incarnate. Literally, one of our family friends said that ‘He was the embodiment of evil,’ and the hatred was just extraordinary. It was an era when the leadership of the liberation movements was banned, jailed or in exile, and here was this person saying what most black South Africans felt.

Tutu really was Public Enemy Number One. When Mandela was out of sight, out of mind. He had this extraordinary power to communicate. He would not honey his words so as not to offend white Anglicans.”

Peter Storey, who led South Africa’s powerful Council of Churches, recalls that,

“Tutu wasn’t a front for political movements. I think that’s what gave him his moral and spiritual freedom. It made him very powerful because he was up against an apartheid government that wrapped itself in the church…And yet here was this black Anglican, able to hit the regime at one of their most vulnerable points.

Desmond could point out to them—-if you claim to be Christian, how can you possibly treat my people like this? This is why he was such an irritant to them.”

Frank Chicane, a prominent liberation leader, who was poisoned and nearly killed by the same apartheid security forces that also looked for ways to silence Tutu, said,

“Tutu was the face of the liberation struggle. The voice of the people, he was a key prophetic voice. But he was nonviolent from beginning to end.”

Peter Storey notes that,

“Tutu had the ability to channel people’s anger, and then the ability to say, ‘We are better than those people who are up against us. We don’t have to be like them.’

And he would use humor at times like that.

At the very darkest moments, you would hear this dimunitive bishop stand up and say to the regime, ‘Why don’t you join the winning side before it’s too late?’ And people would laugh. But they would also know he was telling the truth because he was so utterly convinced that justice would prevail.”

Tutu’s sense of humor did serve him well.  In 1984, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, he couldn’t resist telling a joke:

“A Zambian boasts about his country’s minister for naval affairs to a South African, who points out disparagingly that landlocked Zambia has no navy. The Zambian replies, “Well, in South Africa you have a minister of justice, don’t you.”

In the aftermath of South Africa’s first democratic elections and the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under Tutu’s leadership, to look into the crimes of the apartheid era, those working closely with Tutu often saw his tears.

Peter Storey states:

“We needed a healer. Tutu became the nation’s pastor and helped us navigate that road to healing.”

In more recent years, Tutu became fiercely critical of the African National Congress’s failures in government, in particular its slide towards corruption.

At one point he said to a friend,

“You know, we understand human nature. And so we shouldn’t be surprised. But we are called upon to be very, very sad.”

Tutu criticized those who violated human rights in various parts of the world, such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

He was particularly concerned with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. In a speech in Boston in 2002, he told his audience:

“In our own struggle against apartheid, the great supporters were Jewish people. They almost instinctively had to be on the side of the disenfranchised, of the voiceless ones, fighting injustice, oppression, and evil.

I have continued to feel strongly with the Jews. I am a patron of a Holocaust center in South Africa. I believe Israel has a right to secure borders. What is not so understandable, not justified, is what it did to another people to guarantee its existence.

I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young police officers prevented us from moving about.”

Tutu recalling that,

“On one of my visits to the Holy Land, I drove to a church with the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem. I could hear tears in his voice as he pointed to Jewish settlements. I thought of the desire of Israelis for security, but what of the Palestinians who have lost their land and homes?

I have experienced Palestinians pointing to what were their homes, now occupied by Jewish Israelis….my heartaches. I say why are our memories so short. Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, the home demolitions in their own history so soon? Have they turned their backs on their profound and noble religious traditions? Have they forgotten that God cares deeply about the downtrodden?”

In Tutu’s view,

“Israel will never get true security and safety through oppressing another people. True peace can ultimately be built only upon justice. We in South Africa had a relatively peaceful transition. If our madness could end as it did, it must be possible to do the same everywhere else in the world.

If peace could come to South Africa, surely it can come to the Holy Land, somehow, the Israeli government is placed on a pedestal…and to criticize it is to be immediately dubbed anti-Semitic. I am not even anti-white despite the madness of that group.

And how did it come about that Israel was collaborating with the apartheid government on security measures? We should put out a clarion call to the government of the people of Israel, to the Palestinian people, and say: peace is possible, peace based on justice is possible.

We will do all we can to assist you to achieve this peace because it is God’s dream and you will be able to live together amicably as brothers and sisters.”

During the years of apartheid, I spent time in South Africa and, in addition to writing my syndicated column, wrote from Washington for newspapers in South Africa, including Die Burger in Cape Town and Beeld in Johannesburg.

I regret that I did not have a chance to meet Desmond Tutu during those years. He was an enormous influence for good in South Africa and helped to advance its peaceful transition to democracy.

He never hesitated to criticize those forces which stood in the way of progress, whether they were black or white.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu led an extraordinary life. Many will miss him in South Africa and throughout the world.


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Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.