Tribute to the archbishop Desmond Tutu
Rest In Peace Our Ancestor of Conscience
Moseka phofu ya gaabo ga a swe lentswe (You never give up on fighting for what is rightfully yours.)
Whenever I think of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, this Setswana idiom comes to mind. Arch was one person who, to the end of his life at 90, was willing to sacrifice everything for what he believed was rightfully his. Freedom for his people. Freedom from want. Freedom from the pain of oppression. Freedom from being discriminated against. Freedom for a people to determine their own destiny and have an international policy that does not sacrifice their independence. Freedom from pollution and litter. Freedom to be childlike and not be too serious about life. Freedom to associate. Freedom to claim your right to speak truth to power. Ultimately, we need freedom in order to be human. Go ba batho. Go nna le botho.
The Arch knew how to speak truth to power, even when it got him into trouble with friends. It was he who soon after the advent of a democratic era pushed his friend Nelson Mandela on the question of corruption. It was he who demanded a wealth tax and more effective strategies for redistributing wealth. It was he who insisted that the liberation movements should account for their own human rights abuses. It was he who presented the 2004 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, using the platform to critique a government which was failing to shift long patterns of poverty and inequality significantly, which was normalising poor governance, and which was discarding too many people. That Lecture provoked a vicious attack on Arch by a number of ANC leaders. The vulgarity of that moment is still with some of us. Respect when engaging an elder was put on the back burner and for a moment young people felt they could insult Arch as they pleased. Our country still has to do some reckoning for what transpired during that time.
Another wave of insult was directed at the Arch after the passing of Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the Arch had put a lot of pressure on her to acknowledge wrongdoing during the struggles against apartheid. There was a lot of bad feeling about this at that time which resurfaced at the passing of Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Yet, that would not stop him from the moral cultural imperative of paying his respect to her no matter what would be said or done to him. I had the opportunity to take Arch to Mama Winnie’s home in Soweto. In the car, I asked him what he thought about what was being said. I saw the pain in his eyes as he shrugged his shoulders and didn’t respond beyond that. He braved his reception at the house. I hope he and Mama Winnie get a moment on the other side to reconcile.
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The Arch’s legacy is a complex one. We do it a disservice when we portray it in reductionist terms. Yes, he did speak of a ‘rainbow nation’, but he also insisted on a just society built on pro-poor imperatives. There are still voices, for instance, arguing that he was all about forgiveness and reconciliation, even as he called for accountability and justice. Many still blame him for the failure of the TRC to achieve its objectives even in the face of the TRC’s made wide-ranging recommendations for reckoning with the past; its call for reparations and the setting up of centres of memory around the country; for the systematic prosecution of perpetrators who failed to get amnesty; and for the transformation of institutions across all sectors. What is forgotten is that these recommendations, with one or two exceptions, were never implemented by government. Indeed, the failures of the TRC are better understood as the failures of government to use the springboard it created for what many had hoped would be foundational to the transformation of South Africa as the very sphere of reparations for the benefit of the broadest population.
I remember once watching a documentary with the Arch in Cape Town and someone had dropped a cashew nut on the floor. He gently turned to a few of us who were close and said South Africans have made littering an Olympic sport. This reminded me how we long started normalising littering at the dawn of democracy under the guise of job creation; how some of us would drop a piece of paper and when asked to pick it up, the littering perpetrator rationalised that he was creating jobs. Today, I look back how a bad habit started in small ways, was tolerated until it led to environmental massive environmental degradation, but no jobs. I has become normal today to see see a family throw a box of fast foods out the window. It is a sight that drives me crazy. South Africa, the entire country, is still as much a home to be kept clean as each of our individual homes. For the Arch keeping our country clean was in inseparable part of the project of liberation.
Madiba and Arch enjoyed a good joke and liked poking fun at each other. We all remember the story Arch told us of the time he tried to give Madiba some fashion advice as a friend. He related how he tried to dissuade him from wearing his Madiba shirts, which Arch thought were not appropriate for someone in a presidential position. Madiba responded by pointing out how ironic it was to be getting advice on fashion from a man who wears a dress.
The Arch had a great sense of humour as it is well known. I remember some years ago my colleague Verne Harris and I returned a gifted Bible to Arch after it was discovered in Madiba’s gift collection during routine processing. When we told Arch about it he asked that we drop it off with him at the St George’s Cathedral coffee shop after one of his morning prayers. We didn’t know that Arch had something up his sleeve, as he always did. When we gave the Bible to him, with many people around us, he waited for an ideal moment to remind us that our boss had gone to prison for his political activism. Then he said loudly: “Now he should be arrested for stealing my Bible!” We all laughed. I was very tempted to report the matter to Madiba, just to get his response. Alas I never did!
One of the lessons I’m still learning from both the Arch and his wife Mama Leah is to always try to be present to my family, particularly for key moments such as birthdays. One day in conversation with Mama Leah, I just mentioned in passing that I had missed my wife Thembi’s birthday. She wasn’t pleased to hear that. She clearly reported the matter to Arch who then said I must make sure Thembi flies down to Cape Town for her birthday lunch or dinner. He mentioned that I wasn’t needed since I had more important things to do. As you can imagine, I invited myself to all those lunches. This, I’m still trying to get right in terms of striking a balance between work and family. Something that’s very difficult to get absolutely right. Thank you for adopting Thembi and I as your children.
One of my most special interactions with Arch was when I got seconded to the TRC to assist with the archive. Reconciliation and forgiveness are still very elusive in South Africa today. We need to keep working at it. As Arch once said: “Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth.” Our woundedness and the extent to which we are haunted by ghosts as a nation will keep hounding us for as long as we do not complete the process, and make it victim-centred. Reconciliation will be impossible for as long as we fail to confront the ghosts head on.
The passing of Arch presents us with an opportunity as a country to reflect on our woundedness and find a path towards securing accountability from those who inflicted those wounds with the hope of ultimately securing justice and building a just society. As Madiba once said: “the time for healing of the wounds has come. The moment to
bridge the chasm that divides us has come. The time to build is upon us.” We must also centre accountability. Otherwise, it will feel like victims are asked to keep giving endlessly.
It’s in our hands to help build a more reconciled and a more healed country in honour of Archbishop Tutu, our beloved Arch.
My deepest condolences to Mama Leah, her and the Arch’s children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, friends and wider South Africa. A part of us is gone with you, Arch. With your loss we have gained an ancestor of conscience and truth telling.