By Bunmi Makinwa
In many situations, Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu did not lack words. He would say it as he saw it and he could not care less.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – Desmond Tutu
If the quote reminds you of Wole Soyinka’s “The man dies in all who keep quiet in the face of tyranny”, then you are in good company. Tutu was a Nobel Prize Laureate for peace and Soyinka received the Nobel Prize for literature.
Tutu’s quote above is one of my most beloved representations of Tutu’s principle or philosophy of life. He did not share the view that for the sake of peace, one should let powerful people get away with wrongdoings. For Tutu, the uniformed services must not be allowed to perpetrate injustice; governments must not make the lives of their people intolerable whilst few share the wealth of the nation.
When he passed on at the age of 90 on December 26, 2021, Tutu secured his position as a historical figure against the apartheid regime in his country, South Africa. But he was much more.
He spoke, led and participated in protests and contributed to ending institutionalized racial injustice in South Africa, and he stood up for many other causes.
Borrowing the words of Martin Luther King Junior, Tutu can be described much more correctly as a drum major for justice. In many spheres and against all forms of oppression and suppression, Tutu stood tall. He combined theology and politics and broke rules and norms to affirm his stand against whatever was wrong.
Born and bred in the townships of South Africa where the black population was consigned during apartheid rule, there was the least access to education, health, public services, meaningful jobs and opportunities for growth.
In the situation, Tutu could have been just another “boy” as a driver, gardener or cleaner – the kind of jobs officially allocated to black people under the oppressive regime. In the South Africa of his time, Tutu’s entire life would be determined by his “boss” – a white man or woman – who saw nothing good in the black boy besides serving his masters. But Tutu did not allow the system to determine his future.
He got educated and ordained as a teacher and priest. After his education in theology in the United Kingdom, he took on senior teaching positions at theological schools in South Africa and universities in Lesotho and Swaziland. As time went on he had jobs that took him across European and African countries. He was Bishop and Archbishop, among many roles and he used his positions to elevate his voice in the public domain, beyond his pastoral duties.
In whatever position he was, he spoke and acted against oppression and its manifestations, including those that were not so obvious to other people.
Whilst HIV/AIDS was ravaging many countries and was especially high in South Africa, Tutu criticized the government for not adopting and using newly-available anti-retroviral drugs for treatment. He said that those who fought against apartheid “would be glad that a more realistic plan was in place but they would lament that too many died unnecessarily because of bizarre theories held on high.”
Against the prevailing public opinion and stigmatization of people living with AIDS, Tutu spoke against discrimination. He chastised the large pharmaceutical firms for blocking access to new drugs through their prohibitive costs, especially for developing countries. “People, not profits, must be at the centre of patent law for medicines,” he affirmed.
China, a giant country in all ways, does not tolerate any visibility from any country in favour of Tibet and its leader, the Dalai Lama. South Africa, swung by the weight of China refused for the second time in 2014 a visa for the Dalai Lama to visit the country. Tutu found his voice and spoke loudly: “I am ashamed to call this lickspittle bunch my government.”
South Africa overcame apartheid and became a darling country for most of the world. But internally, the political leadership was less than upright, especially when President Jacob Zuma ran the affairs of the country. Tutu was unforgiven of the government. “Mr. Zuma, you and your Government don’t represent me. You represent your interest and I am warning you… One day, we will start praying for the defeat of the ANC Government. You are disgraceful. I want to warn you. You are behaving in a way that is totally at variance with the things for which we stood.”
Tutu must have upset many leaders. It did not matter to him though. When he visited Kenya in 1988 as President of the All-Africa Conference of Churches, in his sermon he spoke about how African countries were less receptive to criticism of government and detention was common. The media blackened out his speech. “Sad and bad” was how a minister in Kenya characterized Tutu’s speech. On departure, “President Moi was not happy with me. But he still allowed me to use the VIP lounge,” Tutu observed.
In Zimbabwe, at a church conference, after then-President Mugabe had spoken, Tutu pointed out that the church would keep the government on its toes and would be the conscience of the society.
Tutu accused Prime Minister Tony Blair of the United Kingdom and President George Bush of the USA of human rights violations in Iraq. “The immorality of the United States and Great Britain’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, premised on the lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, has destabilised and polarised the world to a greater extent than any other conflict in history,” he said, adding that, “In a consistent world, those responsible for this suffering and loss of life should be treading the same path as some of their African and Asian peers who have been made to answer for their actions in the Hague.” Tutu refused to participate in a conference in Johannesburg because of Blair’s attendance.
“The so-called ordinary people, God’s favourites, are sick and tired of corruption, repression, injustice, poverty, disease and violation of their human rights,” he summarized his position.
Tutu spoke harshly about Nigeria’s dictator, General Sanni Abacha, and often criticized the Israeli government on the Palestinian issue.
Tutu and Nomalizo Leah, his wife, had four children who took up various roles and professions. One of Tutu’s daughters, Mpho Tutu van Furth, is a priest and married to a woman. She cannot serve as a priest because the South African Anglican Church forbids same-sex marriage, although it is legal in South Africa. Mpho has since left the country.
Gender norms became more nuanced especially in the North as Tutu continued his spiritual, political and social activism. LGBTQIA is a short name that covers lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual.
In Tutu’s world, human beings are essentially personalities that are inherently individual and social. No matter what sexual orientation a person has, Tutu maintained that every human person was God’s creation and loved by God. “Who am I not to love who God loves?” I heard Tutu ask repeatedly in several ways at international conferences. “I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this. I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I am as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about apartheid.”
Tutu would not be constrained by the regular norms of society or of his career as a senior church official. In full priesthood regalia, he would dance in public often with a wide smile on his face. He would weep openly in public or break down and have to be consoled and held by people around him as he did during the period he was the Chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. The horror stories of tortures, killings, disappearances and ill-treatment of families, people and young ones by agents of the apartheid government brought hot tears to his face.
He was so given to showing his emotions of joy, sadness and somberness that his key staff often wondered how and when is the appropriate time to present him with issues and events that gravely hurts the psyche.
In many ways, Tutu did not accept the usual way to view issues. He generated controversy even among many staunch Christians when he said: “If you say God is a Christian, what happens to God’s relationship with the Jews? What about devout Muslims? The Dalai Lama is a person of unquestionable holiness. I’ve experienced God in a Buddhist temple.” How open a heart he must have had.
Tutu was full of humour. At an international conference that this writer attended, Tutu told the story of how he was gifted a cap at a high military institution in the USA. The officers struggled to make the cap fit Tutu’s head. His wife, observing the almost futile efforts, lightened up the situation by saying, “Never mind, just give it to him to take away, my husband has a big head.” And Tutu said, “Just imagine it. Sometimes I can’t even have my wife on my side of things.”
Tutu never shied away from being explicit in his humour. At a speech at the University of Michigan, also in the USA, hear the mischievous Archbishop: “One day I was in San Francisco, minding my own business, as I always do when a lady came up gushing. Oh, she was so warm and she was greeting me and she said, ‘Hello, Archbishop Mandela!’ Sort of getting two for the price of one.”
In human, humane, and humorous ways, the Arch, as he was fondly called by his staff and admirers, redefined the meanings of pastoral leadership as a purposeful, lifelong, shepherding of the weak, the meek and the strong. He strove hard and longed to make living a better world.