A Fearless Beacon of Moral Justice: Remembering Desmond Tutu
Nelson Mandela, who was freed from prison on February 2, 1990 was shocked by the number of people who greeted him as he left Victor Verster Prison in Cape Town. He walked out, gave the fist salute and then got in a car for the Grand Parade in Cape Town. This was where he would give his first speech as an unrestricted man. The driver became upset at the noise and began driving recklessly. Twenty minutes later, with the eyes of the world upon him, and a 100,000 people waiting to hear him, the planet’s most famous freedom fighter was lost. .
Mandela shared this tale with me in 1993, when we were both working on Mandela’s autobiography. Mandela said that he calmed the driver and got him to pull over at the home of an ANC member outside the town. But then he wasn’t sure what to do. “Whilst we were there,” Mandela said to me, “Tutu phones and said, ‘Man, you must come immediately to the town hall because the people are going to rebel if you are not here!’ So I went.” Mandela recalled this with a smile and a laugh, but he always listened seriously to the man everyone called The Arch. After his speech that day, Mandela spent his first night of freedom at Tutu’s home at Bishops Court in Cape Town. “He is one of my heroes,” Mandela told me, and meant it.
Desmond Mpilo Tutu was a fiery hero in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid. His parents were a child of a household servant and a schoolteacher. He became the Head of the Anglican church in South Africa. A tireless campaigner against apartheid, he is remembered as a courageous and determined man. Martin Luther King Jr. once described himself as a “drum major” for justice—Tutu described himself as a “rabble-rouser” of righteousness. He is one of the handful of those who can be called South Africa’s greatest generation: Mandela, Sisulu, Tambo, Kathrada, and Tutu. He was a powerful and fearless beacon of moral justice and perhaps the most spellbinding speaker I’ve ever seen. His voice could range from shouts of joy to loud squeals, and from laughter to deep moral righteousness. When the spirit moved him—which was often—he would do a Hobbit-like dance on stage. I’d never really understood the phrase “infectious laughter” until I heard him speak. He had a singular goal: To mobilize people to fight injustice, but also towards forgiveness and love. Even in the face of such injustices and despair, Tutu never lost faith and was able to encourage others. Tutu said that although there may not be an atheist living in Foxholes (as the old saying goes), there was very little in the audience.
When I was in South Africa in 1980 to research apartheid, I met Bishop Tutu for the first time. I didn’t spend too much time with him again until my work with Mandela. At that time, I would often sit with him and watch Mandela speak. Once, I made a joke with him about telling Mandela that Tutu was a better speaker than him. Tutu laughed—but he saw his role as one of Mandela’s apostles. Tutu had a unique understanding of Mandela. Tutu once stated that jail can either make people more difficult and bitter or make them stronger and, paradoxically enough, more compassionate. He said that’s what happened to Nelson Mandela. He was correct. As part of the TIME/ Fortune CEO summit, I conducted a interview with Tutu in Cape Town at the 2010 World Cup. We spoke before going on stage, and even though the Arch was already suffering from the cancer that would eventually take his life, his only questions for me were about Mandela’s health.
Tutu declared that Mandela could be happy now, the day he released him from prison. The baton had been with him for over a decade, before he handed it to Mandela. Tutu, who was still in prison and South Africa was full of violence and anti-apartheid protest, was the symbol of resistance during the 1980s. He was 5’4” tall and spindly, but he would skip up the steps to the stage in his magenta shirt with the white collar while ranks of white policemen with automatic weapons looked on. Although he was scared, he knew he couldn’t help but to do so. He was detained in 1980 and called for sanctions to be applied against the apartheid white government. However, this did not make him a favorite of the white National Party. He stood firm against any violence from either the White government against Black protesters or Black protesters against blacks, as well as from those from their ranks who they considered traitors. Sometimes, in the 80s and the 90s, he would dive into angry Black protestors to help someone who was being attacked as a spy. At the gigantic funeral for the victims of the Boipatang Massacre in 1992—when government security forces killed more than 40 people—Tutu turned the crowd’s anger into prayer. “We hate violence from whatever quarter,” he said.
Mandela made it a point to distinguish between those who believe in nonviolence as an ideology and people who practice it. For the latter, Mandela included Gandhi and Tutu. When a teenager, he supported peaceful protest but he decided to give up when he realized it wasn’t going to lead him to freedom. He admired people like Tutu, who refused to give up violence. Tutu, for his part, understood Mandela’s own embrace of violence and would not criticize him for it. “I am a man of peace,” Tutu said, “but not a pacifist.”
In 1984, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to him. This is a remarkable moment of foresight by the Nobel Committee in Sweden. He was protected and had a worldwide platform. It was used by him. That same year, he bluntly criticized President Ronald Reagan’s so-called policy of “constructive engagement” with the white apartheid regime. In a letter to the U.S. Congress he wrote, “You are either on the side of the oppressed or on the side of the oppressor. You can’t be neutral.” He never was.
Tutu repeatedly stated that he wasn’t a politician. He was, however, very political. Mandela made Tutu president of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1994. It was a tribunal that tried to end apartheid. Tutu handled this tricky territory with grace. Tutu could be seen weeping at times during televised sessions, where Black mothers spoke out about their child’s murder and former white security officers confessed to the same horrible crimes. Tutu knew that the Commission was not about punishment or revenge. “Without forgiveness,” he said at the time, “there is no future.” The Commission’s final report was an indictment of the apartheid regimes horrors, but it also included a section that criticized the ANC for human rights violations. The ANC, now in power, attempted to block the report’s release. Tutu refused to acknowledge it. “I didn’t struggle in order to remove one set of those who thought they were tin gods,” he said, “to replace them with others who are tempted to think they are.”
Tutu saw injustice everywhere he looked. He criticized Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki for ignoring the AIDS crisis. He criticized Mbeki’s successor, Jacob Zuma, for corruption, calling his rule “disgraceful.” He criticized Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe for oppressing his own people. He criticized the African Anglican Church’s refusal to endorse gay priests and same-sex marriage, saying “I would not worship a god who is homophobic.” He hated only one thing: injustice. More than anyone I’ve ever seen, he seemed truly touched by God. He dubbed South Africa the “rainbow nation of God” because he said it was a model for the rest of the world. He seemed to enjoy the idea of leaving this world in the final years. He was last interviewed by the Associated Press to discuss his obituary. Here’s what he said: “He loved. He smiled. He wept. He was forgiven. He forgave.” Amen.