As the Bishop of Africa departs…
By Femi Olugbile
Tomorrow, Saturday the 1st of January 2022, Bishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu will be buried in after a Funeral Mass at the St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town.
Hundreds of thousands of people from across Africa, and from across the world, would have loved to attend the event, to pay their last respects to a man, who, more than any other African in history, has used Religion as a platform for activism in the pursuit of human dignity for his people, and for all people, in a way that ultimately transcends all Religion.
He was ninety years old. For the most part, his work was done. But for as long as he was alive, he spoke out when the necessity arose, because he was Desmond Tutu, and he could do no other.
His words were not always music to the ears of the rich and powerful, and sometimes they even grated against widely held public sentiment among South Africans. He decried the corruption of Jacob Zuma and his cohorts and, without putting it in so many words, advocated that he be taken down to strengthen and preserve the institutions of the Rainbow Nation. Opposing Zuma meant drawing the ire of a wide swathe of Zulu and non-Zulu masses within and outside the African National Congress, and they robustly reviled him for his stance. It did not faze him one bit.
Zuma was not the only icon whose feathers were ruffled by the soft-spoken clergyman. Winnie Mandela, erstwhile wife of Nelson, and a popular and outspoken freedom fighter in her own right, often came under his critical gaze for her extreme views and intemperate actions. So much anger did this stance attract, especially from the large cohort of passionate young activists who regarded Winnie as ‘Mama Africa’ that anyone watching the massive funeral ceremonies laid out for Winnie after her death would have wondered if they suspected Desmond Tutu killed Winnie. From Tutu, the sole reaction was a loud silence. The truth was the truth. Even heroes were flawed human beings.
And even popularly held passions could be wrong. He loudly opposed the tendency of the masses of his country to blame other Africans for their woes, and to show hostility to them as a result. He condemned the violent spasms of xenophobic violence that erupted in several parts of the country, and the wink and not the hatred and violence seemed to enjoy from several elected officials.
Desmond Tutu professed fealty only to God, as a priest of the Anglican Church. But his understanding of the pathway to serving God was the pursuit of the highest, noblest interests of man, pushing for him to become the best that he was created to be. People often assumed he was a member of the ANC, but he was not, though he voted for it. He believed clergymen should be above partisan politics. Almost all his affiliations were within the Church.
He first met Mandela after he was released from prison. They formed a life-long bonding of souls. That did not save Mandela from Tutu’s criticism as President. He thought his penchant for the colourful ‘African’ shirts which became his trademark was unbecoming. Mandela, never one to take a blow lying down, replied that it was strange to get sartorial advice from a man who was always in a dress, referring to the Bishop’s priestly robes.
Desmond Tutu did not initiate the Peace and Reconciliation Commission, but it became his lasting legacy to his nation. It provided catharsis for people who had lived through a nightmare. He himself, as Chairman, would sometimes shed tears, as people recounted their traumatic experiences and heard the apologies of their former oppressors.
‘Do you remember the woman in the red dress?’ a man would ask the Police Chief responsible for the torture and killing of many Africans in police custody in Johannesburg, holding up her picture. ‘That was my wife’.
The policeman, in tears himself, would swallow and say
‘Yes I remember. Forgive me’.
Desmond Tutu held the balance, letting it show that though the Apartheid oppressors were vile, the ‘freedom fighters’ themselves sometimes did evil, unspeakable things. It was a balance that annoyed the ANC and many in the black majority, but it deepened the credibility of the reconciliation process, partially cauterized the wounds, and gave the rainbow nation a fresh lease of life.
Tutu was born on 7th October 1931. He was ordained as an Anglican priest. He became General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches and a major opponent of Apartheid. In 1985, he became Bishop of Johannesburg, and, later, Archbishop of Cape Town, the most senior position in the Anglican hierarchy in South Africa. He was appointed president of the All-Africa Conference of Churches. He supported non-violent anti-Apartheid protests, and his stature grew to be second only to Mandela’s. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.
Over time, his focus covered matters within and outside South Africa, including the travails of Zimbabweans under the iron hand of Robert Mugabe, the Rwandan genocide and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He courted controversy with his support for gay rights and gay marriage within the Anglican Church.
He retired as Archbishop in 1996 and presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 1996-1998. In 2007, he became Chairman of ‘The Elders’ – a group dedicated to World Peace. He criticized the ANC as good at leading the struggle against oppression but less than stellar at countering inequality, violence, and corruption. He advocated for Environmental causes and spoke up for the rights of the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar. He opposed President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in the teeth of Palestinian opposition.
Desmond Tutu, independent activist for human rights and dignity to the very end, died in Cape Town on 26th December 2021.
He proved that a religious platform could transform society beyond the confines of any religion. He provided a model for people such as Bishop Matthew Kukah to aspire to.
Many people felt he went overboard with his vocal support for gay rights and gay marriage, a matter that has led to schism in the Anglican Church.
He was a humanist, first and last.
As he is interred tomorrow, many in Africa and in the world at large would pray that his restless soul finds rest and solace, at last.