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The funeral of Archbishop Desmond Tutu took place at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town on New Year’s Day, with the eulogists praising him mostly as a social reformer and less as a Christian pastor. That was fitting, as Tutu’s record on the former was more admirable than the latter.

It’s difficult now, more than thirty years after Nelson Mandela was released, to remember how important Archbishop Tutu was in the 1980s. With his magnetic personality, transparent goodwill, infectious humor, and inspiring rhetoric, he mesmerized crowds. He was a powerful leader when leadership was desperately needed.

In 1980, Zimbabwe—the former Rhodesia—became independent, dismantling its own form of legal racial discrimination and segregation. The future in neighboring South Africa at the time was both known and unknown. Apartheid was no longer viable. That was known. How it would be undone was unknown. 

Mandela had been imprisoned in the early 1960s as a radicalized figure open to the violent overthrow of the apartheid regime. He had been neither seen nor heard from in nearly two decades, but his wife and principal representative, Winnie, associated herself with those openly advocating violent revolution, “the armed struggle.” Would apartheid end with a bloody revolution? Would South Africa be governed by a new regime in the mode of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, or Uganda’s Idi Amin, or Zaire’s Mobuto Sese Seko?

Those questions would be answered with the 1990 release of Mandela, who emerged as a reconciling figure committed to peaceful transition and democratic norms. But until then, Tutu was the most charismatic voice denouncing the injustice of apartheid while insisting upon the moral resistance of nonviolence. Being that voice was not a matter of words alone. His obituary in The Times opened with an account of a time he risked his own life to quell mob violence:

In 1981 Desmond Tutu was addressing 15,000 furious black mourners at the funeral of Griffiths Mxenge, a civil rights lawyer who had been hacked to death by state assassins one night on a football field in Durban. As he finished speaking, a section of the crowd rounded on a man in their midst and accused him of spying for South Africa’s apartheid regime. The mourners beat the alleged “impimpi” to the ground, then produced a tyre and some petrol. They were about to “necklace” their victim when Tutu broke through their ranks, hurled himself across the man’s prostrate body and demanded that his assailants back off. Tutu, his clerical robes stained with the man’s blood, then led him to his car and drove him away.

“Necklacing” was the grisly mob “justice” reserved by activists for those considered complicit in the apartheid regime—government collaborators, informers, and black policemen. A tire would be jammed over the head and around the arms of the victim, drenched with gasoline, and set alight. Immobilized by the tire, the victim was immolated in a horrifically painful death.

“With our boxes of matches, and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country,” Winnie Mandela would say in 1986. The contrast with Tutu could not have been more clear.

Tutu was the great hope for a peaceful civil rights movement, an African Martin Luther King Jr. Could the Anglican bishop lead a nonviolent movement and keep violent forces at bay? The international community rallied to his side, awarding him the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, as it had to King exactly twenty years earlier.

At the time Tutu was secretary general of the South African Council of Churches, an ecumenical umbrella group. After the Nobel Prize, the Anglican Church in South Africa quickly elevated him, first to bishop of Johannesburg in 1985, and then as the first black archbishop of Cape Town in 1986. From that time until his death he was affectionately known to all as “the Arch,” the titular head of the Anglican Church in South Africa.

With the release of Mandela, the Arch was no longer at odds with militant forces. He was the new Mandela’s powerful ally and close collaborator from 1990 until 1994, when Mandela was elected president in the first free elections. The term that Tutu coined and made popular, a “rainbow nation” of all races, came to describe the new South Africa.

Pursuing the path of unity rather than recrimination, Mandela appointed Tutu chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), formed to acknowledge and heal the wounds of the apartheid era. It was an innovative and successful approach to national reconciliation, though Tutu himself found it a terrible burden to hear hundreds of hours of testimonies of apartheid-era brutality.

A climactic moment at the TRC was Tutu’s impassioned plea to Winnie Mandela that she repent of the violence of her associates, which she was widely believed to have endorsed, if not ordered. It took great courage to call Winnie—by then divorced from Nelson—to account. Many South Africans thought that the TRC was to expose white sins only, not black ones. For her part, Winnie refused, dismissing Tutu’s appeal as a “stunt.” That encounter made vivid Tutu’s enduring difficulties with the militant wings of the anti-apartheid movement.

Tutu could live with that, receiving attacks when he did not employ his enormous moral stature on a strictly partisan basis. He criticized the black leaders who led South Africa after Mandela, and his outspokenness was not welcome. When Mandela died in 2013, the South African government did not invite Tutu to the funeral. Once the public learned of this, the government quickly backtracked, saying that “the Arch” was in a special category that required no invitation. They were right. There was no one in South Africa who was Tutu’s peer.

The same year Mandela died, Tutu issued his most famous post-apartheid statement, chastising the Anglican Church for not blessing same-sex marriages and homosexual clergy. “I would not worship a God who is homophobic,” he said. “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say, ‘Sorry, I would much rather go to the other place.’”

In his post-TRC years, Tutu became the most famous advocate for the leftist politics of the Anglican Communion, making him a hero to the dwindling congregations in the global north, and putting him at odds with the majority of Anglican prelates in Africa. As the wisecrack about a “homophobic heaven” revealed, he was clever in public disputes but theologically shallow. He expressed frustration with Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, for attempting to uphold fidelity to biblical judgments, the Christian moral tradition, and ecclesial unity. Eventually, Tutu became a caricature of the progressive prelate, flying about the world, one private plane behind Hollywood celebrities, sprinkling holy water over whatever the latest cause was.

Tutu lived a long Christian life and now the prayer of all who admired him must be that he finds himself home in heaven and not the “other place.” South Africa could well have become a hell on earth during the 1980s, a veritable conflagration of hate and vengeance. It didn’t, and Desmond Tutu was a principal reason for that. Requiescat in pace.

Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

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Photo by Rob Bogaert via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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