Towards the end of last year, the world lost one of its last remaining moral compasses in the person of Desmond Tutu, emeritus Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, at the ripe age of 90. Expectedly, tributes have been pouring in for the “iconic spiritual leader, anti-apartheid activist and global human rights campaigner” from all parts of the world even from those who derided him as he campaigned for and advocated for a peaceful end to the evil system of apartheid.
As the leader of South African Council of Churches and later, Archbishop of Cape Town, Tutu led the church to the forefront of the fight against apartheid and at a time when most prominent African National Congress (ANC) members were either killed, imprisoned or forced into exile, Tutu became the prominent voice for racial justice, exposing and sensitizing the world to the evils of the apartheid system while appealing to the international community to pressure the apartheid government into seek a peaceful end to white-minority rule and violence against the majority black population.
Even as the evil system of apartheid unleashed its brutality on black South Africans, he still insisted on non-violence, even when non-violence seemed to be achieving no result and the apartheid government remained intransigent. He became a sort of comforter-in-chief to the victims of apartheid while infusing them with hope. Asked why he remained committed to the non-violence philosophy even when it seemed to achieve absolutely no result, he retorted: “…my own fear is that when you unleash violence, it is very difficult to control. And as a church organization, we can never espouse violence.”
He couched his philosophy of non-violence in Christian spirituality: “We are given what St. Paul calls the Ministry of Reconciliation.”
But he was also quick to insist that the peace he seeks is not one of the graveyard, devoid of justice:
“… it must be true reconciliation, not cheap reconciliation. It is not a reconciliation that cries peace, peace, where there is no peace, which pretends that things are other than they are. And I need to say too, you know, that often when people speak about violence in South Africa, they think that it is something that is going to be introduced for the first time from outside of South Africa by those who are called terrorists. But that is not so. The South African situation is violent already, and the primary violence is the violence of the apartheid system.”
In this, he diverged from the African National Congress, who, tired of the intransigence of the apartheid government, has begun to pivot towards violence and arms struggle. In a very violent and oppressive system, his remained perhaps the only voice of hope and optimism, coupled with his trademark giggles and cackles, that seemed to calm even the most frayed of nerves. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his activism against the apartheid system and his commitment to non-violence. He became the natural choice to head the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission that sought to expose the crimes of the apartheid government.
He also coined the termed “Rainbow nation” to describe a post-apartheid South Africa at peace with itself and the world. To his last days, he continued to regret that that dream is yet to be realized.
But perhaps, Archbishop Tutu’s greatest legacy is his stubborn refusal to be subsumed into the ANC or be regarded as part of the religious wing of the foremost liberation movement. Despite his closeness and friendship with Nelson Mandela and many of the ANC stalwarts, Tutu maintained his and the church’s fierce independence from the ANC and even in the hey days of apartheid, always held the liberation movement to account sometimes, to the consternation of black South Africans.
Tutu never rested and even after black majority rule was been restored, he became one of the fiercest critics of the ANC in government, calling it out on its mismanagement of the country, even saying he would pray for its downfall.
In many ways, the Arch, as he was fondly called by most South Africans, remains a shining example to religious and spiritual leaders who now find it extremely difficult to remain apolitical or neutral especially when they seem to be pursuing the same goal. A good example is the Christian Church in the United States that has now been practically coopted into the Republican party and where religious leaders, and sadly, even Catholic Bishops (hitherto known for their strict apolitical standing) have completely thrown away any pretense to political neutrality and are now the leading the extremist wing of the Republican party, promoting hate, division and misinformation in society and turning a huge swart of the population into fanatical zombies all in the name of advancing ideological positions. In other climes, like in Nigeria, the love of lucre and identity politics have blinded most religious leaders into becoming servants of political leaders.
Tutu displayed the same courage and fierce independence when he became a leading campaigner for the dignity and respect for the rights of LGBTQ people. At a time when many religious leaders hide behind misinterpretations of scriptures to promote hate, isolation and violence against LGBTQ people, Tutu always spoke up for their rights.
“I would not worship a God who is homophobic,” he once said in 2013 at the launch of a UN-backed campaign in South Africa to promote gay rights. “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say ‘Sorry, I would much rather go to the other place”, he retorted firmly.
Fare thee well the Arch and may your likes arise hold governments and important players in society to account!