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The world has lost an international crusader for peace and reconciliation, but for SA it is much more than that. The country has lost its conscience and the North Star that had guided the nation since the 1980s.
Desmond Mpilo Tutu rose to prominence as one of the fiercest opponents to the apartheid regime. He stood up for the oppressed, urged for the release of Nelson Mandela and used his religion and gifts to connect to people to help bring an end to apartheid, which he described as “intrinsically evil”.
“The worst thing about apartheid,” he said in an interview with Bill Moyers on US network PBS, “was the way that it made you doubt that you were a child of God.
“Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality, language creates the reality it is describing. When you are called a non-European, a non-this, you might think it isn’t working on you. It is corrosive of your self-image.”
Though he supported the ANC and other liberation movements, he was a firm believer in non-violence despite bloody violations against the black population, as in the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and the Soweto uprising in 1976. For this stance and his part in opposing apartheid, Tutu was honoured with the Nobel peace prize in 1984.
In his Nobel lecture on December 11 1984, Tutu described the deepening crisis in SA and how security legislation was used to uphold the country’s draconian laws.
“We see before us a land, bereft of much justice, and therefore without peace and security. Unrest is endemic and will remain an unchanging feature of the SA scene until apartheid, the root cause of it all, is finally dismantled.”
Though his passport was revoked by the apartheid government, he managed to drum up support for the anti-apartheid movement around the world. In 1983 Tutu said: “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.”
Tutu’s belief in equal rights for all and his non-violent stance were firmly grounded in his faith. He was born in 1931 from parents who were from Xhosa and Tswana backgrounds and grew up in Sophiatown, which was eventually demolished to make way for a whites-only suburb, in Johannesburg.
His father, who was a teacher, and his mother, a domestic worker, were people of faith but his most important religious influence in childhood was Trevor Huddleston, who worked as a priest in the area. Tutu named his first child after Huddleston.
Like his father, Tutu trained as a teacher, entering college in 1950, but stopped being a teacher when the government introduced inferior education for blacks. Determined to improve the lives of his people, he began to study for the Anglican priesthood in 1956, the same year that Huddlestone was ordered to leave SA to avoid arrest. A year before that Tutu had married Nomalizo Leah Shenxane.
After a few years of parish work, Tutu was sent for postgraduate study in London, where his master’s degree was focused on Islam in Africa. This openness to learn and respect for other religions would characterise his life and prompt his friendship with the Dalai Lama.
When he returned to SA, he was appointed Anglican chaplain to the University of Fort Hare at Alice in the Eastern Cape and he also taught at the Federal Theological Seminary in the town. After teaching in SA, he returned to London for three years as the assistant director of a theological institute in London.
In 1975, he again returned to SA and became the first black person to hold the position of dean of St Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg. Tutu was the Bishop of Lesotho and of Johannesburg before being chosen as the Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986, a position he held until the end of apartheid in 1996.
Tutu rose in the ranks of the Anglican church. He was also the first black general secretary of the SA Council of Churches (SACC), a position he assumed in 1978 and used to call for non-violent resistance against apartheid. In a speech, he famously labelled the regime as “evil and unchristian” and called for equal rights for all South Africans and the repeal of apartheid laws.
Even though he was a fierce opponent of the apartheid regime, he believed in negotiation to bring an end to apartheid, and two of his books, Crying in the Wilderness and Hope and Suffering, are a passionate call for reconciliation and negotiation. In August 1980, Tutu and a delegation of church leaders and the SACC met then prime minister PW Botha and other cabinet members. It was a historic meeting as it was the first time a black leader outside the system talked with a white government leader, but nothing came of the talks as Botha firmly stuck to his line.
It was Tutu who coined the phrase Rainbow Nation for SA in the postapartheid era. In television appearances, he spoke of the Rainbow People of God, a metaphor drawn from the biblical rainbow that appeared after Noah’s flood. Like other black South Africans, Tutu voted for the first time in 1994.
President Nelson Mandela asked Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Its mandate was to document the horrors of apartheid and to sow the seeds of reconciliation between black and white South Africans.
In an interview Tutu described how he broke down on the first day but then decided he could not allow that to happen, because it wouldn’t be fair for the media to concentrate on him instead of the victims. He said he cried at home and in the church. “I was sustained by prayer,” he said.
The report he released after the commission was described as one of the most important documents of the 20th century. The message he wanted the world to take from it was: “I would hope that the world would realise that there is no situation that is non-transfigurable, that there is no situation of which we can say, ‘This is absolutely, totally devoid of hope,’ because that is what people thought of SA.”
This model of restorative justice instead of punishment for atrocities remains contested in SA and elsewhere. Tutu explained his stance on forgiveness as a moment that you abandon your right to revenge and that it opened the door of opportunity to a new beginning. “I will not let you victimise me ... I want to let go of that right and begin to work for the possibility of restoring the relationship.”
Fearless as he was in his opposition of apartheid, the archbishop was not afraid to step on the toes of former allies when he thought they were following the wrong path. When the ANC of Thabo Mbeki’s presidency tried to get a court order blocking findings of the Truth Commission report detailing that the ANC was responsible for gross violations of human rights during its time as an exiled movement, Tutu accused the ANC of “tyranny”.
He told journalists in Pretoria, “The fact that they are the majority party in government does not give them privileges. I did not fight against people who thought they were God to replace them by others.”
He openly criticised Jacob Zuma, saying he did not look forward to Zuma becoming president of the country and urged him to prove his innocence in court instead of banking on the National Prosecuting Authority to drop charges against him. In an interview on e.tv Tutu warned the ANC: “Let me tell this ANC government what I told the Afrikaner government: ‘You may have the power, but you are not God.’”
Tutu was outraged when Zuma’s government refused a visa to the Tibetan spiritual leader and his close friend the Dalai Lama to attend the Archbishop’s 80th birthday party in 2011. Visibly shaking with anger, he said he would pray for the downfall of the ANC. “Our government is worse than the apartheid government because at least you would expect it with the apartheid government,” Tutu told a press conference in Cape Town. “Our government we expect to be sensitive to the sentiments of our constitution.”
In a Mail & Guardian article in 2013, Tutu said that he would no longer be voting for the ANC, stating that SA was losing the moral high ground it had gained during its altruistic fight against apartheid. “We really need a change,” he said. “The ANC was very good at leading us in the struggle to be free from oppression. They were a good freedom-fighting unit. But it doesn’t seem to me now that a freedom-fighting unit can easily make the transition to becoming a political party.”
When Mandela died in December 2013, Tutu was not invited to the funeral. He responded only by saying he was not going to gatecrash a funeral of someone he loved and cherished.
President Cyril Ramaphosa struck a more conciliatory tone, paying tribute to Tutu on his 90th birthday in 2021 for his role in the fight for human rights, equality and social justice. In a written message to the fondly nicknamed “Arch”, Ramaphosa paid homage to Tutu for having provided “moral and ethical guidance” to the nation. “At times when we have found ourselves losing our way, you have taken us well to task,” Ramaphosa said.
The man who was a thorn in the side of the apartheid government and who was known for forgiveness and humility had a muted birthday celebration as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. He attended a special service at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, where he once held the pulpit as the country’s first black Anglican leader. A mural of him on a wall of the Rainbow Academy in Cape Town was defaced with the k-word, but was quickly restored by the artist, Brian Rolfe, who added a birthday message over the slur.
His philosophy of tolerance extended to the rights of gay people. His daughter Mpho Tutu was forced out of the priesthood for marrying a woman. Tutu said: “We struggled against apartheid because we were being blamed and made to suffer for something we could do nothing about. It is the same with homosexuality. The orientation is a given, not a matter of choice. It would be crazy for someone to choose to be gay, given the homophobia that is present.”
The archbishop never faltered in his belief that people were inherently good, saying: “Yes, there is a lot of evil in the world but there is also a lot of good. We are made for goodness.”
With his friend the Dalai Lama, Tutu had intense daily discussions on the nature of joy. Their discussions were published in The Book of Joy. The archbishop authored many books and the theme of hope, lasting happiness, forgiveness, goodness and light shone through all of them. He and Leah founded the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation in 2013 to promote learning, leadership and dialogue centred on the theme of “courage to heal”. He is the patron of many other foundations that bear his name, including the Desmond Tutu Health Foundation, which focuses on HIV/Aids, and the Tutu Foundation UK, whose mission is to prevent and resolve conflict.
This joy for living and life, despite suffering, was palpable to all who met the archbishop. SA film producer and author Barbara Fölscher Kingwill, who did several programmes with Tutu, describes him as “faultless”. The archbishop, she said, was completely centred in his own beliefs. “Tutu embodies the real spirit of ubuntu.”
The archbishop’s beliefs transcended the Christian faith. He believed in a greater commonality in belief systems than we ascribe to them, describing it as “a golden thread expressed in the maxim that one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself”.
“God,” he said, “is not Christian. Nor Jew, Muslim, Hindu ...”
Like Mandela he will be remembered and given the status of a saint by the world. It is the kind of respect and recognition that both Tutu and Mandela have not always been given in SA. Mandela’s compromises to bring peace to SA have been questioned by some of our leaders, while Tutu was ostracised by the ANC because he warned the organisation that it was taking the wrong path.
Tutu was SA’s North Star, guiding the country to the light. His joy in life and steadfast belief that good would triumph never faltered. SA has lost its moral compass, the last of the great men of the anti-apartheid era; Tutu and the values that he stood for will be sorely missed.
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.