Last Saturday, the entire universe paused to bid farewell to a truly extraordinary man – Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu. Time stood still.
South Africa must have woken up last Saturday morning feeling quite literally that “asiphelelanga” (we are not complete). Indeed, the absence of Tutu is a glaring deficit. Yet the Arch, as he was fondly known, left us with none like himself. Who can blame him? The fact is, they don’t make them like the Arch anymore!
Tutu was a no-nonsense cleric who used the pulpit to decry the evils of apartheid and its related racial discriminatory by-laws. This has been said over and over again since the Arch passed on a fortnight ago, but it is worth repeating: He was a thorn in the flesh of the apartheid regime.
The Nationalist Party (Nats) spent many sleepless nights over Tutu’s mobilisation efforts against the abominable white minority regime. Best at killing opponents, the Nats found their match in Tutu. In the end, they never knew what to do with him or how to deal with the fiery man of the cloth.
At every opportunity, particularly throughout the turbulent 1980s, Tutu dared the apartheid authorities to jail him. And they lacked the courage to do so, as they did with many others – evidently frightened by the certainty of a backlash at home and abroad.
The masses of the oppressed people, “We Blacks” – to borrow from Steve Biko’s seminal I Write What I Like, were hell-bent behind their much-loved Arch. The international community, through the World Council of Churches, were right behind the Arch. In Soweto, Kwa-Mashu, Langa, Mthatha, Kimberly – everywhere in South Africa, Tutu had become a rallying centre of gravity against the mighty apartheid regime.
He was fearless in his public condemnation of the apartheid government and stuck to his guns like a determined revolutionary. He campaigned for the release of Mandela and other political prisoners, mobilised punitive sanctions against the country in response to the intransigence of the regime, and every time the regime complained about his behaviour, he dared them, often saying: “Arrest me.”
They couldn’t lock up the firebrand clergy. He had become a phenomenon. A mesomorph body type – medium-built, yet muscular, Tutu was a religious and political hurricane who relentlessly spat venom to the “System”, as we called the apartheid regime.
I stress religious, because he challenged the Anglicans and the Church’s traditional meek approach to decrying injustices. And political, because albeit reluctantly, he filled the void left by liberation leaders who were incarcerated on Robben Island, killed at John Vorster Square, Vlakplaas, etc., and others were in exile or mysteriously missing. Many still unaccounted for to this day!
PW Botha, apartheid’s Mr Go-to-Hell, was visibly exasperated with Tutu’s penchant to refuse to remain silent. Like many apartheid masterminds before Botha, others like John Vorster and later the FW De Klerk and his generation criticised Tutu for misleading the people “by mixing religion with politics”.
But their argument fell on Tutu’s deaf ears. Using many analogies, Tutu once opined that if an elephant is fighting with a mouse, and you choose a neutral stance, the mouse knows exactly which side you are on, to paraphrase the Arch.
He was born to lead, this Tutu. He rose through the Church’s hierarchy until the very summit of the hierarchical structure. Through it all, he used his position to speak for the weak against the powerful. He knew and taught his followers that evil can never triumph over good, no matter how long it takes.
President Cyril Ramaphosa described Tutu aptly as a “patriot without equal” and ordered a seven-day national mourning period amid lowered flags kept at half-mast for the seven days duration of the mourning period, which ended on the day of his final send-off.
Elsewhere in the world, Buckingham Palace in London is expected to announce within the next 90 days an official memorial service for Tutu, a Man of the Cloth, par excellence. Across major cities, towns and villages throughout the world, memorial services had been held in Tutu’s honour.
Such was, and still is to the end, the stature of the Klerksdorp-born cleric who spent his extraordinary life disturbing the comfort and peace of sinners at the Union Buildings or wherever they could be found. To him, God, and only God, had the supreme authority and no man, no matter how powerful or colour of his skin, could lay a claim over the freedom and liberty of another man.
I have known the Arch as Bishop Tutu during the turbulent 1980s in Soweto as a vexatious nuisance clomping through apartheid’s rarefied atmosphere. As young activists across political persuasions, he gave us encouragement to face the might of the military state, and through his unwavering campaign for equality before the law, enhanced our collective resolve to fight on regardless of the constant killing of our comrades by apartheid’s henchmen.
I got to meet and for a while lived very closely with the Arch at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in the US in 1999.
I had been sent to Emory on a half-yearly fellowship by my Johannesburg-based influential publication, The Sunday Independent, and Eureka! On arrival, one found Desmond Mpilo Tutu on campus. He was on a year-long fellowship, teaching politics and religion. His classes were hugely popular around the campus, and his presence raised the stature of Emory as a university of choice not only in the sprawling South but across the entire US.
The Arch got to know me closer to such an extent that through his trusted aide, John Allen, I became privileged to visit his home to attend very private daily morning services of Mass, or Holy Eucharist, an important sacrament in the Anglican life that is sometimes used interchangeably as the Holy Communion commemorating the Last Supper through bread and wine that is consecrated and consumed.
Allen was the head of the Arch’s office at Emory and later wrote a biography of the Arch and edited a number of Tutu's other works.
The Arch's daughter, Mpho, sometimes, whenever around, joined us in the morning devotional prayers. She was training to become a priest herself at the time when the Anglican Church itself was grappling with whether to ordain women to the priesthood. She had to be the Arch’s daughter, I thought to myself – breaking with tradition and swimming - as her father had done for so long, against the tide. No wonder the Arch once famously said: “I don’t pray a homophobic God”.
He was a man of his word. I used to sit in the Arch’s home services, quietly thanking God for the rare opportunity to attend private prayer sessions with the very Archbishop Tutu, a childhood hero, a true son of the soil who has lived his entire life dedicating it to the service of mankind, or humanity.
He would read through the Anglican Prayer Book attentively and intimately, saying out loudly the words in the Liturgy within the confines of a modest room regardless of how few we were that we could be counted on the fingers of one hand. I’d observe the daily Mass services with awe and admiration, often reminded about just how Tutu gave true meaning to the Biblical words in Matthew chapter 18 verse 20 where it reads: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
As an Anglican myself, I never took for granted the amazing privilege of spending exclusive and memorably valuable time with the Arch and his inner circle. To be with him was undoubtedly to be in the very presence of greatness, for sure.
Over the weekends, John Allen would be so kind as to invite me to join him and the Arch for leisure or, to use today’s lingua franca, “to chill”.
That exposed me to Archbishop Tutu’s other side, a side of him generally unknown. He was a friend, brother, father and a wonderful mate to hang around with. We would watch sports, particularly rugby, on the international channel. To be honest, I wasn’t a rugby fan and actually harboured my private disdain for openly supporting the Springboks.
But how could I reveal such a disposition amid the Arch screaming at the top of his voice whilst watching the Springboks play against Australia: “Gaan Bokke! Kom, Kom man”, the Arch would say while gently sipping his Rum and Coke and me imbibing my cold beer.
And then, I made time to attend one of the Arch’s popular classes on Emory campus. The lecture hall was packed to the rafters. White, African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics – you name them, everybody attended the Arch’s classes, including some academic staff.
One student raised a hand and asked the Arch about how he and others defeated apartheid? After some funereal silence in class, with all eyes on the iconic anti-apartheid cleric, Tutu responded: “How do you eat an elephant?” he asked the silent class. After a brief non-verbal communication spell the Arch provided the students with the answer: “Piece-by-piece.” He went on to speak about how over many decades different generations in SA and internationally kept chipping away at the might of the apartheid regime until the system became weak enough to be crushed through various means including, but not limited to, mass action, international solidarity, sanctions, etc.
The world, and not just SA, has lost a true crusader of justice for the weak against the powerful. A man who feared no evil even as he walked through the valley of death at the height of apartheid. A raw thorn in the flesh of the illegitimate political elites during apartheid and in democratic SA.
He was a friend of the Palestinian cause, a brother’s keeper of the Dalai Lama, an inspiration to the victims of unjust orders the world over.
Archbishop Tutu departed this world with the profound words that are found in 2 Timothy Chapter 4 verse 7: “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”
Indeed, at the age of 90, the old man has given the universe a spark of light and a firmament of brightness that is missing in the multitude of dark corners across the globe. Go well, Arch. Time did stand still as the world bid you farewell a week today. You left us poorer. But more importantly, you left us blessed by your exemplary life and your moral teachings. Love always.
Makoe is a Freelance Journalist