Obituary: ‘Until all of us are free, none of us is really free’ – Desmond Tutu

By Matthew Hassan Kukah

Posted on January 4, 2022 14:13

Archbishop Desmond Tutu at Emory University Atlanta, Georgia USA.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu at Emory University Atlanta, Georgia USA. Reuters

After the collapse of Communism in 1989, the prospects for a new wave of democracy in Africa were so high that liberal African scholars spoke about the continent’s second liberation.

A year after the Berlin wall fell, Nelson Mandela walked free on 11 February 1990; a seismic shift in the continent.

Francophone countries such as Mali, Niger, Togo, Benin, Congo and Zaire embarked on Sovereign National Conferences. The central role played by the Catholic Church struck a chord with scholars.

Questions were being asked as to the role of the Church in the new liberation of our continent.

At a conference organised by the University of Leeds entitled: ‘The Church and Democracy in Africa’, I presented a paper on Nigeria and Archbishop Desmond Tutu chaired the session.

After my presentation, we stepped out for coffee. Archbishop Tutu accosted me, hand on my shoulder, saying: “That was a very frank assessment of the situation in Nigeria. The difficulties on the continent are widespread, but the Churches must rally around to offer a clear direction. Given your country’s leadership in our struggle against apartheid and your huge resources, no one is better qualified to lead the continent than Nigeria.”

A photographer interrupted, asking the Archbishop and I to move closer so he could take a picture.

The Archbishop looked sideways and said: “We are black, I think this picture will be brighter outside.”

We all moved as he shepherded me outside. As we stood for the photograph, he looked at me and said: “Gosh, except for my being fatter, we seem to be of the same height.”

I protested, insisting that I was taller than he. The photographer nodded. As he was about to click his camera, the Archbishop beckoned to, John Walligo, a Ugandan priest who was Secretary of the committee that had just drafted a a new constitution for his country

“Come, Father,” he said to him, “join a photograph of two short men, make us taller by standing in the middle.”

Father Walligo was black as in real black. Again, as the photographer made to click, Archbishop saw the late Rev. John de Gruchy, his fellow white South African and shouted: “Hey John, come here, bring your white skin, so you can add some colour to our photograph.” Another bout of laughter followed.

‘Jokes testified to his joy in life’

To meet Archbishop Tutu is to meet one of the most uproarious and self-deprecating individuals whose jokes testified to his joy in life.

It is to the great glory of God that he spent such a long and fruitful life, given his battle with various ailments, including managing prostate cancer for over twenty years.

The end came a day after Christmas. For one who said of himself: “I love being loved”, one might imagine that he had negotiated with God to die at a time when the world was celebrating.

We can look back at a life of spectacular richness and accomplishment. The reactions of the leaders of the world signpost his very eventful life.

My intention here is to discuss the lessons that we leaders of the Christian Church can and must learn about faith, Christian love, politics, service and patriotism.

Much like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in which Brutus says to Cassius: “There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”

Tasting the injustice of the system

From being a sickly child, born of Methodist parents who would later become Anglicans, Archbishop Tutu abandoned a career as a teacher once he tasted the injustice of the system, seeing the dice were so loaded against black students.

He did not wait for the children to quote Fela by saying: “Teacher, don’t teach me nonsense!”

Then new opportunities opened up for Archbishop Tutu, changing the course of his life. Between 1962 and 1964, he graduated from Kings College, London, with a degree in Theology.

Within ten years, he was made the first black Anglican Dean of Johannesburg. A year later, Soweto burst into flames. Within five years, he would become the Secretary General of the South African Council of Churches. This gave him the platform to rally Anglicans and other church leaders to try and force the apartheid regime to think about the future of the country.

In the 1980s as the sharp teeth of apartheid dug deeper into the skin of black people, worsening their dehumanisation and oppression, the fire of righteous indignation was lit within Archbishop Tutu.

He would lead a delegation of Church leaders to face Prime Minister PW Botha, known as the Crocodile, to warn of impending dangers from internal combustion within the black community.

They came out of the lion’s den in 1980 empty-handed.

Then in 1984, Tutu received the Nobel Prize for Peace; and by 1986, he was promoted Archbishop of Cape Town. Both added to his moral authority, within South Africa and internationally.

From here, Tutu would rally other Church leaders on the urgency of ending apartheid. And then in 1986, he begins to push for an economic boycott of South Africa. His life and work went into the highest gear. The rest is history.

‘His greatness must been seen in proper context’

Great a man as Archbishop Tutu was, his greatness must be seen in proper context.

Over time, little attention has been paid to white liberals and their contribution and to the struggles of black people. It is easy to focus on people like Tutu and Mandela.

But their rise was the work of many men, some who preceded them and others who were their contemporaries. Let me cite a few of these great men.

Rev. Trevor Huddleston was an English Bishop who arrived in Cape Town in 1943. He would guide the involvement of the church in the struggles against apartheid. He published his damning book against apartheid, Naught for your Comfort, in 1956.

Working with many young people, Huddlestone guided the musical prodigy Hugh Masekela, buying him his first trumpet when he was 14. Huddlestone was also close to ANC President Oliver Tambo, and would later receive an award from the ANC for his work, be recognised by the both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu. He helped organise Tutu’s scholarship to Kings College.

Next is Dennis Hurley, the Catholic Archbishop of Durban (1946-1992). He was ordained bishop at the age of 31 (the youngest in the world then), five years after his ordination as a Priest and six years after his Doctoral studies in Rome.

Hurley was among the first church leaders to denounce apartheid, calling it an affront to human dignity. He was detained several times and was an assassination target.

Finally, the apartheid regime put him on trial. He was charged for breaking the security laws; by naming the children who had been killed in forced removals by the apartheid regime and reporting its atrocities in Namibia.

This is why Tutu remained vigilant and warned the new generation of post-apartheid politicians to get off the gravy train of corruption! Like everywhere else, the new elite believed that ‘… it is our turn to eat!’

The apartheid government lost the trial, was ordered to pay Archbishop Hurley the sum of R25,000! He received ten honorary Doctorate degrees around the world. For standing up to Botha, the Crocodile, the Zulu nation nicknamed him, Eyes of the Mamba!

When I visited South Africa for the first time in 1995, I made it a point of duty to visit him. He treated me to a most sumptuous meal in his home.

Then he told me he had a surprise: the kitchen door opened and his cook, a gorgeous old Mama stepped out wearing a Super Eagles Shirt! The Archbishop said she was the local chair of the Super Eagles Supporters club. I was shocked as she reeled off all the names of the team, Jay Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Daniel Amoakachi etc!

White liberal scholars

Next were the white liberal scholars who deserve commendation for their courageous assault on the foundations of apartheid, a system in which they were the beneficiaries. They had everything to lose and nothing to gain.

One of their critical steps was the Dakar Conference in July 1987 which they discussed ways to engage the white regime. In attendance were such South African intellectuals and activists such as Thabo Mbeki, Mac Maharaj, Fredrick Van Zyl Slabbert, Dr Alex Boraine, Breyten Breytenbach, Lindiwe Mabuza and a host of others.

It was hosted by Senegal’s President Abdou Diouf and Danielle Mitterrand, wife of the then French President.

Archbishop Tutu’s position as the Archbishop of Cape Town placed him in a position to serve as a lighthouse. Again, he had great support from colleagues most of whom are mentioned today.

Tutu knew when to roll up the sleeves of his cassock. Often, civil society mistakenly thinks that its job is to change governments.

There were people such as: Archbishop Stephen Naidoo, Catholic Archbishop of Cape Town from 1984 to 1989;  Rev. Alan Boesak, former President of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches elected in 1982, later, his image would dim as he was caught up in a swirl of scandals; Dr. Frank Chikane, a member of Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement after which he joined the ANC, teaming up with Cyril Ramaphosa in civil society and the Council of Churches; Monsignor Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, detained after the Soweto uprisings, former Secretary General of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference; former Member of Parliament and former Mayor of Tshwane, Rev. Beyers Naude and so many others.

A touchstone for sharpening the moral direction of the Church’s role in the struggle against apartheid was a statement issued by black theologians, known as the Kairos Document.

‘A celebration of courage under fire’

Retelling the life of Archbishop Tutu is a celebration of courage under fire, shown in the ability of black and white intellectuals, activists, writers, priests, men and women to form a broad coalition with enough moral authority.

To celebrate Tutu is to appreciate that in moments of danger, we stand together or we hang separately. Religious, ethnic, social class, gender and ideology have to be put aside so the real leaders can save the nation. This is a great lesson for us from the legacy of Tutu.

The departure of Archbishop Tutu poses a challenge to religious leaders of all faiths across our continent. African politics has been ravaged by the virus of greed of gangantuan proportions among our political, business and bureaucratic classes.

Often, religious leaders are tempted to hide in their cathedrals, believing that politics is dirty and that they should not risk contaminating of their white linen robes.

Tutu knew when to roll up the sleeves of his cassock. Often, civil society mistakenly thinks that its job is to change governments.

It is often too late for them to realise the corrupting effect of politics can smear everyone. This is why Tutu remained vigilant and warned the new generation of post-apartheid politicians to get off the gravy train of corruption! Like everywhere else, the new elite believed that “… it is our turn to eat!”

Tutu showed us that when man seizes the tide, as Brutus said, times can change for an individual and a society. Often, the world remembers big men and women as if they dropped from the skies fully formed. We often ignore those who helped to shape them.

‘He was grounded in the history and culture of Africa’

Injustice challenges us all. Tutu showed us the need for Churchmen to ensure their heads are not in the clouds of obscurantism. He was grounded in the history and culture of Africa. That gave his theology resonances, and relevance for the social conditions of our continent.

I thank God that my path crossed with Archbishop Tutu. Each time, he left a mark. Without knowledge of the history, culture, the dreams, the frustrations, agonies, pains and hopes of our people, theologians risk irrelevance. People will find new gods!

Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but people like Alex Boraine, the Deputy Chairman and some other African intellectuals provided the direction.

I spent a week at the Bellagio Centre in Italy at the invitation of the late Alex Boraine mapping out the direction of post-apartheid politics under transitional justice. The TRC was a controversial turning point in the history of South Africa.

My last physical contact with Tutu was on a visit to Cape Town in March 2007. It was to invite him to join us in a spiritual event to end my work in Ogoniland, in the Niger Delta, scheduled for May.

In his modest office we discussed Africa, the role of the Church and theological options for fixing our continent.

He was surprised that I had encountered people like President Thabo Mbeki, Archbishop Stephen Naidoo, Beyers Naude, Alex Boraine, Frank Chikane among others and that South Africa’s story was not new to me.

His eyes lit up when I told him that on my roll of honour, Steve Biko came tops.

He looked at me, saying with mischievous laughter: “Yes, I can see  you are some cheeky rebel Catholic priest.”

As we rose, he suggested we take a photograph to which I replied: “Archbishop, I came with a camera from Nigeria  but sadly I arrived in Johannesburg only to discover that my baggage had been forced open and the camera and a few items stolen.”

I had expected sympathy but Tutu broke into an ecstatic bout of laughter as if he had won something.

He then looked at me and laughed again, telling me: “I am delighted that your camera and items were stolen at Jo’burg by our baggage loaders. Why should you Nigerians monopolise the stealing business? Our boys are learning very fast.”

How to remember Tutu

As we look back, we are bound to ask how Tutu will be remembered. First, it seems that Tutu, as his biographer stated, loved to be loved which is in each of us. However, looking back now, the first question is how to identify his footprints on the Church community in South Africa in particular and Africa in general.

Outside South Africa, Africans simply heard about the famous man but hardly recall seeing him on lecture circuits around the continent. I feel that Tutu could have done more in rallying African theologians by taking up, even if intermittently, lectures around African universities. To that extent, he has left little direct inspiration on the theological circuits on the continent.

Second, once Tutu had entered the international orbit, propelled by the western liberal media, he became almost inaccessible.

I recall meeting a South African lady who told me that she met Tutu and was so excited because her mother had worked with him and he remembered her.

She asked if he could come speak in their school and he agreed. In excitement, she told her School President of the possibility of bringing Tutu to the school on a speaking engagement.

The President said the school would be ready to receive the great man any day he chose.

She then tried to reach out to Tutu but his agents told her, there were three conditions for getting him to speak: A private jet, a first class ticket and a $60,000 speaking fee! The doors had shut.

Third, Madiba has come and gone. So has Tutu. But Africa’s problems persist, rising poverty and deepening inequalities. There is an urgency of now, the need for loud voices to offer moral clarity about how to chart a better course of life for our people.

We Church leaders cannot celebrate Tutu without confronting the structures and scaffolding that have allowed the continent to bleed so badly.

We owe him the duty to continue to raise the bar for justice and equity because until all of us are free, none of us is really free.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.