It was in recognition of his heroic anti-apartheid role that he won the Noble Peace Prize in 1984. In a career that spanned over five decades, Bishop Tutu demonstrated how clergymen can champion social and political causes successfully, using the pulpit as base. His fearless criticism of his country’s political leaders continued from the apartheid era right to through to majority rule, where he kept those leaders in check.
He famously criticised the Mandela administration, months after its inauguration, as having only taken over ‘the gravy train’, and little to show in improvements of the majority black population. The newly established post-apartheid parliament had just approved what was described as ‘Malaysian pay packages’, a salaries and wages structure generally seen as too high and reminiscent of the lifestyle of their erstwhile apartheid rulers. Tutu rose to the occasion by accusing the new leaders of ‘stopping the gravy train only long enough to get on.’ This prompted a lot of soul-searching and review from the politicians, with Nelson Mandela publicly announcing that most of his personal pay was going to some listed charities and causes.
But Tutu was not done. In 1998, he publicly accused President Mandela of setting a bad example for young South Africans when he chose to live with his then companion, Mrs Graca Machel outside wedlock, a move generally seen as the catalyst for Mandela’s eventual marriage to Mrs Machel. Perhaps the most prominent role he played in post-apartheid South Africa was his chairmanship of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established to hear complaints from aggrieved parties of human rights abuses practised during apartheid rule in order to address some of those wrongs and to seek general amnesty for offenders. This was done to encourage national reconciliation.
Though completely appalled at the extent of crimes committed during apartheid rule by the white minority rulers, Bishop Tutu still made such a huge success of the truth and reconciliation effort that he was invited to help set up similar commissions in Northern Ireland and the Solomon Islands. He continued to champion the cause of justice and humanity worldwide and was severely critical of leaders like former US President George W Bush as well as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair for waging an ‘immoral’ war in Iraq.
Bishop Tutu described the Israeli blockade of Gaza as an abomination and said Israel’s policies in Palestine are deeply distressing and remind him so much of ‘what happened to us black people in South Africa’. Early last year he had written, ‘It would be wonderful if, on behalf of the nation, President Obama apologises to the world, and especially the Iraqis, for an invasion that has turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.’ He didn’t spare other African leaders either. He once criticised Robert Mugabe for policies that he said had turned Zimbabwe from a ‘bread basket’ to a ‘basket case’. Now with his decision to retire from public life and make way for a new generation of leaders, it is our hope that such leaders will indeed be found with his level of humanity and moral rectitude.
Born in 1931 in a gold-mining town in the Transvaal province of South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu first began his career as a teacher, following in his father’s footsteps. He joined the Church upon quitting the teaching career in 1953 and became the first black Anglican Dean of Johannesburg in 1975. He became the Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986, an appointment which made him the first Black head of the Anglican Church in South Africa and enabled him to actively campaign against apartheid till its end in 1994.