A life of laughter and commitment ends as Tutu departs

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa

By Owei Lakemfa

In its darkest days when the evil Apartheid system reigned, South Africa produced two outstanding liberation theologians who were burning torches in a country enveloped in darkness.  In 1982 when Apartheid was rebuilding its strength after waves of mass protests beginning with the 1976 Soweto Uprising, Reverend Allan  Aubrey Boesak of the Dutch Reform Church was elected  President of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.   He also became the patron of the largest anti-apartheid coalition, the United  Democratic Front, UDF. His being leader of faith and of mixed European and African ancestry,  further put him in an advantageous position as he could speak with the White, Coloured and African populations. Through his work and those of visionary South Africans like the Anglican Archbishop,  Desmond Tutu, a ‘Rainbow Nation’ was born.

Where Boesak was formal and hard-hitting, Tutu was more informal and subtle. He delivered devastating blows against Apartheid like Muhammed Ali whose blows in the ring appeared light but brought down the most fearsome heavyweight boxing champions of his day like Sonny Liston and George Foreman.

Tutu was all of the laughter who even when those he spoke to did not seem to see the joke he was making, laughed heartily to himself. He once said: “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man to cycle and he will realize fishing is stupid and boring.”

On another occasion, he argued: “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

On hopes and aspirations, he joked: “When your dreams turn to dust, vacuum.”

His sense of humour and understanding included otherwise serious issues of faith and theology.  He once told his audience: “We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.”

Tutu’s  Christianity was not all about what the Bible says, but their interpretation from the perspective of shared humanity,  truth and social justice.  To him: “Religion is like a knife: you can either use it to cut bread or stick in someone’s back.”  For those who claim Christianity is the only way to salvation and that nobody can get to the Father except through Christ, Tutu argued: “God is not upset that Gandhi was not a Christian, because God is not a Christian! All of God’s children and their different faiths help us to realize the immensity of God.”

His standpoint on Apartheid and world politics including the struggles of the weak across the universe was: “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.”

He taught people that they need not be influential, powerful or rich to bring about needed change: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

As the winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg in 1985 and  Archbishop of Cape Town from the following year – the first  Black African to hold these positions – Tutu was highly favoured and could live his life in luxury, but like Jesus whom the Devil showed the riches of the world and was told they could be his only if he bowed before him, Tutu told the Apartheid regime, get thee behind me. He said to the powerful Apartheid overlords: “I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of human rights.”

He once asked the Apostles of Apartheid:  “How could you have a soccer team if all were goalkeepers? How would it be an orchestra if all were French horns?”  Apartheid was indeed not just an evil system, but a most stupid and unsustainable one. But the racists  could not understand  this even when he tried to teach them basic lessons such that: “A person is a person through other persons; you can’t be human in isolation; you are human only in relationships.”

But the racists who held on tenaciously to Apartheid like a drowning person to any straw he could hold, would not let go, so  he told them: “I wish I could shut up, but I can’t, and I won’t.” In this, Tutu was like  Martin Luther who on  October 31, 1517, spoke up against the very powerful leadership of the Church. Rather than be remorseful or tactical, he told them: “ Thus I cannot and will not recant because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.” So for Tutu, just as the die was cast for Luther some 470 years before, so was it for him; he was light and had no business with the darkness of Apartheid, inhumanity and injustice except to bring light to them.

Even when Apartheid came to an inglorious end in 1994, Tutu continued to crusade against injustice such as the ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people.  When he visited the Christian Holy Land where spiritual rejuvenation was expected, he witnessed the same injustice he had lived within Apartheid South Africa. He said of his experience: “I have been to the Occupied Palestinian Territory and I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of apartheid.”

Tutu was a gift to humanity to speak truth to power,  speak out for the oppressed, give voice to the repressed and stand with the poor and the physically, politically and spiritually dispossessed.

On Boxing Day, December 26, 2021, an international day of giving gifts, we lost the gift that was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was 90.   On Friday, as the year ends, his body is to lie in state in St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. Tutu, aware he was human and that all human beings owe death a debt that must be paid, had made known how he wished his funeral be conducted; no ostentatious or lavish funeral and only his family’s bouquet of coronations.

On Saturday, January 1, 2022 as the world welcomes the birth of a new year, our beloved Tutu, would be cremated and his ashes placed in the   St George’s Cathedral.   To a servant of humanity and God who strived to be Christ-like, it is a sobering farewell.

  • Owei Lakemfa, journalist, human rights crusader, labour activist and public affairs analyst, writes from Abuja