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Love is stronger than hate

2010 October 8
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by Paul Vallely

One of the great figures of the twentieth century vowed he was going into retirement yesterday. Do not believe it. Desmond Tutu has retired before and whenever a serious injustice reared its head he has returned.

Desmond Mpilo Tutu was one the central forces in the dismantling of the apartheid state which kept a white elite in power over the black majority in South Africa for nearly five decades, causing untold death and suffering.

In the early years of apartheid various movements of political protest and resistance arose. The white regime responded by arresting tens of thousands of black activists. Many more in the African National Congress (ANC) went into exile, to continue their opposition from abroad.

The torch of resistance back home was passed largely to the South African churches, the one group the white government could not outlaw. Its most prominent leader was Desmond Tutu who in 1975 had become the first black man to be appointed Dean of St. Mary’s Anglican Cathedral in Johannesburg. “It was people of faith who by and large kept the fires of revolution burning,” he later said in an interview for a BBC documentary I presented.

Just a year after his appointment at the cathedral he came to international attention for the vigour of his condemnations of the massacre of schoolchildren in Soweto. Hundred were mown down by white police for protesting against the government’s decision to make black schools use Afrikaans as the language of education.

Tutu bravely spoke out, encouraging the public in the West to launch an economic boycott of his country.  Sanctions might throw blacks out of work, Tutu argued, but at least they would be suffering “with a purpose”. He organised peaceful marches which brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets.

But he also travelled abroad, raising an international outcry. Many of those at the core of the anti-apartheid movement believe it was Tutu’s behind-the-scenes visits to powerful financial institutions in the United States which moved disinvestment up a critical gear. It caused the value of the Rand to plunge more than 35 percent, and pressured the white government to reform. In 1984, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace.

Two years later he was made Archbishop of Cape Town. He broke the law just by moving into the official residence because it was on a whites-only part of the city. Tutu was the first black to occupy the see. An apartheid regime offered to make him an “honorary white” to get round its laws. He refused to accept.

Desmond Tutu had a shrewd understand of how to play politics at an international level because he had spent so much time in the UK. He did his theology degrees at King’s College London in the 1960s. His first job was as a curate in Golders Green. After some time in South Africa he returned to Britain in 1972 to work for the World Council of Churches.

His exposure to the Western media taught him how best to use it. He became an internationally known figure. So much so, he told me on the BBC Radio 2 documentary Faith in Africa, that when he met a hermit nun in California she told him that when her day began at 2am the first thing she did was to pray for him. “I am being prayed for by a nun at 2am in the woods in California each day: what chance does the apartheid government stand!”

But his astuteness extended to politics too. When a new white president, F.W. de Klerk, took over in 1989 Tutu met him privately and gave him the assurance that, if there was change, the blacks would not turn on the whites. Within a year De Klerk had freed the jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela. Mandela spent his first night of freedom in the home of Desmond Tutu.

Tutu did not escape criticism for his pledge. Some in the black community asked by whose authority he gave such a promise. Tutu made his reply in public. At the funeral of South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani in 1993, when an all-out racial war seemed possible, Tutu address a crowd more than 100,000 strong. He spurred them into chanting, over and over, “We will be free!”, “All of us!”, “Black and white together!” .

Then he finished his speech with a quote that was to resonate around the world: “We are the rainbow people of God! We are unstoppable! Nobody can stop us on our march to victory! We are moving to freedom and nobody can stop us! For God is on our side!”

Two things were on display. The extraordinary bravery Tutu had consistently shown over the years in his willingness to step up to the plate as leader. But also his unshakeable faith in the intrinsic goodness of human beings.

His latest book, written with his daughter, Mpho, is called “Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All The Difference”. For, although to the public Desmond Tutu is a highly political priest, those who meet him see first a deep spirituality. Journalists who interview him are routinely asked to say a prayer with him before the microphone is switched on.

He tells a great story: “When the missionaries came they had the Bible and we had the land. And they said ‘Close your eyes and let us pray’. And we dutifully did so but when we said ‘Amen’ and opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.” Perhaps, he says, it was not such a bad deal.

His belief in God is what motivates his every action, and his amazing bravery. He once waded into a crowd in a township where a police informer was about to be “necklaced” – with a tyre filled with petrol put around his neck and set a light. He rescued the man.

Later when black-on-black necklacing spread throughout the land Tutu made a public announcement. If it did not stop he would leave the country. Astonishingly, it stopped. Such is the exceptional authority he commands.

But his Christian faith is more than personal. It inspired the concept of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of which he was appointed head in 1995 in an attempt – which is largely accounted to have been successful – to bring healing to the divided white and black communities. It offered amnesty to anyone who would come forward and confess their crimes in the apartheid era, and in the resistance to it, and ask for forgiveness.

This combination of the prophetic and the compassionate has characterised his actions in the years since. He has spoken truth to power repeatedly, condemning human rights abuses in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, criticising Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and attacking homophobia in his own church – “We are all made in the image of God”.

He has condemned the UK and US for the war in Iraq and said detention without trial at Guantánamo Bay is “utterly unacceptable.” He lamented the election of Pope Benedict XVI because of his opposition to the use of condoms in the fight against Aids in Africa.  He has preached in an ice cathedral at Tromso about how global warming is a insult to the Creator.

Even when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 he did not give up but convened Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and others to form The Elders, a group of world leaders to see if they could help with a number of difficult international  problems.

“Desmond Tutu’s voice,” said Nelson Mandela recently, “will always be the voice of the voiceless”

Desmond Tutu is a man who laughs and cries easily. Behind that lurks a man of huge imagination, sensitivity, humility and wisdom. Asked to sum up his message he once said:

“Goodness is stronger than evil
Love is stronger than hate
Light is stronger than darkness
Life is stronger than death.”

His work is not finished yet.

from The Independent

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