The only time I met Archbishop Desmond Tutu was on 2.3.2005 in Cape Town. I spent a few minutes with him. His genial personality made a lasting impression on me.
I was familiar with his fame and name. He had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. The second South African black to be so honoured. The first was Chief Albert Luthuli. The third was Nelson Mandela.
While in Cape Town, I bought “Tutu: Voice of the Voiceless” by Shirley Duboulay. The Archbishop was a controversial figure. He was an expert self-publicist, agitator and peacemaker. With Nelson Mandela and other ANC (African National Congress) leaders in prison in Robben Island, Tutu kept the anti-Apartheid movement alive, but in a peaceful manner.
After his release from prison in February 1990, Mandela and Tutu became close friends. Mr Mandela made the retired Archbishop, Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which in the words of Nelson Mandela performed “the most crucial task of reconciling the nation”.
On 23 June 1999, Nelson Mandela made a speech at a thanksgiving service for Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Here are a few excerpts from Mr. Mandela’s speech.
“It is true privilege and honour for me to share in this thanksgiving service for the Archbishop of Cape Town and the Primate of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa, who retires in one week’s time, just ahead of his 65th birthday. I suspect that he is doing so just to set the record by retiring before I do!
“I know that I speak for all of you, when I say that Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been a blessing and inspiration to countless people, here and abroad, through his ministry; his acts of compassion; his prophetic witness; and his political engagement. He has a distinguished record as a leader of his church and the ecumenical movement, and as fearless fighter against the evil and inhuman system of apartheid. He is renowned for selfless commitment to the poor, the oppressed and downtrodden. With his colleagues he remained an effective voice of the people of South Africa when so many of their leaders were imprisoned, exiled, banned and restricted.
“Desmond Tutu is esteemed the world over for his commitment to justice and peace everywhere. He is forthright in condemning corruption. As President of the All Africa Conference of Churches he missed no opportunity to speak out against human rights violations and oppressive regimes in our continent and elsewhere. The Nobel Peace Prize measures his extensive international recognition.
“His most characteristic quality is his readiness to take unpopular positions without fear. Thus it was that he campaigned for sanctions against apartheid at a time when churches in South Africa were still hesitating. He speaks his mind on matters of public morality. As a result he annoyed many of the leaders of the apartheid system. Nor has he spared those that followed them—he has from time to time annoyed many of us who belong to the new order. But such independence of mind—however wrong and unstrategic it may at times be—is vital to a thriving democracy.
“The touchstone of our success in transforming South African society will be the extent to which we correct the imbalances and inequalities created by apartheid. The seriousness of our intent is inscribed in our macroeconomic strategy for growth, employment and redistribution. It is a framework within which all sectors of our society can join hands and, putting long-term interest above short-term considerations, achieve our goals for transformation, for reconstruction and development.
“In this great partnership the religious community has a special and important role. As the churches in South Africa and abroad accompanied us in thestruggle for justice and peace, so should they now accompany us in building a just and equitable society.
“This is not a call for the religious community to accompany government uncritically. Uncritical support would endanger our infant democracy. On the other hand, criticism without visible action to help alleviate poverty and suffering can only serve to discredit the message of the Church. Rather, the way forward is in what some theologians have called ‘critical solidarity’ with government in the reconstruction and development of the country.
“The track record of the religious communities, both before and after the achievement of democracy, makes us confident that in them we do indeed have strategic partners in the project of empowering our people to use their freedom to work together for a better life. In the building of our new nation, reconstruction goes hand in hand with reconciliation. We look to the Church with its message of justice, peace, forgiveness and healing, to play a key role in helping our people, of every colour, to move from the divisions of the past to a future that is united in a commitment to correct wrongs and restore a just order.
“Archbishop Tutu, with his celebration of our rainbow nation and his powerfully healing guidance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is an inspiration to us all in this most crucial task of reconciling our nation. His joy in our diversity and his spirit of forgiveness are as much part of his immeasurable contribution to our nation as his passion for justice and his solidarity with the poor.
“In conclusion, may I say again to the Archbishop: We are thankful for all that you have done. You were one of those who blazed the trail of the new patriotism that is abroad in our land. We wish you peace and joy in your retirement.”