Memorial events in South Africa have continued in the days since Desmond Tutu’s death on the 26th of December. Tutu, who became Bishop of Johannesburg in 1985, and Archbishop of Capetown in 1985, was a key figure in the struggle against apartheid.
Following the fall of the of the apartheid system, Tutu went on to advocate for human rights throughout Africa, and indeed the world. His positions continued to shake the status quo, confronting governments and states with trademark bluntness, spurred by a desire to fight inhumanity wherever it appeared.
Despite his willingness to call out state actors across the world, Tutu became a household name, recognised for his joyful demeanour, quick-wit and propensity to dance.
He was a gifted orator, galvanizing crowds with his humour and emotional pleas to recognise humanity and reject injustice.
Tutu brought the church to the forefront of the liberation movement in South Africa, using his platform on the pulpit to call out against the injustices of the ruling party. He saw the mission to fight against apartheid as a God-given duty, in one instance saying that he was “not defying the government,” but “obeying God.”
I want my spiritual leaders to move like Desmond Tutu. If oppression and exploitation isn’t a dire breach of morality to you, you can’t guide me anywhere worth going.
— Dr. Donna Auston (@TinyMuslimah) December 26, 2021
The South African Council of Churches, which Tutu led between 1978 and 1985, became one of the most important organisations in apartheid-era South Africa, alongside the ANC, in the fight against white supremacy. The Council represented all the churches of South Africa, except those that had left due to disagreement with the Council’s opposition to apartheid.
Tutu also throughout the apartheid era took to the streets, participating and leading boycotts, marches and rallies. He continuously called on his fellow South Africans to not give up on the struggle.
Redi Tlhabi, a South African Journalist who grew up in the Apartheid era, described Tutu’s emergence on the scene in the 70’s. She describes a period of time that saw riots, the burning of black towns and the killing of black protesters at the hands of a brutal police force.
Writing for the Washington Post, she said “he walked through the streets of the burning townships, confronting the police, calming angry crowds, trying to quell the inferno with his authoritative voice.”
Desmond Tutu advocated strongly for non-violence, instead favouring acts of civil disobedience
He was awarded a Nobel peace prize for his work against white supremacy in 1984, which was an acknowledgement of his commitment to peaceful, “civilised” means of activism.
According to Egil Aarvik, who delivered the presentation speech: the “situation as it is today is such that a peaceful solution is by no means inevitable – the repression is so brutal that a violent rebellion would be an understandable reaction.”
The award did not, however, temper the intensity with which Tutu campaigned for an end to apartheid.
He risked jail by calling for a boycott of segregated regional elections in 1988. The call came during a “state of emergency,” which had been declared two years earlier in 1986. According to the state of emergency law, calls for protests or boycotts were punishable with a ten year jail sentence.
In 1989 he was one of several hundred South Africans arrested as part of a “defiance campaign” which involved protests and factory strikes. The protests were met with police violence. Tutu led a demonstration to replace a group of protesters that had been beaten with whips by the police, leading to a short period of detention in jail.
Is it possible to be a spiritual person & a political activist? Arch. Desmond Tutu was so joyful with the love of God his face was like a polished mirror reflecting to every dark corner. And his whole life he raised his voice against injustice & put his body on the front lines.
— Dr. Ingrid Mattson (@IngridMattson) December 26, 2021
Tutu remained vocal on the international scene, calling out world leaders for inaction, and bringing awareness to the plight of black South Africans
He held the United State’s Reagan administration to account for its support of the apartheid regime, in 1984 travelling to Washington to call for economic sanctions on South Africa.
Tutu, on his trip, declared that: “Apartheid is as evil, as immoral as un-Christian in my view as Nazism, and in my view, the Reagan administration’s support and collaboration with it is equally immoral, evil, and totally un-Christian without remainder.”
Reagan had a close relationship with the South African government during apartheid, who he saw as a bulwark against soviet influence in the region. He attempted to block the passing of a bill imposing economic sanctions on the country, although he was overruled by Congress.
Margaret Thatcher likewise proudly opposed the enforcement of economic sanctions, due to a philosophy of economic liberalism.
In 1985, he criticised the refusal of the British, American and West German state leaders to meet the atrocities of apartheid with economic sanctions. He abandoned political niceties, drawing attention to the “children being killed by a racist Government that is being protected from the consequences of its actions by Mr. Reagan, Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Kohl.” He went on to say that “the support of this racist policy is racist.”
In his later age, Archbishop Desmond Tutu protested climate inaction. "We have only one world. If we mess it up, there's no other world," said Tutu, speaking to youth activists during the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. "It is a matter of morality. It is a question of justice." pic.twitter.com/8NJRo6YZMf
— Democracy Now! (@democracynow) December 27, 2021
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Following the end of apartheid, Desmond Tutu was selected by his close friend Nelson Mandela to lead the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1995. The inquiry collated accounts from 21 000 victims of apartheid, 2000 of whom recounted their harrowing experiences on a public platform.
The TRC aimed to promote forgiveness and reconciliation, whilst doing it’s best to unflinchingly express the scale and details of the horrors inflicted. The accounts included details of state sanctioned torture, and murder at the hands of pro-apartheid groups.
Related articles: Post-Apartheid Inequality in South Africa | Violence in South Africa ripples across the region
Tutu would often weep during the process. He later commented that he was upset by the attitude of denial with which many white South Africans met the TRC, but noted that this was perhaps a typical defence mechanism, given that “so much evil was committed… on their behalf.”
The TRC was often criticised for its failure to deliver meaningful accountability, its mandate being to promote truth and “restorative justice” rather than administer punishment. Tutu however made great effort to demand that those testifying on behalf of the apartheid regime to admit wholly what they have done and ask for forgiveness.
The irony! #ArchbishopTutu was disappointed at MANY outcomes of the TRC! Not hearsay, he TOLD ME SO! He said he was disappointed that white South Africans in general had not embraced the TRC & used it as an opportunity to reckon with the past & forge a common humanity. He said pic.twitter.com/oz9uPNM2Le
— Redi Tlhabi (@RediTlhabi) December 26, 2021
Among those that testified at the Commission was Eugene de Kock, a notorious leader of a South African Death Squad, responsible for the state-sanctioned murder and torture of a staggering number of people.
He confessed to hundreds of murders in the TRC, and his collaboration with the commission helped make unequivocally clear the brutality of apartheid for those that sought to deny it.
Anti-apartheid figures like Winnie Mandela, who herself was accused of complicity in violence, were also scrutinised, with Tutu pressing her to apologise for her alleged role in the murder of a 14 year old boy wrongly suspected of being a police informer.
Tutu did not stop speaking out on the aptitude of South Africa’s governance following the end of apartheid
Tutu in the years after the conclusion of the TRC, became increasingly critical of the ANC.
In 2004 he took issue with what he saw as the ANC’s failure, under the leadership of Thabo Mbeki, to address the “gruelling, demeaning, dehumanising poverty” of many South Africans.
He took issue with the perpetuation of a class divide, questioning “what is black empowerment when it seems to benefit not the vast majority but an elite that tends to be recycled?”
In 2013 he said he could no longer vote for the ANC, due to what he perceived as widespread corruption and a failure to bridge “the gap between the poor and the well off.” He warned of the costs of China’s investment in South Africa, taking issue with the way the country had begun to “kowtow to Beijing.”
Desmond Tutu continued calling out apartheid-like policies enacted by state actors
Tutu has been a vocal critic of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, which he has described as mirroring his experiences in Apartheid-era South Africa. Tutu, who had visited Palestine, wrote in 2014 that he knows “first-hand that Israel has created an apartheid reality within its borders and through its occupation.”
He spoke about the checkpoints restricting Palestinian movement and the “arrogance” of the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) soldiers policing them. Tutu noted similarities to the requirements he was forced to abide by as bishop of Johannesburg, when his family frequently had to present passports in order “to move freely in the land of [their] birth.” He compared the humiliation of the Palestinians to the humiliation of Black South Africans under apartheid.
He even suggested that the Israeli occupation was in “many instances worse,” referring specifically to the wall which “encroached so very seriously on the territory of other people,” and the demolition of homes.
He blamed the west specifically for bolstering Israel’s actions, and, similarly to his campaign for economic sanctions against Apartheid-era South Africa, supported a boycott of Israel.
‘The people of Palestine have every right to struggle for their dignity and freedom.’
Desmond Tutu was an ardent advocate for Palestinian rights and a critic of Israeli occupation and apartheid. Here’s what he said over the years. pic.twitter.com/xNmCmom17s
— Middle East Eye (@MiddleEastEye) December 28, 2021
Tutu remained in strong opposition to the Iraq war, calling for Tony Blair and George Bush to be sent to the Hague, to face charges of war crimes. In a New York Rally, prior to the US invasion of Iraq, Tutu delivered an impassioned speech, he drew attention to the often overlooked humanity of Iraqi casualties.
He stated that “those that are going to be killed in Iraq are not collateral damage, they are human beings of flesh and blood… They are our sisters and brothers.” He questioned, “how can we say we want to drop bombs on our sisters and brothers, on our children?”
More recently in 2017 he called for an end to the genocide of the Rohingya population of Burma, in an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi. He demonstrated his lasting sense of duty towards human rights advocacy, even in his final years, saying that although he is “now elderly, decrepit and formally retired,” he was still moved to speak out a sense of “profound sadness,” condemning the “ethnic cleansing and “slow genocide” that was unfurling.
Throughout his life, Desmond Tutu displayed a commitment to his principles that was able to withstand political and social pressure both from his fellow South Africans, and the international community.
He held his fellow anti-apartheid activists to account when he disagreed with them, and refused to sanitise his political stances, calling out state-sanctioned injustices with fervour and precision.
Although he maintained his commitment to non-violence, he insisted on the pursuit of practical, actionable strategies like boycotts, sanctions and prosecution. Tutu, who was diagnosed with cancer in the 1990’s, and continued his advocacy and activism into old age, will have his state funeral held tomorrow.
Desmond Tutu’s legacy is unquestionably important in the modern world – going well beyond a Nobel prize – and future generations everywhere will likely continue to be inspired by him.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: Desmond Tutu speaks at the Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship Ceremony in 2011. Featured Photo Credit: Skoll Foundation.