Remembering Desmond Tutu: a life of infectious laughter and defiant morality
Siobhan Bahl pays tribute to Desmond Tutu through a reflection on his involvement in the anti-apartheid movement and his role as the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Desmond Tutu, the retired Archbishop and South African anti-apartheid leader, died after a long battle with prostate cancer on the 26th of December 2021. A Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Tutu used his joyous voice of worship to sing loud enough for all to hear his pride and aspirations for his country and his people.
Desmond Tutu wielded truth as his sword in the fight against white rule in South Africa and to cut through the failings of post-apartheid to deliver for poor black people. He carried himself with humour, warmth and compassion; he sang, danced and laughed openly, his high pitch giggles finding happiness in some of South Africa’s most troubled times.
The South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced on Tutu’s death that “another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans” has begun, with tributes from around the world flooding social media outlets to commemorate a man that helped “a liberated South Africa” emerge.
As a high-profile black churchman, he was intimately involved in the anti-apartheid struggle. Thought of as one of the giants of the human rights movement in South Africa, Tutu worked alongside Nelson Mandela. Appointed to head South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, he guided the investigations into crimes committed during the apartheid era.
He focused on healing, soothing and bringing together the deep fissures that cut through the nation
It was in this role that Tutu opted for restorative justice over retribution. For Tutu, the investigations were not about vengeance but sealing over the deep wounds of apartheid segregation; he focused on healing, soothing and bringing together the deep fissures that cut through the nation. While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was “imperfect”, it was an opportunity for perpetrators and victims to hear one another and to forgive in order to pave the way forward for a peaceful democracy, and “was part of a healing process considered vital at the time”.
But he was not just a man that stood behind lecterns; he campaigned actively against apartheid. BBC News reports that he risked jail when he called for a boycott of municipal elections, he was caught in clouds of tear gas when “police took action against people leaving a church” and was arrested when he refused to leave a rally that was banned.
It was in 1985, a year after he won the Nobel Peace Prize, Desmond Tutu waded through vicious crowds clad in his purple robes to push aside a mob who were attempting to kill a man suspected as an informer to the police. Desmond Tutu and another clergyman saved the man from death.
In words and actions, he defended his belief of creating a future that achieved its end without the means used in apartheid, a future which included every person under the South African ‘Rainbow Nation’, a term which Tutu coined. For a man small in stature, he lived up to his nickname “The Arch”, a beaming bridge that spanned across the world, touching many with his art of gentleness.
For a man small in stature, he lived up to his nickname “The Arch”, a beaming bridge that spanned across the world, touching many with his art of gentleness.
His voice was often heard on other global issues that echoed the conditions of apartheid. He defiantly compared the Palestinian and Israeli conflict to that of South African segregation—with BBC News stating “he compared black South Africans with the Arabs in the occupied West Bank and Gaza”—and in 2017 he criticised fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi for the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority which Myanmar faces.
Even in death Desmond Tutu leaves his mark. The Guardian reports that he will undergo aquamation, a more environmentally friendly form of cremation. His specifics to be buried in a cheap coffin and eco-friendly cremation was his last call for the world to care not only for its people but for its natural home.
While the countless tributes left to him are too numerous to be listed, voices from the Queen to Barack Obama have commemorated his life. However, it seems appropriate to end this article with the words from Desmond Tutu’s deep spiritual friend, the Dalai Lama. They have been known for dancing with one another, joking and teasing each other about their beliefs and sharing a passion for world peace. The Dalai Lama has said “Archbishop Desmond Tutu was entirely dedicated to serving his brothers and sisters for the greater common good. He was a true humanitarian and a committed advocate of human rights”.
He was devoted to the service of others, especially those who are least fortunate. I am convinced the best tribute we can pay him and keep his spirit alive is to do as he did and constantly look to see how we too can be of help to others.