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Guest article: Tutu, an arc of life bending towards meaning

Labour Black Socialists’ South African anti-apartheid activist Mogamat Reederwan Craayenstein writes of the life and legacy of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died this week, and draws attention to the fact that the fight against Israeli apartheid against Palestinians continues

By Kristen Opalinski – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

When Apartheid became a system of government, Desmond Tutu was almost 18 years old. Unlike people in the 1970s and 1980s, Tutu was not a political activist. He would dip his toes into political awareness and activism in the time of Black Consciousness in the 1970s. As much as Tutu would become a towering distinctive political voice, he was always a priest and pastor before he was a political activist. His politics was almost always framed by the slow reflection required for concerns with ultimate questions posed by the bible. For Archbishop Tutu, the biggest question was not “what kind of activist are you i.e. ANC, PAC, Black Consciousness or other”. No, for him the biggest question was “What type of human being am I required to be in this situation?”. What does God want me to do in this situation?

For Tutu, the questions of WEB Du Bois might have mattered. How shall integrity and moral consistency meet oppression? For Tutu the life of a black child was as precious as that of a white child. The life of a Palestinian mother in Gaza was as sacred as that of an Israeli mother in Tel Aviv.

How shall honesty meet deception? Apartheid (anywhere and everywhere) is a system of deception and falsehoods backed by power and policies. This hesitant political activist who was really just a pastor walking in the footsteps of the Prophets of Jerusalem (and Mecca and Medina – he was that cosmopolitan) and spoke truth to power. How shall decency meet insult? For Archbishop Tutu, speaking truth to power does invite insult. Albeit from anti-Apartheid activists when he spoke out against necklacing. Or from the pro-Israel lobby when he called out Israeli Apartheid by its name long before Yesh Din, B’tselem and Human Rights Watch. The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) reserved a special hatred for Archbishop Tutu. He was the priest that racist white people and compliant black people loved to hate. In their eyes, Tutu was really a politician who tried to be a priest and he was doing both badly.

And how shall virtue meet brute force? It did not matter who exercised power and visited brute force on whom. For Archbishop Tutu his own humanity (and that of the one who is being brutal and violent) was at stake. Moral excellence is non-negotiable even in opposing injustice. For Archbishop Tutu the easy trade-offs of activist politics could not compare with the deep questions that motivated him to be a priest.

Between 1961 and 1978 Archbishop Tutu was very much a priest. But when he became Secretary General of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), he was entering the zone of being priest-plus. He had taken up a number of positions in the Anglican church in different countries including a time with the World Council of Churches. Those travels widened his horizons and when he came to the SACC he was shaped and formed differently. Apartheid was an anathema to him. Tutu warned white South Africans that Apartheid was doomed – and he was hated for that.

In the same ways that he is hated by the pro-Israel lobby for calling Israel by its name i.e. an Apartheid state. What mattered to Archbishop Tutu was that every child is a child of God. Apartheid South Africa and Apartheid Israel had to come to terms with that fact.

To the pro-Israel lobby today, remember that Archbishop Tutu called for sanctions against the Apartheid government in South Africa. He was morally consistent when he called for sanctions against Apartheid in Israel. Liberal white South Africans were angry at Bishop Tutu for doing so and the pro-Israel lobby feel the same way. Tutu was clear. The oppressor cannot be against opposition by any means necessary, in the language of Malcolm X. That same oppressor who refuses to find any peaceful means to a just resolution of the conflict cannot then also be opposed to boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). Today, the pro-Israel lobby is exposed by the same dilemma. Every attempt by Palestinians to find a solution, even at the cost of justice for themselves, has been rejected by Israel. The call for BDS was, and remains, correct. Tutu was prepared to be unpopular for speaking the truth.

Tutu was prepared to meet the Apartheid government – on numerous occasions- even at the cost of being condemned by the broader liberation movement as he did not have a mandate. But like the prophets of Jerusalem, Moses did meet the Pharoah to lament the condition of the oppressed, to condemn the oppressive system of Apartheid and to bring hope of a better tomorrow.

Tutu continued to do the same in the 27 years of post-Apartheid. He was morally consistent in doing the same with Israel. Where are the priests who follow in those footsteps of prophets of Jerusalem and call out the system of Apartheid in Israel? Where are the institutions of the global church who send delegations of solidarity to Palestinian churches and mosques that are under siege from the Israeli security forces and illegal settlers? Tutu knew that he was never alone. The Apartheid regime knew that if they harmed Tutu then they harmed the body of Christ and they stood to be condemned by the international church, especially the Anglican Church.

Where is that church today? Instead of standing by Palestinians, it condemns those who stand in solidarity with Palestinians. Tutu was on the streets imploring pollical activists to be brave but also not lose their own humanity as they fought for their dignity. At night he would be in television studios condemning the Apartheid government. Then deep into the night he would retreat into prayer, only to continue doing the same the following day.

The institutions of the church, which was the foundation of the prophetic voice of Tutu, were as divided on ethnic lines as the country itself. The rise of Tutu as a leading bishop in Johannesburg and soon thereafter Archbishop of Cape Town was the anti-Apartheid struggle within the Anglican church as an institution. It foretold the end of Apartheid as a political system, in under a decade later.

We live in an age of ‘security’-based revoking and withdrawing of citizenship. Tutu also had his passport withdrawn because he was an inconvenience to the Apartheid system. Withdrawing his passport, imprisoning him for a few hours or a night, re-issuing his passport – there were just the cross that Tutu had to bear for the freedom of his people (echoing Dr King in the paddy-wagon). Tutu would go from a police cell to getting his passport back to meeting priests and churches abroad. He sought help to end Apartheid to “Let my people go”. The global leaderships of the Anglican and Catholic Churches supported Tutu. He bore witness on their behalf as well. Who stands by the Palestinians as they too are victims of Apartheid?

Archbishop Tutu’s final contribution was an attempt to get South Africa to heal itself. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established about a year after the end of Apartheid and it took about three years to deliver its report. It was a brave attempt at getting people who had committed crimes against humanity to tell the truth and be reconciled with post-Apartheid. Unfortunately, the worst perpetrators, including the last two Apartheid Presidents just could not get themselves to tell the truth. Many perpetrators who would have faced punishments at Nuremberg have escaped accountability. Today we ask the leaderships of the Anglican and Catholic Churches to stand by Palestinians in the ways that they stood by Tutu.

May these priests be welcomed with mercy and not justice. For they tried to spread love in the world. For justice is what love looks like in public. Tutu now joins Oscar Romero and Gustavo Guttierez. And they are sharing notes. To share with priests who are also facing their Pharoahs. And they are singing something like “Somewhere, over the rainbow”.

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