LAUGHTER came easily to Desmond Tutu, but he also did not hesitate to weep in public. He strove to see the best in humanity, and perhaps that very longing provoked him guilelessly to call out the instances of inhumanity that crossed his radar.
The apartheid in his homeland, South Africa, was an obvious affront to his sense of morality, and all of the obituaries and tributes since Tutu died on Sunday at the age of 90 have inevitably focused on his remarkable role in dismantling that particular injustice. But he wasn’t by any means a one-trick pony. His radar extended universally.
Even when apartheid was his primary focus, Tutu was disinclined to pull his punches. As head of the South African Council of Churches in 1984 — the year he won the Nobel peace prize — he told British PM Margaret Thatcher that inviting her South African counterpart was “a slap in the face of the millions of black South Africans who are the daily victims of one of the most vicious policies in the world”.
Four years later, as archbishop of Cape Town, he was even more scathing in his assessment of Ronald Reagan after the US president defended the role of US companies in the South African economy. Tutu appropriately described Reagan’s speech as “nauseating” and “the pits”, adding: “America and the West can go to hell.”
Desmond Tutu was a refreshingly turbulent priest.
At the UN that same year, he compared apartheid with Nazism and described Western politicians who opposed sanctions against Pretoria as racists. “We don’t want to destroy white people,” he declared, “but is it too much to ask that in the land of our birth we walk tall as human beings…?”
Tutu has been widely hailed in the past few days as a “moral compass” for the world, but the direction in which his needle pointed continues to be conveniently ignored.
For instance, barely a year ago, The Guardian published a comment in which he excoriated the hypocrisy of America’s attitude towards Israel and called on the incoming Biden administration to openly acknowledge Israel’s “horrific” nuclear weapons arsenal, citing it as one of the possible reasons why “Israel’s version of apartheid has outlived South Africa’s”.
Tutu noted: “Apartheid was horrible in South Africa and it’s horrible when Israel practises its own form of apartheid against the Palestinians, with checkpoints and a system of oppressive policies.”
He did not arrive at this realisation in 2020. Tutu was a consistent critic of Israel’s human rights abuses over several decades. He could not understand, he said during a visit to the holy lands, how Jews after what they suffered in Europe in the 1930s-40s could inflict that kind of brutality on the Palestinians.
But that is just one of his many dimensions that many of those who panegyrise him today tend to gloss over.
Tutu welcomed international support against apartheid, even going as far as to declare at one point that if the Russians came to South Africa they would be hailed as liberators. But in the mid-1980s he had no qualms about lashing out simultaneously at the Soviet puppet regime in Kabul, the US-sponsored Contras in Nicaragua and the Israeli bombing of Beirut.
He could be equally scathing about previous allies, including Robert Mugabe, describing Zimbabwe’s leader as “a cartoon figure of an archetypical African dictator”, who responded by calling Tutu “an angry, evil and embittered little bishop”.
Angry and occasionally embittered he certainly could be. But “evil” is a description that should only haunt the enemies he made.
That eventually included the African National Congress (ANC) in its post-Mandela incarnation. As a schoolboy, Desmond had once crossed paths with Nelson Mandela, and they corresponded during the latter’s 27-year incarceration, but embraced each other for the first time only after Mandela was liberated in 1990. They shared the vision of a new South Africa based on reconciliation rather than racial bitterness — and grew close enough to mock one another’s sartorial choices in public.
Tutu was frequently scathing, however, in his criticism of the Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma governments, mainly for their failure to pursue the social justice that the transition to majority rule had hinted at. That was reflected too in the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Mandela had asked him to chair, when its findings were resisted not just by the previous upholders of white minority rule but even by the ANC.
Its hearing sometimes reduced the chairman to tears. In his final decade, Tutu added gay rights and climate justice to his roster of worthy causes, which included passionately decrying the US invasion of Iraq and Western imperialism more broadly.
The humanistic sense of morality of the Anglican archbishop — simply “the Arch” to many of his compatriots — was complemented by a sharp intelligence and an acid tongue. He set an example for the ages that will, sadly, go unheeded by many of those who pretend to mourn him today.