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A People’s Shepherd

Dr Prakash Louis Dr Prakash Louis
03 Jan 2022

Desmond Mpilo Tutu, who was also known as Archbishop Tutu, was Africa’s great soul, freedom fighter, staunch believer in Christ and his values. He was also a South African Anglican bishop and theologian, globally known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist. He was Bishop of Johannesburg from 1985 to 1986 and then Archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 to 1996, in both cases being the first black African to hold the position. There were many other aspects which were first and unique to him. 

He was born in 1931 in South Africa and died on 26th December, 2021 at a ripe age of 90. In his death, not only South Africa or Africa has lost a great freedom fighter and reconciler but the world lost a person who always wanted to unite all sections of people. It was reported that the bells of Cape Town's St. George's Cathedral will toll for 10 minutes every day at noon until Friday, 31st December, 2021 in honour of Archbishop Tutu. 

Tutu was born in a poor family and got trained as a teacher. In 1960, he was ordained as an Anglican priest and in 1962, he moved to the United Kingdom to study theology at King’s College London.  In 1966 he returned to Africa, teaching at the Federal Theological Seminary in South Africa, and then the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. In 1972, he became the Theological Education Fund's Director for Africa, a position based in London but necessitating regular tours of the African continent. Back in southern Africa in 1975, he served first as Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg and then Bishop of Lesotho.  It is not due to the positions he held, but due to his commitment to the suffering humanity globally, he was seen as a Shepherd of the People.

From 1978 to 1985, Tutu was the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, a position from which he was able to unite the churches and also become voice of the Church.  His own background, his faith in Bible and Jesus Christ, his own experience of racial discrimination, his theological studies in a foreign land and cultural exposure, rooted in the lives of his own people groomed him to be a voice of the voiceless in Africa and world over.  With these solid foundations, he emerged as one of the most prominent opponents of South Africa's apartheid, racial discrimination and white minority rule. 

He was also deeply rooted in Christian theology which was basically black theology. As early as 1973, he had declared, “Black theology seeks to make sense of the life experience of the black man, which is largely black suffering at the hands of rampant white racism, and to understand this in the light of what God has said about himself, about man, and about the world in his very definite Word... Black theology has to do with whether it is possible to be black and continue to be Christian; it is to ask on whose side is God; it is to be concerned about the humanisation of man, because those who ravage our humanity dehumanise themselves in the process; [it says] that the liberation of the black man is the other side of the liberation of the white man—so it is concerned with human liberation.”

Archbishop Tutu relentlessly carried out his struggle for liberation from all forms of injustices. He was not disappointed when his offer to serve as a mediator between the apartheid white government and leading black organisations was rebuffed. He continued his struggles and in 1985 led a small march of clergy through Johannesburg to protest the arrest of activists. In October 1985, he backed the National Initiative for Reconciliation's proposal for people to refrain from work and engage in a day of prayer, fasting, and mourning. He also proposed a nationwide strike against apartheid.

Along with Archbishop Tutu, Nelson Mandela stands out as two great giants who gave their life not only to put an end to apartheid in South Africa but any form of exploitative socio-political system anywhere in the world. It is reported that the Archbishop and Nelson Mandela first met at a debating competition in the early 1950s. But since Mandela was arrested and put in jail for leading the anti-apartheid struggle against the minority white rule, they could not meet soon. It was four decades later they met again, on the day that Mandela was released from prison. Mandela’s first night as a free man was spent at the home of the Tutus in Cape Town. On that occasion before everyone retired for the night, Tutu offered a prayer of thanksgiving.

The apartheid state had frustrated attempts by both Mandela and Tutu to meet before the prison release on 11 February 1990. From then until Mandela passed away in 2013 they were in regular contact and their friendship deepened over time. They collaborated on a number of important initiatives. It was Tutu who held aloft Mandela’s hand on the balcony of Cape Town’s City Hall on 9th May 1994 and presented him to the assembled throngs as the country’s new President and the first President after independence was obtained by long years of struggle. 

In 1995, Mandela appointed him to chair the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a position Tutu used to drive endeavour to reckon with oppressive pasts but also to hold the new democratic government accountable. As Mandela reflected in that period: “His most characteristic quality is his readiness to take unpopular positions without fear … 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 establishment of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a pioneering international event. Never had any country sought to move forward from despotism to democracy both by exposing the past atrocities and achieving reconciliation with its former oppressors. At the centre of this unprecedented attempt at healing a nation has been Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s mission. In this monumental work, Archbishop Tutu offered his reflections on the profound wisdom he had gained by helping South Africa to move towards freedom from all forms of bondage and exploitation through its painful experience of apartheid, white minority rule, division within the African communities, etc.

In 2004 he delivered the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, and used the platform to deliver a stinging critique of the governing party. The thrust of his argument was the extent to which leadership had failed society’s most vulnerable. “We were involved in the struggle because we believed we would evolve a new kind of society. A caring, a compassionate society. At the moment many, too many, of our people live in gruelling, demeaning, dehumanising poverty.”  Hence, Archbishop Tutu and Mandela are revered as powerful resources for social justice work locally and globally. 

Before the 31st G8 Summit in Scotland, in 2005, Tutu called on world leaders to promote free trade with poorer countries and end expensive taxes on anti-AIDS drugs. In July 2007, Tutu was declared Chair of the Elders, a group of world leaders to contribute their wisdom, kindness, leadership and integrity to tackle some of the world's toughest problems. Tutu served in this capacity until May 2013. Upon stepping down and becoming an Honorary Elder, he said: "As Elders we should always oppose Presidents for Life”. He led The Elders' visit to Sudan in October 2007, their first mission to foster peace in the Darfur crisis.  He has also travelled with Elders delegations to Ivory Coast, Cyprus, Ethiopia, India, South Sudan and the Middle East.

During the 2008 Tibetan unrest, Tutu marched in a pro-Tibet demonstration in San Francisco and called on heads of states to boycott the 2008 Summer Olympics scheduled in Beijing.   His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu were considered to be two of the world’s best-known spiritual leaders. They also developed a friendship rooted in a shared sense of joy, and of purpose: to foster and spread that joy around the globe, in order to address and counter its despair. Now Pope Francis is also ranked among them.

In June 2000, the Cape Town-based Desmond Tutu Peace Centre was launched, which started an Emerging Leadership Program to train priests and laity. Even when he chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he strongly advocated "restorative justice," and not “retributive or punitive justice” something which he considered characteristic of traditional African jurisprudence "in the spirit of ubuntu." The meaning of Ubuntu is "humanity". It is sometimes translated as "I am because we are", "I am because you are", or "humanity towards others". The sense of the community is strongly stressed in this practice in Africa. With this sense of community deeply rooted in African and Biblical values, he criticised the native government too and warned of widening wealth disparity among its population
It needs to be reiterated that Tutu never became anti-white. Instead, he stressed that it was apartheid -- rather than white people -- that was the enemy. He promoted racial reconciliation between South Africa's communities, believing that most blacks fundamentally wanted to live in harmony with whites, although he stressed that reconciliation would only be possible among equals, after blacks had been given full civil rights. When he held public prayers, he always included mention of those who upheld apartheid, such as politicians and police, alongside the system's victims, emphasising his view that all humans were the children of God.

He was clear in his thoughts, forthright in his speech, deeply religious and upheld hope that apartheid would be defeated. He had formulated his objective as “a democratic and just society without racial divisions”, and had set forward the following points as minimum demands: 1) equal civil rights for all, 2) the abolition of South Africa’s passport laws, 3) a common system of education, 4) the cessation of forced deportation from South Africa to the so-called “homelands”. Many of these demands are applicable universally. Hence, he was also recipient of many awards including the Nobel Peace Prize. 

He had many writings to his credit. In ‘No Future Without Forgiveness’, he argued that true reconciliation cannot be achieved by denying the past.  But nor is it easy to reconcile when a nation "looks the beast in the eye." Rather than repeat platitudes about forgiveness, he presented a bold spirituality that recognizes the horrors people can inflict upon one another, and yet retains a sense of idealism about reconciliation. With a clarity of pitch born out of decades of experience, Tutu showed readers how to move forward with honesty and compassion to build a newer and more humane world.  

Pope Francis lamented Tutu’s death and praised him for promoting "racial equality and reconciliation in his native South Africa”. Pope called him ‘the Servant of the Gospel’. May this People’s Shepherd continue to guide the entire world to resist every form of injustice and work towards a just world.  

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