Tutu: the true spirit of South Africa

The archbishop's words about Gaza were all the more powerful because they were spoken by one of the

The world has been horrified and perplexed by the violence that black South Africans have inflicted lately on other black people, immigrants to the "Rainbow Nation". Long-forgotten images of brutality from apartheid-era township wars have reappeared - necklacing, the burning to death of an already badly beaten victim by having a burning tyre put around his or her neck; security and police forces on the streets of impoverished black settlements. But how could this country, of all countries, be the scene of such widespread prejudice?

Into this scenario emerged a voice that reminds us powerfully of the belief that even seemingly irreconcilable communities can be brought together, and of the sense of hope amid despair that South Africa truly stands for.

The voice belongs to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and he raised it in Gaza. He was visiting the Gaza Strip as part of an independent UN investigation, acceded to by Israel, into the deaths of 19 Palestinians by Israeli artillery fire, an incident Israel describes as "a mistake" made during an operation against "wanted Palestinians". The deaths occurred in the far northern settlement of Beit Hanoun, close to the Gaza border, an area from which rockets are often fired into Israel.

During his two days in Gaza, where he went to take testimonies from relatives of the dead, Archbishop Tutu had to take the coastal road north from Gaza City. He saw conditions in the densely packed refugee areas that are now, four generations on from the arrival of the original Palestinian refugees, indistinguishable from other residential areas. He witnessed the persistent power cuts and the lack of fuel. He heard from the small UN humanitarian staff the long list of appalling socio-economic indices showing a decline in the health and welfare of the nearly 1.5 million people living in one of the most overcrowded parts of the world.

It is to Archbishop Tutu's credit that, unlike so many other figures in his position, he expressed what he had seen in Gaza. "My message to the international community," he said, "is that our silence and complicity, especially on the situation in Gaza, shames us all. It is almost like the behaviour of the military junta in Burma."

Few people have the moral authority to make such comments without facing charges ranging from political naivety to prejudice against Israel. And few people can speak authentically about the destructiveness and ultimate futility of collective punishment, and the way in which deliberately impoverishing people for their political aspirations serves only to strengthen their determination. The archbishop's words were all the more powerful because they were spoken by one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle. Comparisons between apartheid South Africa and Israel have been strongly rejected by Israelis and their governments. But many independent studies of Israeli legislative tools, socio-economic policies and security procedures have clear and uncomfortable echoes. In November 2007 Ehud Olmert became the first Israeli prime minister to say openly that his country would be compared to apartheid South Africa if it failed to agree to an independent Palestinian state.

The remarkable thing about Archbishop Tutu's words was that he addressed them to the wider world. He accused the international community of silence and complicity in the face of an abo mination. There are many people in Gaza guilty of violence against Israel, but is the world saying that in order to stop these men we must make the entire Gaza Strip subject to hunger, poverty and disease?

Anti-apartheid leaders such as Tutu and Nelson Mandela are sometimes believed to be part of the comfortable international circle of the great and the good. True, they are photographed with the Bonos and Bill Gateses of this world, but they have toughness, courage and a willingness to speak out about important issues, however unfashionable they may be. Mandela showed this in his angry words about George W Bush and Tony Blair just before the invasion of Iraq, and Tutu has shown it again with Gaza. This, for me, is the true spirit of South Africa.

Rageh Omaar has just won an Arab Media Watch award for his NS column and for a documentary series on al-Jazeera English