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The courage of Desmond Tutu

As South Africa experiences fresh violence, the Archbishop’s life is a reminder of the human capacity for solidarity and political action. 

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Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum has as its final exhibition space a room devoted to the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996-2003). Set up in an attempt to model restorative justice rather than punishment for atrocities, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as chair, its workings and legacy remain fiercely contested, within South Africa and elsewhere.

In the museum, there is a cartoon ­showing Tutu at the head of a large crowd carrying placards with the word “Truth”; they are standing at the edge of a deep chasm, on the far side of which a lonely hoarding carries the word “Reconciliation”.

That is the tension that has in one way or another run through Tutu’s long and extraordinary life (he celebrates his 90th birthday this October). Coming from a South African township where his father was a teacher at a Methodist school, he survived a serious bout of tuberculosis in his teens. He transferred his allegiance to the Anglican Church, influenced by the charismatic ministry of Anglo Catholic clergy and monks with a record of making themselves awkward to the political authorities – figures such as Trevor Huddleston, later a friend and supporter of Nelson Mandela.

After initially training as a teacher, Tutu studied for the priesthood in these circles, – intense, monastic and radical. Well before he was elected Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986, he had become one of the most eloquent and unrelenting truth-tellers about apartheid on the world stage. His rapid rise in the Anglican Church’s hierarchy was matched by the growth of his global profile – and of his place in the demonology of white South Africa, for whom he represented an unacceptable blending of faith and politics (quite different, of course, from the blending of faith and politics that allowed the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa to justify apartheid, and its ministers to serve in governmental positions).

Tutu fought with unremitting courage to make his country acknowledge the historic outrage that marked its life for most of the later 20th century – the system of racial discrimination codified in law after the victory in 1948 of the Nationalist Party, and maintained until 1990.

[See also: Jacob Zuma: unrest shakes South Africa after the ex-president’s detention]

It was not completely novel. Legalised discrimination had been steadily increasing throughout the 20th century in South Africa: mixed marriage was outlawed in 1927, and voting rights for indigenous people had been taken away when Tutu was five years old. But after 1948, a drastic and comprehensive programme of educational segregation, land seizure and physical separation was implemented. The human cost of the system was enormous for those who suffered its effects, but corrosive, too, for those who administered it. It bred pervasive corruption in political institutions as much as cruelty, and its shadow in that respect is a long one, affecting all the country’s communities; Mandela’s moral imagination did not exactly communicate itself to all his successors.

We have been reminded in the last few weeks of the poisonous legacy of Jacob Zuma’s presidency: after he was jailed on 7 July over corruption charges, violence and looting spread across the country. But in office, between 2009 and 2018, Zuma had been able to shore up his increasingly kleptocratic regime because he could appeal to a deep sense of unresolved grievance and disillusion with much of the political establishment: a pattern not unfamiliar elsewhere.

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While Tutu certainly saw himself as a servant of truth on behalf of his people, he also adamantly resisted any wholesale demonising of the white population, even while naming apartheid as unequivocally evil. His frequent use of the African ideal of Ubuntu – a sense of common humanity sustained by deep mutual commitment and solidarity – prohibited him, as he saw it, from settling for a replacement of one form of hostile dominance by another. When in 1989-90 African political organisations were finally allowed to exist and Mandela was released from prison, Tutu, like Mandela himself, was convinced that a common future could be built only by a public process which allowed often horrific truths to be told by guaranteeing amnesty for the guilty. When Mandela became president in 1994, he was determined that the traumatic past should not be buried and that there should be public hearings to lay bare the facts of the routine atrocities of the apartheid years – but also that those willingly confessing their complicity should not face prosecution for what they had done.

Hence the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC); hence the obviousness of Tutu’s appointment as its chair – and hence too the ongoing and bitter debate about whether reconciliation is even possible if debts are not paid and justice is not seen to be done. For some vocal critics, the TRC’s work left too many wounds unhealed and reinforced the powerlessness of victims.

By the period of Zuma’s deplorable rule between 2009 and 2018, there was rising anger about the unfinished business of reparation and compensation for those who had suffered most. For some, Mandela and Tutu had pressurised their own community into a premature acceptance of what felt like a blanket impunity for the former agents of state terror.

[See also: Paul Kagame: the hidden dictator]

That debate will continue. What Michael Battle’s impassioned book sets out to show is how Tutu’s religious formation equipped him for the unique political role he occupied in the Commission and more widely. He had always opposed the use of revolutionary violence against the apartheid state – while insisting in his public pronouncements that such violence would be inevitable if the murderousness of the state authorities continued. This was enough to mark him out in the eyes of the government as colluding with “terrorism” – a view shared by a fair number of conservative voices abroad.

The Archbishop, however, was prepared – as Battle’s narrative makes plain – literally to risk his life at the hands of lynch mobs in the townships (intervening physically on at least one occasion to protect a man about to be killed on suspicion of being in the pay of the government), and to risk his reputation in the eyes of some black militants, as well as living with constant threats of assault and death from the government and white activists. Commitment to Ubuntu was not a soft option. But, Battle insists, it was an unavoidable consequence of Tutu’s basic commitments.

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Since St Augustine Christian moralists have acknowledged the difficult truth that violence and injustice destroy the aggressor as much as the victim – which implies that a “just revolution”, or truly effective decolonisation, entails the transformation of the tyrant as well as the tyrannised. Battle, an African-American theologian, has written at length elsewhere about the Ubuntu principle and its challenge to Western individualism and the legacy of Western and white privilege; here he traces how it has mandated for Tutu a clear – but also a particularly vulnerable – path.

In recognising some of the complexities here is emphatically not, for Battle, to settle for a bland “All Lives Matter” evasion. Gross, violent injustice must be named and resisted, narratives and icons changed, privilege dismantled, historic mass larceny rectified. But all this has somehow to be seen in the light of a longer-term confidence that this upheaval is genuinely in the interests of all communities in a divided and unequal society. Racism means that everyone loses.

“I unashamedly present an exemplary life”, says Battle. He is writing hagiography – in the sense not of an unreal portrait of human perfection but of a life that is narrated as a challenge, and as a manifestation of the possibilities of grace. And grace is what takes us beyond debt, satisfaction, even reparation. All this matters; but what is it that makes possible something more? Battle interprets Tutu’s life as that of a “confessor” for his society – someone who provides a safe place for truth-telling – and as embodying the threefold path of the Christian mystic: a purging away of self-regarding perception and habit, a growth in insight or illumination, and ultimately a freedom to look and speak from the perspective of radical union with God.

In stressing that there is more to rectifying injustice than reparation, neither he nor Tutu is saying that reparation does not have a necessary place – and neither, in fairness, did the TRC, whose structure included a Committee for Reparations and Rehabilitation. The commission’s final report in 1998 carried recommendations on financial and symbolic reparation, but there was dissatisfaction that the focus seemed to be on individual redress rather than a systemic shift of resources towards an entire population suffering from corporate abuse and violent injustice.

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Battle is clear that what matters most is the affirmation that there is a genuinely shared good, a solid universal justice, in which former oppressors and former victims can participate. The perspective of grace is essential here, and Battle wants his readers to see how religious commitment can motivate political visions that are recklessly hopeful about a shared human future – as well as the repressive and exclusionary myths it is more often associated with.

If we ask what stops politics breaking down further into the naked struggle for dominance, this book suggests that part of the answer has to be faith of certain kinds. It is worth reading alongside Hammarskjold: A Life, Roger Lipsey’s magnificent 2013 biography of Dag Hammarskjold, the second secretary-general of the UN.

The rare spectacle of significant public and political figures whose work is shaped by disciplines of contemplation and self-examination might stop us assuming that “doing God” is always no more than a cynical courting of fanaticism or a commitment to confessional partisanship. Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are not the only models.

The witness of a figure such as Tutu is important not because there is a discoverable formula for balancing truth and reconciliation (there isn’t), but because the political world needs some agents who can take the risk of humiliation for the sake of something more than victory.

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The book would have benefited from another round of editing (which would have enabled some inconsistencies in the spelling of names, for example, to be ironed out). Its deeply personal flavour (Battle was for a while chaplain to Tutu during the tense days of the early 1990s) is not the problem; the difficulty is that the organisation of the chapters is not always clear, and we are taken rapidly from one period of Tutu’s life to another with minimal help in keeping the overall chronology in focus. Battle has digested a vast amount of material from Tutu’s copious speeches and sermons, and the book abounds in quotable wisdom. Sometimes, though, a sense of the context of specific citations would have clarified things a bit.

Readers might also reasonably want to know more about the figures around the magnetic centre of the Archbishop himself. There is only a passing mention of Denis Hurley, the Roman Catholic archbishop who was another outspoken critic of the regime, and virtually nothing about Tutu’s fellow Anglican bishops in South Africa.

The fact that his two successors, Njongonkulu Ndungane (who took over from Tutu in 1996) and Thabo Makgoba, have continued Tutu’s public engagement with comparable courage and integrity suggests he helped to create something of a lasting culture in the rising generation of church leaders. These are figures whose truth-telling about the corruptions of the African National Congress administration has been no less scarifying than Tutu’s about the old regime. But shaping an ethos for the church’s leadership was not a solitary affair, and Tutu would be the last to suggest that it was.

Some other giant figures of the struggle, like the Reformed pastor Beyers Naudé and the black consciousness pioneer Steve Biko, receive a rather perfunctory treatment. Nor was the anti-apartheid struggle solely a Christian affair. Many courageous allies from the South African Jewish community (such as the late Joel Jaffe) played a prominent part over many years; and given that Tutu’s willingness to read across from the South African experience into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has drawn sharp criticism from some Jewish commentators, it would have been valuable to have some insights on relationships in this area.

This is professedly a book about one figure and his spiritual journey, but the wells from which Tutu drank so deeply in the heat of struggle were not only located in his sacramental and spiritual discipline; they had something to do with those alongside whom he worked.

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There is probably another book to be written on Tutu’s friends – a formidably large body of individuals around the world, inside and outside the Christian churches. The Dalai Lama’s foreword to the book is evidently not just a formal compliment. But Battle shows us a somewhat lonely figure, for all Tutu’s famously uninhibited warmth and conviviality. A childhood experience of serious illness is notoriously a predictor of solitary habits in adulthood.

“Mystical” is an ambitious word to use of anyone, but Battle wants us to take it seriously as a description of Tutu. To stand in the particular place Tutu has occupied – a place that has invited criticism from both black and white communities in South Africa, a place that has involved constant risk, including mortal risk – requires an overwhelming sense of rootedness, and of detachment from the judgement of others. If Tutu is deeply loved, it is in part because he so seldom projects the need to be loved. A hard lesson for the public person to learn.

“An exemplary life”: not without ­shadows, not without failures and false starts. But at least a life that stops us taking for granted that we are doomed to be stuck on the side of the chasm where we can only ever see the facts of hurt and violence, not the truth of some deeper human (or divine) possibility. 

Desmond Tutu: A Spiritual Biography of South Africa’s Confessor  
Michael Battle
Westminster John Knox Press, 396pp, £30

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 21 July 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century