In 1988, during a tense meeting between President P. W. Botha and the mulish racial ideologue P. W. Botha, Archbishop Desmond Tutu observed as both men lost their tempers.
Then the president began to wag his finger at South Africa’s most senior churchman. Tutu was never one who would avoid confrontations and was always conscious of his Nobel Peace Prize award. He climbed into his chair.
‘Don’t think you’re talking to a small boy!’ he spat out at Botha, abandoning all restraint.
Later he reflected ruefully to his biographer John Allen: ‘I don’t know whether that is how Jesus would have handled it, but our people have suffered for so long and I might never get this chance again.’
Tutu’s natural habitat in the 1980s was in the midst of the great stand-off between an increasingly angry young black population and the brutal white-led security forces
At night, Tutu spoke to international television anchors about the shocking events in South Africa and why their governments must impose sanctions to force Nelson Mandela’s release from prison
After being announced the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1984, Tutu was photographed with Leah (right).
After his death in Cape Town aged 90, the Queen led tributes, describing him as a ‘tireless champion’ for human rights
Tutu’s natural habitat in the 1980s was in the midst of the great stand-off between an increasingly angry young black population and the brutal white-led security forces.
He would soon be at the forefront of political turmoil in his townships, flanked by rubber bullets, broken glass and live ammunition.
At night he would be in a studio, talking to international television anchors about the shocking events in South Africa and why their governments must impose sanctions to force Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.
He was a pivotal player in the end of apartheid. It was an honor to play that role.
But to say that Pretoria’s most turbulent priest was a showman, or indeed a show-off, is not to diminish the vital part he played in effecting South Africa’s relatively peaceful transition from white domination to black majority rule.
Yesterday, after his death in Cape Town aged 90, the Queen led tributes, describing him as a ‘tireless champion’ for human rights.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation, which highlighted the friendship between the two men, said the loss was ‘immeasurable’.
Prince Harry and wife Meghan issued a statement saying: ‘He was an icon for racial justice and beloved across the world.’
Boris Johnson declared him a ‘critical figure in the struggle to create a new South Africa’.
After being released in 1990 from Robben Island Prison, Nelson Mandela was freed and walks alongside Desmond Tutu.
Tutu became so outraged by the government that the government twice banned his passport. Ministers, however, never managed to get the courage to jail the churchman most revered after the Pope.
Tutu had both the ability to provoke and be a mediator. In those final years of Apartheid, when I was stationed in South Africa I can’t count how many protest marches or rallies I witnessed.
He would almost always be the keynote speaker — the rest of the leadership were imprisoned or banned from public speaking and he was de facto leader of the black opposition. He would start by whipping up the angered youths to rage over the most recent apartheid atrocity.
Then he would perform a rhetorical somersault and order the crowd to disperse and go home peacefully, and not bring shame to the reputation of ‘The Struggle’ by resorting to violence.
He was shrewd enough to realise that Pretoria feared economic sanctions more than the African National Congress’s largely ineffective campaign of violence against the apartheid state.
Reverend Desmond Tutu seen at Buckingham Palace, London, England during an audience with Queen Elizabeth II
Vancouver, British Columbia, 2004: The Dalai Lama meets Mr Tutu
Botha was most afraid of his repeated requests to America and Europe for investment freezes and international bank lending stops.
Tutu was an Anglican priest who preferred to remain at the pulpit than run for office. He felt that he was forced to enter the political vacuum caused by the ban on the ANC in South Africa’s 1980s chaos.
He loved being in the public eye. People like Botha — who did Tutu the singular honour of branding him ‘Public Enemy No.1’ — resented his celebrity. However, there was also some resentment among his closest political allies that he seemed to enjoy the world’s attention more than was best for him.
The 1980s saw us journalists joke about how it was foolish to try and get in between the archbishop of Rome and the television cameras.
After meeting with Tutu at Sinn Fein headquarters, Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein, met up with Tutu. Tutu made a brief visit to Northern Ireland as part of his peace-promoting mission.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta was with Archbishop in Cape Town prior to an October 10, 1988 lunch. Mother Teresa visited Cape Town in order to inaugurate a House of Charity for a black community.
The showman in him loved shocking visitors to his office by picking up the phone and without knowing who was on the line, answering with a slightly camped up, ‘Hello darling!’
He loved being known by his nickname ‘The Arch’. He would have been an actor if he hadn’t been ordained.
He asked us to not be side-by side when we flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg.
I used midflight to use a visit to the lavatory for a pretext and went past his seat. However, I was surprised that he was still reading through a glossy mag.
His eyes closed when I returned, and his hands were clasped over his bible in solemn prayer. He was only 5ft 4in tall, but he insisted on traveling first class to anti poverty conferences.
South Africans today will remember him for his incredible physical and moral courage. They also recognize his role in the relatively peaceful downfall of apartheid.
One example of both kinds of courage is evident in his speech to 15,000 mourners at Griffiths Mxenge’s funeral. Griffiths Mxenge was killed by state-killers in 1981.
The word spread that an informant was among them. A can of petrol and a car tyre materialised and the man seemed doomed to become a victim of the hideous practice of ‘necklacing’, in which the tyre was set on fire around a victim’s neck.
Tutu was quick to throw himself in front of the suspect informer, and ordered everyone to move away. Tutu took the victim’s cassock, stained with blood, to his vehicle and drove the suspect away.
Tutu was a black boy born in Klerksdorp (a small, rural town to the west of Johannesburg) in 1931. He was the son of a drunken headmaster. However, his father instilled discipline academically in him.
He was a little boy when he got polio, which left him with a severely atrophied hand. His lungs were permanently damaged by tuberculosis later on.
Tutu and his wife Leah trained as teachers, but both resigned in protest when the Nationalist government tightened the rules on ‘Bantu education’, an inferior curriculum for black children.
Tutu would always say Leah, to whom he was married for 66 years and who survives him, was ‘much more radical than me’.
His rapid ascent to the top of Anglican hierarchy after he was ordained was a sign of his ability. He was selected for further study, and enrolled at King’s College London in 1962 for a master’s degree in theology.
He became an amused witness to London during the Swinging Sixties. Tutu also worked part-time as a curate at Golders Green while he was studying.
Tutu shared with me, years ago, that the kindness of the white English people towards him and his family helped him realize how evil apartheid really was.
It was amazing to him that whites would happily queue behind black men and that the police officers were so polite.
He relished aspects of the high life, proudly recalling that he had been taken as a guest both to Lord’s and the Travellers Club in Pall Mall.
He said the family’s return to South Africa in 1967 was a disturbing change for all of them and, after they went back, critics complained Tutu never stayed long in any position before his ambition led him to take the next step.
However, he was far more charismatic than his clergy colleagues and Anglican Church needed him to save the towns where the evangelical churches had strongerholds.
In the latter 1970s, his role as the General Secretary of South African Council of Churches was a major international event. It gave him an opportunity to interact with leaders of both the government and the opposition.
Tutu, his family and friends were put in serious danger by these activities. Tutu was at most one time unsuccessfully enlisted by apartheid agents in an attempt to murder an ex-convict.
A poor attempt to steal the front wheels of a hired car was stopped by a TV cameraman.
A second plot to murder him and another churchman was foiled when black soldiers assigned to the job refused to take it on.
Pretoria was aware that it had serious problems with Tutu’s demands for Mandela release and economic sanctions.
It was actually his celebrity that saved him. Tutu’s imprisonment or death would have been enough to trigger the Sanctions he wanted. He was able to rely on the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded in 1984. His reaction however was unusually slow. ‘One day no one was listening,’ he said, ‘the next I was an oracle.’
Mandela was freed from prison in 1990 by the archbishop Tutu.
‘We are the Rainbow People of God. I ask you to welcome our brand-new State President, out of the box, Nelson Mandela,’ he declared.
Tutu was not slow to step aside during the following weeks but he refused to hold his breath as the ANC transformed from a liberation movement to a looting organization. As Tutu once tartly observed, ‘the ANC stopped the gravy train only long enough to get on themselves’.
But one more enormous burden was placed on his shoulders when Mandela insisted he was the only man who could lead South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This was, in effect, a vast, excruciating public inquest into South Africa’s rancid racial politics over the previous 40 years.
Inevitably, it was impossible to satisfy those who wanted apartheid’s criminal enforcers to be shamed and punished in such a setting. The process involved endless wrangles about amnesty as a condition of confessions.
Although Tutu was generally a competent leader, some truths may have had to be covered up in the larger effort to find reconciliation.
He hosted Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, along with their 4-month-old boy Archie, at his charity foundation in Cape Town, September 2019. This was one of his final public appearances.
Britain’s Prince Harry (left) with South African Archbishop Emirit Desmond Tutu who waved at the people while he visited The Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, Cape Town, South Africa, Monday, November 30, 2015.
When I talked to Tutu in Cape Town and Soweto, I noticed a faint worldliness.
Shortly before, ugly rumours surfaced about Bishop Trevor Huddleston, the British churchman who had befriended Tutu’s family when he worked in South Africa. Mother of two children in East London claimed Huddleston was a bishop of Stepney who had sexually abuse her sons. Police were called in to investigate, and the case was drawn up. However, no charges were filed.
Tutu, who was shocked by the allegation and angrily expressed his concern when I disclosed it to him.
‘He used to bounce us boys on his knee and play around with us,’ Tutu recalled. He added rather ambiguously: ‘There was no fondling below the belt.’
It was remarkable to me how someone who had to endure the horrors of apartheid, managed to believe in the goodness inherent to human nature until the end.
Tutu was forced to refuse demands by militant black activists for a role for whites in the fight for freedom throughout his public life. This fight should not be race-based. He argued that he was referring to the horrific scenes he saw while overseeing Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Tutu was among the few who realized that apartheid made the oppressors more humane than those oppressed.
His most notable achievement was his pivotal role in saving South Africa’s from the racial conflict that seemed so inevitable in the 1980s.