Friday, February 25, 2011

Desmond Tutu - a man who made tough decisions


Recently, as we have been considering our own future as well as discussing some of these issues on the blog, Amy and I have been pondering greatly about the way we make life decisions. Do we just go with the flow - take it as it comes and keep going. Or do we regularly assess and reassess our motivations and purpose in the place where we are and consider the future based on that reassessment. And as we consider the future do we do so in the light of our understanding of God or are there other considerations. At the same time do we in our foolishness misinterpret our own desire for the spectacular as God's will for our lives. These questions are all to be personally answered I guess, but reading the biography of Archbishop Desmond Tutu has certainly given me new light on the matter.

The story of Desmond Tutu and his life have been well-documented elsewhere, so I will not dwell on it except to go over the basics. He was born in 1931 in a South Africa that was just beginning to legalise the policy of apartheid or 'separateness' that was intended to divide the nation on racial lines and allow the white minority to keep power for ever. His childhood was unusual for a black child in that he was given a good education thanks to his father being a headmaster of a local school. Displaying a brilliant mind, he excelled in his studies and enrolled in a medical college after his graduation from school. However, his poor family could not provide the high fees required and he had to drop out. He then entered a teachers training pogramme following his father's footsteps.

After completing his training in 1954, he began to teach in a black school in his hometown. It was here that he was forced to make one of the first decisions of conscience of his life. The government had passed the Bantu Education Act, which basically stated that non-whites were to be given an inferior standard of education in accordance with their station in life. As there was already legislation in place preventing most of the white-collar jobs from going to non-whites, the government did not see the purpose of spending money on educating them in things they would never use like Mathematics and science. Rather, Bantu (African) education was aimed at directing students into the unskilled labour market. As the minister for Native Affairs, Hendrik Verwoerd said - 
There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour ... What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live
The government decided that the missionary schools were offering too high a quality of education for the blacks. They gave the schools an ultimatum - follow the new curriculum or risk losing government subsidies. With foreign funds at a minimum, the schools and teachers were forced to make a difficult choice - agree to provide inferior education to the non-white students or face closure. Desmond Tutu as well as a number of well-known educationists decided to give up their source of livelihood rather than accede to a practice which they felt was wrong. Some of the best missionary educational institutions also closed down rather than be part of a system they perceived to be opposite to the principles of love and equality that they stood for. It certainly must have been a tough decision - for Tutu, who had just been married, it would have seemed foolhardy to give up his source of income so soon after the completion of his training. He had set his heart on being a  teacher and now he was giving it up even before he had properly started. Moreover, there must have been voices that told him he could still make a difference, still provide quality education for his people, be the one to break the shackles laid down by the legislation. But he left - and history has proved him right. The Bantu Education Act remained in place till 1979. During which time, each white child was educated at 16 times the amount spent to educate a non-white child.

Faced with yet another career change, Desmond Tutu was drawn to enter the priesthood of the Anglican church. Some of his role models had been white Anglican priests who had gone out of their way to be kind to him in his childhood. One of them, Trevor Huddleston, had visited him in the hospital every weekend when he had been admitted for 20 months with a bad tuberculous infection. Though his parents and many friends were sceptical of this decision, he was sure that God was calling him and he began his second round of training at St. Peter's College in Johannesburg, graduating in 1960 with two distinctions. This was a time when there was growing unrest among the black people as they began to protest the unfairness of the ever-increasing number of rules that they were forced to live with. The Sharpeville massacre when 69 unarmed blacks who were protesting against the Pass Laws (which required all non-whites to carry a pass at all times), were shot down by police, raised tensions and caused the birth of more radical activists. However, while Tutu kept abreast with all that was going on and was friendly with a number of the activists, he did not get involved with the anti-apartheid movement, nor did he lend it support from any platform. He apparently saw his role as a prelate whose role was within the church and totally apolitical.

His next decision was in the lines of his envisioned role. After his ordination in late 1961, he was put in charge of a poor black parish near Johannesburg and he immersed himself in the life of the community, making regular home visits, listening intently to their joys and concerns, sorrowful at their poverty, but moved by their piety. But soon after in 1962, the principal of his college who had noted his brilliance, encouraged him to enroll at Kings College, London for a further degree in theology. Liking the idea, Tutu applied and was accepted. So in the same year that his contemporary Nelson Mandela went to prison, Desmond Tutu arrived in Britain, soon to be joined by his wife and children. There were some people who accused him of deserting the country in its time of need, and others who were suspicious of black South Africans who went abroad for education, either because they did not return, or because the returned with dangerous and radical ideas that were incompatible with society. But these did not bother Tutu and the next three years were spent happily in London, Tutu enjoying the intellectual atmosphere of the college, his children studying in good private schools and the whole family enjoying the relative luxury of their two-bedroom apartment and the life in the UK which was far-removed from the depravity they knew in South Africa.


To be continued.............

Part 2 of this post
Part 3 of this post

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