Monday, February 28, 2011

Desmond Tutu - a man who made tough decisions (part 2)

Rather than make the post go on forever, I thought I would cut it up into 3 sections. And I hope to concentrate on the major decisions he made in his life rather than all the details of his inspiring story. Of course, it's not always easy to stick to a brief like that! Part 1 of the story is here. Here goes with Part 2.

We left Tutu and his family comfortably settled in London while he studied for his degree in theology. He earned his bachelor of Divinity degree in 1965, but before he did so he received an offer to continue his studies at a post-graduate level in the UK. This interested him and he wrote to the King's College administration explaining why he though he would benefit by staying. He believed that the more qualified he was when he returned, the more ridiculous would seem the apartheid policy to earnest and intelligent people. The administration agreed and so, his scholarships were extended for a year to allow him to complete his masters degree.

This was a good time for the family as they enjoyed the relative comfort that life in London had to offer them. Moreover, for Tutu it was one of the important experiences of life as it helped him to dispel some of the bitterness he felt towards the white people for their role in apartheid. Being able to argue with  whites on the same intellectual level, being treated as a respected member of the group he was part of and being accepted as the parish-priest of a white community in the suburbs of London allowed him to jettison any feelings of inferiority he may have felt and grow in personal stature as well as academic distinction. And the warmth and fellowship he received from his white parishioners touched him and convinced him that the same harmony and mutual enrichment were possible even back home in South Africa.

Moving back to South Africa at the height of apartheid was not easy and the Tutus found it hard to adjust to the third-class treatment they received in their homeland. But after a short time at home, they relocated to a seminary for black students in Alice, which was the ideal place to readjust to the life in South Africa after his stay in Britain. There were only 2 black staff on the faculty but a relatively open environment existed in the seminary and the different races moved freely among each other with little reference to the discrimination that existed outside its walls. Tutu enjoyed this interaction as well as the opportunity to shape the thinking of young black minds. All around him 'black consciousness' and 'black pride' were sweeping the nation but Tutu adopted the policy of nonracialism not allowing himself to be drawn into the emotionalism that his black students and associates were embracing. At the same time, he was not afraid to speak his mind on apartheid, which he believed was immoral. He was once asked to preach in the  University chapel where he compared South Africa to Czechoslovakia, where too, the citizens were struggling under government repression. He was never asked to preach there again. In another instance he was told that a non-violent protest his students were involved in had turned ugly and the police were going to arrest them. He rushed to the spot and told the police they would have to arrest him too, thus forcing the police to back down. These incidents while playing a very minor part in the grander scheme of African emancipation did however sensitise Tutu to the role he could play in the struggle of his people.

After three years, Tutu had excelled so much at the seminary that his name was being discussed for the post of vice-principal and it was widely believed he would become the principal one day. His acceptance in the local community was universal and his role in the larger struggle against apartheid was beginning to grow. It was at this point that Tutu made another decision that seemed to be in the opposite direction to the path he had been taking so far. He accepted a position as lecturer in a University in the neighbouring country of Lesotho and transferred his family there, while sending his two older children to a private school in Swaziland. It is possible that the reasons for this move were mainly the increased salary, as well as escape for his family from the stifling confines of apartheid. And so for the next two years, he taught in Lesotho, away from the ever-growing struggle of his people back home. But during this time, he immersed himself in academia, making his own original contributions in the field of 'black theology' which catered to the victims of racial oppression, reassuring them that they were children of God, just like the whites and helping them to regain their pride and dignity which many years of discrimination had eroded.

And then, within 2 years came another move - this time back to the United Kingdom. Tutu was asked to become an associate director of the London-based Theological Education Fund, a branch of the World Council of Churches. Coming so close to his latest move and knowing it would take him far away from the anti-apartheid struggle that was growing back home, this may have been another difficult decision for Tutu. But he knew this important assignment would give him international stature and he believed he could use his position to funnel some of the funds back to his homeland for theological education there. Moreover, he knew the move would be good for his family and for his children's education. And so for the second time in the decade, the Tutu family relocated to London. It was, just like before, a good time for the family. The children enjoyed the British schools and the whole family found freedom and acceptance among the British people. Tutu's job involved a lot of travel and with his focus on Africa, he often found himself in places of crisis and suffering. Uganda under Idi-Amin, Ethiopia under Haile Salassie, Nigeria after the Civil War, Rhodesia under the white supremacist regime - all these places where he saw suffering and dislocation served to broaden his understanding of the continent and its problems. And while his feelings of insecurity were being replaced by pride in his black identity, there were still moments of doubt as is evidence by an anecdote he once shared. Boarding a plane in Nigeria, he was proud to see two black pilots at the controls. But then fear kicked in - would the plane be safe without a white person in charge? He realised he had never flown without a white man a the controls. Of course, the plane landed safely, but it is an indication of the effectiveness of the apartheid indoctrination that even at this stage, this accomplished black leader could wrestle with such doubts.

After 3 years, Tutu had not only gained an international perspective, but he had proved to be an excellent fund-raiser as well as a good leader. Many people in the organisation were suggesting that he would become the next director. But yet again, he was faced with and made a tough decision. The position of bishop of Johannesburg fell vacant and Tutu was one of those considered for the job. A senior white prelate, the dean of Johannesburg, was finally appointed, who then asked Tutu to take his place as the dean. This was a major turning point in Tutu's life. He knew that if he went back to this important position in South Africa, he would be forced into the forefront of the debate on apartheid. He knew that there were great opportunities awaiting him on a worldwide forum if he stayed and completed his contract at TEF. He knew how difficult it would be to uproot his family from the secure life of London, which they had come to love. He knew that his wife was not at all happy to relocate from peace and tranquility of London to the strife and upheaval in Johannesburg., a situation that was simmering, waiting to explode at the smallest spark. It was probably one of his toughest decisions he had to make to date. But in 1975, the Tutu family left the land they had come to love for the land of their birth - and in doing so, made the first step of a journey that was to alter the course of South African history.

To be continued........

(Most of the information is from the book Desmond Tutu, A biography by Steven Gish as well as articles cited there.)

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