Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Desmond Tutu - a man who made tough decisions (part 3)


This has turned out to be much longer than I expected. Apologies to all of you who are not so interested in Desmond Tutu! But writing about him has been really good for me, especially considering the decisions he took at different times of his life. Part 1 and Part 2 spoke about his early life in South Africa and his two stints in London. He was obviously blessed with a brilliant mind considering his rapid rise in ecclesiastical circles. But he also made decisions that were rational and not emotional - especially considering his training and later working in London. While his friends and acquaintances would have been encouraging him to join the 'freedom struggle' back home, he took steps that may have appeared to be escapist to them, but later turned out to be filled with opportunities for personal, professional and family growth that stood him in great stead when the time came for him to finally immerse himself in the anti-apartheid movement.

And that time was when he returned to South Africa at the age of 44 to become dean of Johannesburg. The first indication of his new direction in life came when he chose not to reside in the official dean's residence which was in the posh part of the town, but rather in the black settlement of Soweto - the largest black township in the country. It was a true ghetto. Only 25 percent of the houses had running water and only 15 percent had electricity. There was one telephone for every 26,000 people and very few shops and businesses. Gangs controlled the unlit streets at night and alcoholism and crime were rampant. But Tutu did not want to be considered an 'honorary white' thanks to his position.He also knew that if he was to make any honest statement against apartheid he could not be isolated from the poverty and deprivation that his fellow blacks were facing. And so he took up residence in Soweto, commuting every day to his office in downtown Johannesburg. He also served as the rector of St. Mary's Cathedral, one of the few mulitracial churches in South Africa, where, though blacks and whites worshiped together, racial tensions were not entirely absent.

But just when he was settling into his new responsibilities came an offer to become bishop of the church in Lesotho. This was yet another of the tough decisions that he had to make. While he was keen to rise in the church hierarchy, he was not keen to leave South Africa again so soon after he had returned. However, when he initially refused the offer, the church sent a delegation to him in Johannesburg and he finally accepted. But though the appointment was for 5 years, he was not destined to remain there for very long. In the first year of his bishopry, he was asked to become the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches and he came back to South Africa. The situation there was at a boiling point. The death of 13 year old Hector Peterson on 16 June 1976 in police firing, (now commemorated as youth Day in South Africa) became a symbol of resistance to the brutality of apartheid. Violence erupted all over Soweto. The police resorted to brute force to quell the uprising. By the end of the year more than 500 people had been killed. But the Soweto uprising is often considered the turning point of the struggle against apartheid. For although the uprising had been crushed, the black 'freedom fighters' and the white liberals who supported them had become much better organised and more importantly, non-racialism became the rallying point of most anti-apartheid protesters. 

But just 15 months after Soweto, the anti-apartheid movement received a severe blow when one of its best loved young leaders, Steve Biko was killed by police after being arrested on the way to a political meeting. Tutu was asked to give the eulogy at his funeral. It was one of the most highly charged funerals in South African history as more than 30,000 mourners defied the police and attended the huge open-air ceremony. In deep anguish himself, Tutu gave a moving message to his countrymen that the injustice of apartheid had dehumanised the whites as well as the blacks. Comparing Biko's death to the crucifiction of Jesus, he asked the crowd to pray for the white South African leaders and policemen, that they may regain their humanity. He said that being pro-black was not the same thing as being anti-white and begged his people not to be filled with hatred and bitterness as the whites were not the enemy, the system of apartheid was. And he prayed for peace and reconciliation and also for the victory over oppression, that he believed was just around the corner. Any lesser man might have used the occasion to spew vituperative hate against the white oppressor. But Tutu's message was one of hope, not hatred. And through that speech, not only did he position himself as one of the leaders of the black community in their fight for equal rights, but he also revealed his heart - one that was committed to peace and reconciliation even in the face of senseless brutality and injustice.

Over the next 5 years, Tutu became more and more intimately involved with the anti-apartheid movement. Thanks to his stature and the nature of his position, the government could not treat him like the other activists and throw him in jail. While he was detained by the police on some occasions, he never had to face a jail sentence like the other civil rights activists. Moreover, his international profile and widespread acceptance made it difficult for the police or the government to take any punitive action against him. They were, however, ready to use the press against him and Tutu had to face varied criticisms ranging from accusations of Communism to personal political ambitions. The nation's white leaders lost no opportunity to question the role of the church in politics and suggest that joining anti-government protests were not acceptable for members of the cloth. But these criticisms only served to raise Tutu's acceptance among the black people and they began to look up to him as their spokesperson at a time when speaking out was extremely dangerous. And in the course of his official duties, Tutu traveled throughout the Western World where his inimitable grace, humour and passion brought him much praise and acceptance and raised the profile of the apartheid struggle especially in countries whose trade was the bulwark of the South African economy. At Tutu's encouragement, South Africa's white leaders began to face increasing sanctions that were a major factor in finally bringing down the apartheid regime.

Winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 brought Tutu and the apartheid struggle into keen international focus. Though the government was silent on the issue, there was great rejoicing in the black community as this was proof that their struggle was now taking centre-stage in international politics. And Tutu's appointment as bishop of Johannesburg shortly after only served to cement his position as one of the premier black leaders in the anti-apartheid struggle. By the time F.W. de Klerk was elected as the new President of South Africa in 1989 and announced wide-spread reforms as well as the release of many black leaders including Nelson Mandela, Tutu had risen to the position of Archbishop of Cape Town, yet another position he was the first black to occupy.

The story of the overthrow of apartheid and the first free elections in South Africa have been well-documented as a great victory of non-violent protest. F.W. de Kerk and Nelson Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their role in the smooth transition from apartheid to multi-party democracy. It was clear that just like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Lech Walesa and many others, leaders like Tutu and Mandela had broken the back of a repressive regime through their commitment to non-violence. They had succeeded where many generations of violent protesters had failed. But what happened next was what was truly amazing. As the world watched to see how the black people would use their newly-won power and how they would repay the many centuries of repression and injustice, Mandela surprised the world (and his own followers) with his plan of Truth and Reconciliation. And Desmond Tutu was chosen to head the panel that would for the next few years hear the terrible stories from the years of apartheid, record them and then in a spirit of love and brotherhood forgive the perpetrators and integrate them into the new 'rainbow nation'. 

And for Desmond Tutu, this was a worthy challenge. His life in South Africa had been dedicated to reconciliation between the various members of the South African community and now he had an opportunity to make that reconciliation a reality in a practical way. He had retired from all his church activities and was about to leave South Africa to teach at one of the famous seminaries in the United States, but this was an opportunity that he could not pass up. And so he became the face of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Years after the commission was wound up, it was remarked by many of its members, both black and white, that had he not been the head of the commission, the deep wounds that were reopened by the proceedings every day may have erupted into anger and bitterness. It was his loving, calm and humorous presence that held the commission together and made it the source of much healing in post-apartheid South Africa.

I started this post to talk about the tough decisions Desmond Tutu took throughout his life. Being born in a situation where the odds were stacked against him obviously did not deter him from reaching heights that most of us can only dream of. In spite of all that stood in his way, he kept making decisions that must have been difficult and must have caused some of his friends to wonder if he was on the right path. Giving up his dream of being a doctor, leaving his chosen profession of teaching, leaving his country just when the anti-apartheid movement was taking off, coming back from the UK when his family was well settled and his own professional prospects were opening up, deciding to get involved in the struggle of his people at his great risk to him and his family, calling for reconciliation when all around were baying for revenge........... the decisions he took sometimes defied logic and common wisdom. I wonder how difficult these decisions must have been. But over the last week, I have been speaking to my parents and hearing the story of their tough decisions - some of them as tough as Tutu's in their own way. And they tell me that it was not really that difficult. It was a natural progression of their faith and the discernment they were blessed with at the time that caused them to make the decisions they did. This rings true in my ears especially in the light of Tutu's life. And that is my prayer for our lives as well. That when the time comes to make decisions, we too will be blessed with discernment. And at times when these decisions do not seem to make much logical sense, our faith in the God who guides our steps will allow us to walk steadfastly and firmly along the path. Knowing that in the past He has been faithful. And we can trust Him till the end.

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