Recollections give an insight into Tutu
WHAT emerges from almost every one of the 72 contributions in this book, which draw on an encounter with Tutu and his work, is that his vision for justice, dignity and peace are present not in spite of his deep spirituality and sense of prayer, but because of it.
What is crucial to note is that this disciplined life of prayer and spirituality did not inspire a passive, contemplative life that was free of the moral imperative to fight injustices.
On the contrary, as noted by Archbishop Thabo Makgoba: “Archbishop Desmond Tutu used to say that an effective prayer life would never allow you to remain on your knees. No, it would compel you to get up and go out into the world to bring good news to the oppressed.”
While the phrase “unmute yourself” is arguably the most popular refrain characterising a Covid-19 world, the Archbishop was certainly not afraid to unmute himself during the heydays of the Struggle against apartheid. Numerous contributions reveal that the Arch’s sharp tongue matched his sharp humour and wit.
Werner von Hoerschelmann describes the Arch’s anger directed at the EKD’s (German funder) request to vet the SACC’s (South African Council of Churches) finances, during his tenure as general secretary of the SACC.
He recalls: “I knew Desmond Tutu before. But I had never seen him as enraged as he was that day … With curt and harsh words, he dismissed this imposition … I received a call from Desmond Tutu in which he read to me the riot act! Never had I received such a verbal slap in the face over the phone!”
Why relate these narratives about the Arch’s ability to both quietly and loudly deliver a “verbal slap in the face”?
Nico Koopman provides an answer in the conclusion of his essay where he laments the fact that increasingly, Tutu’s forgiving and reconciling approach is not accepted by a young generation of black public intellectuals.
Koopman states “Allan Boesak rightly warns against this development where white people embrace Tutu just like white Americans cherished Martin Luther King Junior …
“In the process Tutu is domesticated by white people and used as a buffer between restitution and the perpetuation of white privilege and intergenerational racism and inequality”.
Koopman’s assessment is echoed by Rhine Koloti where he makes a case for the importance of restorative justice in cases of gender-based violence in the church as opposed to the “cheap reconciliation” that Boesak speaks of.
The idea of “cheap reconciliation” is countered by Tutu himself as Heike Spiegelberg shows, in reflecting on the sermon that Archbishop Tutu preached at the Boipatong massacre funeral.
Both she and Heinz Joachim Held (from his travel diary) describe the sermon as a masterpiece, and as poetic, vacillating between anger and reconciliation.
“Archbishop Tutu’s description of his understanding of reconciliation was received with visible and audible consent and loud laughter: if you stole somebody’s pen, a very nice and useful pen, it will not be enough to apologise and to say, when it comes out, that you are sorry. Of course you also have to give back the pen!”
The tension between restorative justice and reconciliation is also explored in the essay by Demaine Solomons, where he describes the goal of reconciliation as an absurdity, drawing on the image of Sisyphus, “a figure of Greek mythology who is condemned to repeat the same arduous task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down again once the summit is reached”.
Solomons continues: “Driven by the desire for meaning amid meaninglessness, South Africans embarked on a journey of reconciliation, a romantic pursuit for a new way of being in the aftermath of the absurdity of apartheid.”
Solomons’ essay on the absurdity of reconciliation amidst the absurdity of apartheid, reminded me of a poignant, deeply moving, satirical poem I was introduced to in my African literature and poetry class.
The poem is by Christopher van Wyk in his 1979 collection, and is about the bizarre explanations offered by the apartheid police when political prisoners were killed in their custody:
He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself while washing He slipped from the ninth floor
He hung from the ninth floor
He slipped on the ninth floor while washing He fell from a piece of soap while slipping He hung from the ninth floor
He washed from the ninth floor while slipping
He hung from a piece of soap while washing.
Indeed reconciliation amid the absurdity of not just apartheid, but the continuing social upheaval and trauma three decades after this poem was published, seems bizarre.
Solomons’ appeal in his conclusion, therefore, is apt: “Some difficulties are worth enduring in a world that is as precarious and unsettling as ours. This diagnosis is not a fatality.
“The absurdity of the situation is our reality, but love saves us from it. The paradoxical presence of meaning amid meaninglessness. Perhaps this is the one thing we should learn from the life and work of our beloved Arch.”