Maritzburg Sun (South Africa)
Two interactions with Tutu: our Mahatma?
Although I cannot claim to have known Archbishop Tutu well, I was fortunate enough, in fact blessed, to experience and benefit from his generosity of spirit and magnanimity, on two occasions in Pietermaritzburg.
I was proud to be a founding member of the Pietermaritzburg Gandhi Memorial Committee, which had been formed at the instigation of Deserath Bundhoo, with the first objective being the erection of a Gandhi statue in our city in time for the centenary of Gandhi’s eviction at our railway station on June 6, 1893. As a City Councillor I was tasked with securing a site, while the treasurer, Kay Makan, set about securing the funding. I was able to convince the City Council that a statue of Gandhi would complement the other statues – Victoria, Shepstone, Retief and Maritz – in our central city, and that in front of the former Colonial Buildings in the recently pedestrianised Church Street was the most appropriate site. Given that the Gandhi Committee would bear all the costs, my motion was approved. A national sculpture competition was launched, with Lorna Ferguson, the curator of the Tatham Art Gallery, providing valuable assistance about the 1,5 times life size of the statue and the need to mount it on a plinth. A number of maquettes were submitted, and Philip Colby’s readily recognised depiction of Gandhi wearing a loin cloth dhoti, his trademark spectacles, and striding out with stick in hand, was chosen.
Given his standing, Dr. ‘Chota” Motala, the chairperson of the committee, was able to secure that Nelson Mandela would attend, and that Tutu would do the unveiling on Sunday, June 6, 1993. The City Hall was jam packed, with hundreds outside as well. Mandela spoke in his customary somewhat slow and serious tone:
“We are living in a time when the concept of non-violent resistance is facing a serious challenge. This occasion is an auspicious one in that we have an opportunity to renew our commitment to forging peace.
The event is also very significant because we are unveiling here the very first statue of an anti-colonial figure and a hero to millions of people worldwide. Gandhi influenced the activities of liberation movements, civil rights movements and religious organizations in all five continents of the world.
Today as we strive to achieve a date for the first democratic elections in this country, the legacy of Gandhi has an immediate relevance. He negotiated in good faith and without bitterness. But when the oppressor reneged he returned to mass resistance”.
I remember being struck by the fact that Mandela has clearly read about Gandhi’s tactics, and was drawing parallels with state of affairs in 1993. I vowed to probe Gandhi’s influence on Mandela, and hope to publish my conclusion, that Mandela can be described as a legal disciple of Gandhi, in 2022.
At the unveiling, Tutu noticed me taking photographs and beckoned to me. He was chuckling in that impish laugh of his, and he thanked me for choosing the site and burying apartheid. Immediately prior to pulling the chord and unveiling the statue, Tutu paraphrased Mandela’s earlier words:
“What is more extraordinary is that the statue of a black man is installed in the middle of a white city. In honouring the soul of the great Mahatma we are honouring ourselves”.
Significantly, upon receiving the Freedom of Pietermaritzburg, on April 25, 1997, President Nelson Mandela said: “I accept the freedom you bestow on me with humility, knowing that through me, you are honouring the whole South African nation”. Indeed, great minds think alike, and, in my book, Tutu is South Africa’s Mahahtma, or great soul.
My second encounter with Tutu took place shortly after I became the mayor of the Pietermaritzburg-Msunduzi Transitional Local Council in 1995. It was an honour to be the first ANC mayor, and to have the IFP’s Fanele Khwela as the deputy mayor, in an effort to promote harmony. But far more daunting was the task of making all of the councillors feel at home as they represented for the first time in the city’s divided history, all of the communities in Edendale and the northern areas of the city. Those communities had never seen, much less had a mayor, before.
I chose therefore to make a fresh start by not increasing the mayor’s allowance of R 7 500 per month, which met with mild approval, and by not wearing the mayoral chain at my inauguration or for the official mayoral portrait. I chose to wear a new South African flag tie which unleashed a torrent of personal attacks and abuse. The Carbineer’s Band declined to play at my inauguration but Joshua Radebe’s Choral Society performed admirably and had everyone swaying. Believe it or not but there was a by-law which prohibited African dancing on the City Hall stage.
Another storm in the proverbial was my decision to do away with the saying of the Lord’s Prayer at the opening of each full council meeting. It dawned on me that the majority of the councillors were most likely not Christians or even believers, so I introduced a moment of silence to allow councillors to pray or meditate, followed by all saying the following dedication:
“We, the people who constitute the Pietermaritzburg-Msunduzi Transitional Local Council, dedicate ourselves to the attainment of equal opportunity, justice and a better life, for all the people who live within our area of jurisdiction.”
I asked Professor Adrian Koopman for a suitable Zulu expression and he came up with: “Simunye edolobheni lethu”
(We are one for we all live in the same city).
I believed that this opening was more in keeping with our new constitution, freedom of religion and multiple official languages. Numerous councillors and senior officials complimented me.
However, I had recently been confirmed in the Anglian church by the then Bishop of Natal Michael Nuttall, and some Anglicans were unhappy. Shortly thereafter we were invited by Bishop Michael, who had dubbed himself as number two to Tutu, to an evening meal at which Archbishop Tutu would be present. Several other local priests were present, and wasted no time in expressing their displeasure that an Anglican mayor had removed the Lord’s prayer from council proceedings. Tutu listened attentively and calmly asked me to explain, which I nervously did. The “Arch”, as he referred to himself, smiled and said he understood my intentions and in fact approved. It was the ice breaker and a joyous and enjoyable evening followed.
Mandela always eschewed being called a saint, and I am not learned enough to suggest that Tutu qualifies for sainthood or being an apostle, but my two limited and brief interactions with The Arch, as well as his life’s work, suggest to me that he was our Mahatma. Om shanti shanti shanti, peace be with you.