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Bishop Desmond Tutu retires… again

8 October 2010

Desmond Tutu has lived a fairly active life since his retirement as Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, not least as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But now he is to retire again: Tutu retires from public life – Africa – Al Jazeera English:

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu has retired from public life on his 79th birthday, after decades of struggle and activism, primarily against apartheid in South Africa, and more recently on other global issues.

The former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town said that after his birthday on Thursday, he would limit his time in the office to one day per week until February 2011.

The news stirred memories of him, and I thought I would write a few of them down. I seem to have done that a lot for people who have died lately, but better to do it while he is still alive — the dead can’t answer back. Not that I expect him to read my humble blog, but at least the possibility is there. Not that I knew him well, or that we were close friends or anything like that, but our paths crossed on several occasions over the last 50 years.

I first met him when he was a student at St Peter’s Theological College in Rosettenville in 1959, and I was a student at Wits University, and got to know a few of the students there, especially at the “Shoe Parties” that used to be held at St Benedict’s Retreat House. Desmond Tutu was bright and bouncy, and when introducing himself would tell people that they could remember his name because it sounded like a motorbike (in Zulu a motorbike is the onomatopoeic isithuthuthu). A friend’s mother, however, said she thought he was bumptious, because he addressed her by her first name right after they met, and she was a bit old fashioned, and didn’t think a young man should do that. Desmond Tutu, however, was older than he looked, and had worked for ten years before going to theological college, at least part of the time as a teacher.

I was present at Desmond Tutu’s ordination as deacon (when another St Peter’s friend, Sipho Masemola, was made priest), and also when he was ordained priest, along with Jacob Maleke, and two others I knew, Benjamin Photolo and John Futter, were made deacons. Jacob Maleke and Benjamin Photolo had been at the first Anglican Students Federation conference at Modderpport in the Free State, and I had given them a lift there. By the time they were ordained, however, I had left Wits University, having failed my first year, and was working as a bus conductor for the Johannesburg Transport Department. Desmond Tutu rode on my bus on his way to see the bishop at Westcliff, and we chatted in between having to collect fares. I little suspected that a future Archbishop of Cape Town was riding on my bus.

I didn’t see Desmond Tutu again for five years, he went overseas to study, and it was only when I myself went to study in the UK that I met him again — at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s garden party in Lambeth Palace. It was held to welcome missionaries and overseas visitors. It was an interesting experience. We lined up to greet the Archbishop (Michael Ramsey) and his wife, who each said “How dyoo doo?” Like the laity’s “‘Owzit awright?” it was a rhetorical question requiring no answer. From there we were ushered into the crowded library, where I didn’t know a soul, and felt rather overwhelmed and intimidated, until I saw Desmond Tutu, the first familiar face. He was there with his wife Leah and two-year-old daughter Pussy (no doubt a dignified matron by now), and told me he had landed with his bum in the butter in the up-market parish of Bletchingley, where they were well cared for by the parishioners.

When I returned to South Africa in 1968, he was teaching at St Peter’s College, his alma mater, though by then it had been forced to move to Alice in the Eastern Cape, and it was also part of the Federal Seminary. I was spending a term at St Paul’s College in Grahamstown, and we visited St Peter’s a couple of times while I was there. Once was to play a soccer match (which St Peter’s won, 2-1) and the other was for the St Peter’s leavers dinner. But though Desmond Tutu was there, I didn’t speak to him much. By then he was staff and we were still students, and so we spent much of the time drinking beer with the St Peter’s students in their rooms. He did make a speech at the leavers’ dinner, which  he had written on an enormous number of old exam papers stapled together, but I can’t remember what he said.

I did not see Desmond Tutu again for nearly ten years. I spent the next few years in Namibia, and became convinced of the need for theological education by extension (TEE). I was unable to pursue that after being banned in 1972, but in that year Desmond Tutu went to work for the Theological Education Fund (TEF)of the World Council of Churches. I don’t know exactly what he did when he was there, but he did travel through much of Africa and became familiar with theological education elsewhere in the continent, and the TEF produced a series of textbooks, some of which were very good indeed. If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, then they make good eating.

I still have the early church history one,The First Advance by John Foster. It was the first basic church history text I had ever seen that was not almost completely Eurocentric. It is one of the only Western text books that I can use with Orthodox students. I’m not sure how much Desmond Tutu was responsible for this, but I’m sure his familiarity with the needs of theological education in Africa contributed something to it.

By 1978 our own small contribution to TEE, the Khanya Theological Correspondence Course, had coalesced with two others to become the Theological Education by Extension College (TEEC), and Desmond Tutu, by then General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, was chairman of the board, and so I met him fairly regularly at board meetings. At one meeting he rushed through the agenda at great speed, because he had another meeting to attend afterwards, and a couple of us from Zululand remonstrated with him, pointing out that his approach to time was far too Western, and that we had come a long way for the meeting, and felt that we weren’t getting our money’s worth.

There was also a public row between Desmond Tutu and Gatsha Buthelezi of Inkatha over an incident at Robert Sobukwe’s funeral. The Zululand Council of Churches was very concerned about it, and the Anglicans of Zululand even more so, and we discussed ways of trying to get the two of them together and to achieve some kind of reconciliation. The spectacle of a prominent Anglican bishop and a prominent Anglican layman in a public tiff was not very edifying. Eventually I was asked to try to persuade Desmond Tutu to coem to Zululand for a meeting, to “get the two bulls into the kraal” as one of the clergy put it. I tentatively proposed this to Desmond Tutu at a tea break in one of the TEE College board meetings, and he seemed genuinely afraid that if he appeared in Zululand he would be lynched, but later he did write to Buthelezi to ask for a meeting.

In 1979 was SACLA, the Southern African Christian Leadership Assembly. Desmond Tutu spoke at one of the evening sessions and gave a rousing evangelistic sermon. If he hadn’t been preaching to the choir (after all these were 5000 South African Christian leaders) he could have issued an altar call and no doubt hundreds would have come forward. I gave a couple of evangelicals a lift home afterwards. They didn’t speak to me — I was just the driver. But from what they said among themselves I gathered they were deeply suspicious of Desmond Tutu, and thought he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, trying to pull the wool over their eyes by using evangelical language to make them think that he was one of the good guys. Having known Desmond Tutu for 20 years I was pretty sure that he meant what he said, but the evangelicals had never met him, and knew only the image that the media had created, and found too great a discrepancy between that and the man himself. They were also deeply suspicious of the charismatic renewal movement (then at its height) and of SACLA generally. Those they trusted formed a very narrow circle indeed, and there wasn’t anyone in it that I knew.

Another interesting meeting chaired by Desmond Tutu was a Consultation to Evaluate the World Council of Churches Programme to Combat Racism, held at Hammanskraal in 1980. The Programme to Combat Racism (PCR) had been running for 10 years, and the WCC had asked for feedback from its member churches on how effective it had been. One of the problems of the conference at Hammanskraal is that there was no documentation on what the PCR had done in the preceding 10 years, so there was no way of evaluating it. But there were two incidents that illustrated something of Desmond Tutu’s approach to things, one good, and one not so good. The good one was when he urged the conference participants to take sin seriously. I won’t go into all the details of that now, because I’ve already posted about that here. The not so good one came at the end, when he raised the question of how to pay for the Consultation, and suggested that it be paid for out of a fund to help the poor, on the grounds that the consultation would benefit the poor. I had my doubts about how much a bunch of middle-class clergy having a jolly time together for a few days would help the poor.

And one more negative thing. Five years after the Hammanskraal consultation there was another such gathering, this time in Grahamstown, a Forum on Christianity in the Southern African Context. Desmond Tutu gave the opening plenary address and was witty and entertaining as usual, but also spoke with a serious purpose, and made a very strong appeal for the forum to be biblical. But he also rather disingenuously claimed that the Symbol of Faith (the so-called “Nicene Creed”) said that women could not be saved, because it said “for us men and for our salvation”. Disingenuous, because as a theologian he ought to have known perfectly well that the Greek anthropos refers to man, male and female, just as the Xhosa umntu does, and if what he said is true, then the much-vaunted ubuntu is likewise only for males and excludes women. However, some Orthodox are just as bad, and at least one Orthodox English translation leaves “men” out, and simply has “for us and for our salvation”, which makes objections to the spurious Western addition of Filioque look rather silly, and opens the way for people to interpret it as meaning “for us Greeks (or Russians, or Serbs) and our salvation”.

In 1988 the Orthodox Archbishop of  Johannesburg and Pretoria awarded a patriarchal medal, the Order of St Mark, to the former head of the South African Police, Brigadier Coetzee. We suggested to Desmond Tutu, who was going to the celebrations of the Millennium of Christianity in Russia, that he drop a word in Patriarch Pimen’s ear that this was equivalent to him awarding a medal to the head of the KGB, and that he pass this on to the Patriarch of Alexandria. Whether Desmond Tutu passed on this message or not I don’t know, but shortly afterwards the Patriarch of Alexandria rescinded the award.

In South Africa Desmond Tutu was often accused of being a “political priest”, and of being more interested in politics than in the Gospel. But as his career draws to an end, I think it can be seen that it was not so. There have been plenty of Christian clergy who have criticised those in power and been accused of being “political”. And some have been political. They criticised the apartheid government, but when it fell, some of them sought, and obtained, positions of power, or close to power, in the new government. Desmond Tutu did not. And he did try to speak the truth to power no matter who held the power. As he appealed to others, he did try to be biblical. And if a prophet is one who speaks the truth to power, the Desmond Tutu did have a prophetic ministry.

During the apartheid time there was a joke that used to be told to illustrate the way in which the government-supporting media attacked him (and in that time even the “opposition” media tended to attack him as well).

It was said that P.W. Botha, the prime minister, went for a swim and got into trouble and yelled for help. Desmond Tutu walked on the water over to Botha and rescued him, and this was then reported in the Nationalist press under the headline “Tutu can’t swim”.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Darrell permalink
    8 October 2010 7:08 am

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Desmond Tutu. I have his book “No Future Without Forgiveness” which is part of my permanent library. I am going to print your essay and include it in the book.

  2. Trevor Stone permalink
    27 December 2021 11:50 pm

    Thank you Steve for a very informative article.


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