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Archbishop Tutu's death: a legacy of peace meets the ghosts of apartheid

January 17, 2022
topics: Racism
by: Cyril Zenda
located in: South Africa
tags: Africa, apartheid, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, racism, South Africa, white supremacy

The world joined South Africans in celebrating the life of Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop who fought tirelessly to end Apartheid in his country. But some sought to blame the late archbishop for the injustices that have continued to plague South Africa decades into the majority rule.

On 26 December, Archbishop Desmond Tutu died from cancer at the age of 90. The retired Anglican cleric became a global household name in the 1980s and in the early 1990s as he fearlessly fought the brutal Apartheid system in his native South Africa. He ultimately received  a Nobel Peace Prize for his indefatigable efforts.

Tutu, the humanitarian and human rights activist who preached nonviolence, was both mourned and remembered by religious and political leaders in Africa and across the globe. He was the first black Bishop of Johannesburg in 1985 and from 1986 the Archbishop of Cape Town until his retirement in 1994. 

A Life Well-Lived

"His legacy is moral strength, moral courage and clarity," the current Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, said of Tutu. "He felt with the people. In public and alone, he cried because he felt people’s pain. And he laughed - no, not just laughed, he cackled with delight - when he shared their joy." 

"A life well-lived, not perfect but well lived. An ambassador of reconciliation, peace, love, tolerance,” Trevor Itumeleng Molefe, a South African pastor said of Tutu in an interview with FairPlanet. “He had a backbone. Stood for what he believed in. [Tutu] spoke the truth as it is without fear, favour or compromise."

Zimbabwe Council of Churches' secretary general, Reverend Kenneth Mtata, told FairPlanet that Tutu’s influence transcended boundaries.

"His life leaves a legacy of how the church ought to behave in the public […] that it must be committed to justice, that it must defend those who are unjustly treated and that it must do so on the basis of the dignity of all people that God recognise in each and all of us," said Reverend Mtata.

Similar sentiments were expressed across the world, from Vatican City to Washington and from Beijing to London, with religious and political leaders praising the man who devoted the better part of his life to making South Africa the Rainbow Nation that he believed God had intended it to be.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Upon his retirement as Archbishop, Tutu assumed the chairmanship of the emotive Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a transitional justice platform that extracted heart-rending testimonials of Apartheid violence from both victims and perpetrators as a way to heal South African society. It was from this commission that Tutu added to his enemies from across the racial divide. 

Added to these, Tutu also acquired enemies - both within and outside of the church - because of his outspokenness on a number of issues, among them his open support for the LGBTQ+ community, his stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict and his opinion on climate change, among many other unpopular positions that he stood for. 

But the most severe criticism of Tutu came from his former colleagues in the anti-Apartheid struggle who accused him of "selling-out". This criticism against Tutu was not helped by the fact that the former Archbishop had severed what had remained of his ties with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party as its members got irritated with his blistering criticism of them as they increasingly drifted away from the core ideals of their struggle.

'Tutu the Sell-Out'

"We will respect the Archbishop Tutu," said Noko Kgomo, a young South African in a social media post, of the man widely venerated as the country’s "moral compass" and
national conscience." "But we also acknowledge that he architectured the TRC that brought no truth and reconciliation," the post further reads. 

The most serviceable example of Tutu’s "selling out" is the appearance of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela before him at the TRC in 1997, where Tutu literally begged her to apologise for the death of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, who was tortured to death in her home. This did not sit well with Madikizela-Mandela’s supporters, who felt Tutu was more “soft” on the defenders of Apartheid than on those who fought against it.

As a result, amid the hagiography around Tutu’s life, there was no shortage of those, like Kgomo, who accused him - just as they did Nelson Mandela,  of “selling out”, thereby allegedly setting the ground for the racial inequalities that have been perpetuated in South Africa to this day.

"Tutu... refused to indulge in the politics of revenge"

Not a Sell-out

Just like Mandela, Tutu has been accused by younger generations - especially the followers of the radical political outfits such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Radical Economic Transformation (RET), of being “too soft” on white South Africans.

Many analysts, however, argue that there appears to be a lack of full appreciation for the Herculean effort that was needed to end over three centuries of deeply entrenched white domination in South Africa, which results in most youths - who never endured the horrors of Apartheid - accusing Tutu of joining Mandela in selling out to whites.

Ismail Lagardien, a South African writer, columnist and political economist, disagrees with the notion that Tutu sold out during the reconciliation process.

"The first problem that the EFF has with the political settlement and subsequent reconciliation process is that it was insufficiently punitive (and rapacious) and that whites got away with murder, sometimes literally," wrote Lagardien. "Again, there is a lot of truth in the latter. In the EFF’s view, both processes failed to summarily and wilfully take land from white people and give it to Africans, in a conspiratorial deal with whites."

He pointed out that Tutu and Mandela were opposed to the politics of revenge - which he says is the touchstone of EFF political economic policies - without losing sight of rolling back the injustices of the past. 

"Tutu and Mandela were social democrats. They avoided 'playing god,' and refused to indulge in 'the politics of revenge' and infused their words and deeds with humanism and a morality that is greater and more progressive than revolutionary reveries that include rapine," Lagardien further stated. "Above all, they respected the Constitution, but never forgot that many people had been left behind, were excluded and were waiting for a peace dividend."

Structural Reforms Advocate

Academics Claire-Anne Lester and Carilee Osborne, in an opinion article, also countered most of the accusations against Tutu.

The duo pointed out that Tutu was no neoliberal sell-out, as alleged by his detractors, as he was an advocate for structural reforms in South Africa. 

"We argue that much of the social failings attributed to Tutu and his role in the TRC are in fact a product of the ANC’s failure to implement the Commission’s progressive recommendations and socioeconomic emancipation more broadly," the academics pointed out.

During the TRC, Tutu had proposed a tax on those who benefitted from Apartheid - an idea that never saw light of the day. 

"Tutu himself did not renege on his call for a wealth tax nor was he content to let racialised 'white' South Africans forget their role in continued oppression, reminding them of this in public appearances well into democracy," they said.

Current Dispensation To Blame

Lester and Osborne went on to blame the state of affairs in South Africa on the current government, which they claim is reluctant to implement the recommendations of the TRC. 

"This is also evident in the fact that although the TRC denied 5,392 people amnesty (only 849 applicants were granted amnesty), the National Prosecuting Authority did not pursue most cases in which amnesty was denied or when a named perpetrator refused to apply for amnesty at all. This is a failure of the post-Apartheid government and should be criticized by all South Africans. However, it is not a failure of Tutu himself nor even of the TRC."

They further claim that the unwillingness of the post-Apartheid dispensation to pursue these recommendations should be viewed as a symptom of a broad unwillingness by the ANC government to incorporate the TRC’s findings as a central part of the post-Apartheid nation-building project.

"In recent years, the ANC - after losing much of its moral status through corruption scandals, state brutality and factional strife - has tended to use the negotiated settlement, the constitution and the TRC as scapegoats for its own failure to deliver justice to the majority."

They added that the attacks on Tutu are part of this attempt to revise history and to explain away the ANC’s shortcomings.

Image by World Economic Forum

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
South Africa
Desmond Tutu, Anglican Archbishop Emeritus and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, speaks at a public debate on the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe, on 1 July, 2008 at the University of Cape Town.
© RODGER BOSCH/AFP via Getty Images
Tutu and Mandela were opposed to the politics of revenge.
© STR/AFP via Getty Images
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