By George Braine –
The passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu takes my mind back to 2008, when he, as the Chair of The Elders – a group of “independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights” – criticized the Sri Lankan government for its conduct during the war with the LTTE. Taking umbrage, a Sri Lankan “patriot” had written a letter to the local press, criticizing Rev. Tutu. According to that writer, “fighting a terrorist group is violence” for Rev. Tutu. Rev. Further, Tutu had not spoken a word against Zimbabwe’s human rights violations, nor against the Western invasion of Iraq.
In my response, which was published in the same newspaper, I stated that these outrageous statements regarding Rev. Tutu made me cringe. I further stated that, in a Sri Lanka that was becoming increasingly self-centered, where freedom of information is severely curtailed, where journalists critical of the government are often assaulted or killed, we need to maintain at least a semblance of right from wrong. We need, at least occasionally, to be open-minded and self-critical. We need to speak-up.
For the education of that writer and others who held similar views, I presented the following facts. Rev. Tutu was a social and political activist who rose to fame during the 1980s as a non-violent opponent of apartheid. He was ordained the first black South African Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, and, and, at the time of my writing, was primate of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 [when it meant something], the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, and, up to that year, has received more than 40 honorary doctorates (yet does not use the prefix Dr.). In February 2007, he was awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize by the President of India. Tutu was widely regarded as “South Africa’s moral conscience”.
I reminded my readers that, as for Zimbabwe, Rev. Tutu has been critical of the human rights abuses there as well as the South African government’s failed policy of quiet diplomacy towards Zimbabwe. He had called Robert Mugabe, the autocratic, murderous leader of Zimbabwe “a cartoon figure of an archetypal African dictator”. To quote Rev. Tutu further, “We Africans should hang our heads in shame. How can what is happening in Zimbabwe elicit hardly a word of concern let alone condemnation from us leaders of Africa? Do we really care about human rights, do we care that people of flesh and blood, fellow Africans, are being treated like rubbish?”
I went onto state that Rev. Tutu has been equally outspoken about the invasion of Iraq. In January 2003, he had attacked British Prime Minister Blair’s support of President Bush on Iraq. Rev. Tutu asked why Iraq was being singled out when Europe, India and Pakistan also had weapons of mass destruction. According to Rev. Tutu, “Many, many of us are deeply saddened to see a great country such as the United States aided and abetted extraordinarily by Britain”. Rev. Tutu has also been a vociferous critic of the Guantanamo Bay detentions.
In 1986, after a meeting with President Reagan at the White House, Rev. Tutu called Reagan “a racist, pure and simple” and an “unmitigated disaster for us Blacks”.
In 2004, the archbishop accused President Thabo Mbeki, who had succeeded Nelson Mandela as President, of enriching a tiny elite while “many, too many, of our people live in grueling, demeaning, dehumanizing poverty.”
Later in 2008, I travelled to Cape Town to attend an academic conference. The government was in the hands of the African National Congress (ANC), and the leadership was (and remains) Black. They appeared to be highly corrupt. The utterly incompetent Thabo Mbeki’s term was ending, and Jacob Zuma was next in line for President. Zuma had been accused of rape and embezzlement of $3 billion. (He is finally in jail now.)
I read that annually, 500,000 women are raped in South Africa (these are only the cases that are reported) and 4 women die every day at the hands of their spouses or partners. The newspapers were full of letters to the editor, from White citizens judging by their names, complaining incessantly about the deterioration in the living standards, corruption, and crime.
Yet, except for Desmond Tutu, no Black leader appeared to be critical of the falling standards. Take Zimbabwe, South Africa’s neighbor. While Zimbabwe descended into hell (an outbreak of cholera, in addition to a soaring inflation, famine, and a breakdown in law and order), there was hardly any protests from South Africa. What was disappointing was the silence of Nelson Mandela. He was over 90 during my visit, somewhat feeble, and did not make speeches, but even a short written statement from him would have an impact. A South African academic, who faced discrimination under apartheid, told me that, Mandela is only seen in public when a celebrity arrives to make a donation to his Children’s Fund.
For this alone, I hold Rev. Tutu a notch above Nelson Mandela. During my visit to Cape Town, I made the obligatory tour of Robben Island, where Mandela had been imprisoned. But, to my eternal regret, I did not pay a visit to Rev. Tutu, to thank him for his stand on Sri Lanka, and seek his blessings on bended knees.
Desmond Tutu is known for his impish humor, uproarious laughter, or weeping unashamedly, as when he chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and was overcome with emotion. In keeping with his request, he lies in state in the cheapest coffin available.
Now, there is no Desmond Tutu to sound the moral conscience. We are the losers for it. I can go on, but I’ll conclude with one of Rev. Tutu’s best known quotes: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”