It is a cliché to say the world is in a mess. In reality, there is too much going on for my head to keep track of – ebola, ISIS, the US elections, plunging stock markets, beheadings, politicians.
So here is a little good news about a remarkable man, with a will of steel and a most infectious laugh.
Last week Desmond Tutu celebrated his 79th birthday and, at the same time, retired from public life.
He is up there with Nelson Mandela as one of my heroes. The path he took was totally different from Mandela’s, even though they shared the same goal – a democratic South Africa.
Mandela chose the political route to try to attain freedom. Tutu chose the pulpit.
In the early 1960s, Tutu received his Bachelor and Master degrees in Theology from the City College London, after which he returned to South Africa where he worked for the Anglican Church in various roles, culminating in being appointed the first Black Bishop of Cape Town.
Ever since I can remember, Tutu was a thorn in the government’s side. Obviously, during the years of apartheid, he was outspoken against the practice of legalized discrimination, but he was also adamantly and simultaneously against the US’s policy of constructive engagement and the African National Congress’s increasingly violent stance.
He acknowledged that sanctions would hurt the poor most of all, but argued that at least their suffering would have a purpose. And he argued that violence begets violence and that a violent overthrow of the apartheid government would not be in the best interests of the country.
It is likely that his strong position in favour of non-violence may have kept him from being jailed by the apartheid government, which needed no legal basis for incarcerating opponent.
Throughout his career, Tutu championed human rights, and has been active in many different areas. He has campaigned to fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.
In recognition of his activities, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984; the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism in 1986; the Pacem in Terris Award in 1987; the Sydney Peace Prize in 1999; the Gandhi Peace Prize in 2007; and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
Throughout his life, he’s been a gadfly, not only when the apartheid regime was in power, but even today as he criticizes the ruling ANC government for spinelessness and lack of morality. He is driven by principles and is unafraid of going after anyone or anybody who violates them.
Recently, for example, President Jacob Zuma denied the Dalai Lama – not for the first time - a visa to enter South Africa to attend the first gathering of Nobel laureates in Africa. There were to be 14 laureates, gathering to honour Nelson Mandela and twenty years of democracy in South Africa. They cancelled the meeting.
Tutu lambasted the government for kowtowing to pressures from the Chinese government, who regard the Dalai Lama as a terrorist. Tutu said he was "ashamed to call this lickspittle bunch my government".
Commission – a body constituted after the fall of apartheid. Its purpose was to have people of all political persuasions, who had committed crimes, such as murder and sabotage, address the commission, admit their guilt, and express remorse. Usually this also included coming face to face with the families of those who had been killed or maimed.
If the commission felt that the perpetrator had expressed genuine remorse, he or she was forgiven and no charges could thereafter be brought.
What a civilized thing to do! Oh, that more countries took this approach rather than the age-old approach of revenge.
If you ever have the chance to watch the PBS documentary on the Truth an Reconciliation Commission, do so. I guarantee you’ll cry for its entire length, first at the barbarism people can perpetrate, then at the power of forgiveness.
Happy birthday Tata Tutu. May you live for many more years. May your tongue remain sharp.
Stan – Thursday.