Desmond Tutu, the conscience-keeper

He wanted truth to be respected, reconciliation to be attempted and justice to be inaugurated

Updated - December 29, 2021 01:01 am IST

Published - December 29, 2021 12:15 am IST

Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Five big names dominated the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, each from a distinct part of that diverse country — Albert John Luthuli, foremost of Zulu leaders in the African National Congress (ANC) from the Natal, Oliver Tambo of the Pondo people from the country’s western flank, Nelson Mandela from the Xhosa population of the Eastern Cape, Walter Sisulu from a mixed Black and White African heritage, and Desmond Tutu of mixed Xhosa and Motswana descent. Of them, Tutu, who died on December 26, 2021 , was the youngest. This is not to diminish the magnetic contribution of three other phenomenal figures — Joe Slovo (1926-1995), the White communist leader; Chris Hani, born in 1942 and assassinated in 1993; and Steve Biko, born in 1946 and brutally murdered in prison in 1977.

Making comparisons

Comparisons are odious but they can make for an easier understanding of people and their roles. And so, one could say that Luthuli — moderate, liberal and wholly opposed to violence — was like South Africa’s Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Tambo, who worked for a major part of his political life outside South Africa in exile with London being his base, can be seen as its Dadabhai Naoroji. Mandela, the politico-legal mastermind with his international fame for being free of all resentments despite 27 years in jail, its Gandhi-cum-Nehru. Sisulu, the ANC’s party-consolidator and ethically powered wise elder statesman, was patently South Africa’s Patel-cum-Rajagopalachari. One can suggest that Slovo’s mediating role would have won the admiration of ‘Dinabandhu’ C.F. Andrews, the Anglican cleric and friend of Tagore who mediated the Smuts-Gandhi Agreement of 1914 in South Africa; that Hani’s socialism, military strategising and personal courage powerfully invokes Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose; while Biko, self-sacrificingly bold, recalls most vividly our immortal Shaheed Bhagat Singh.


Where does that comparison chart place Desmond Tutu? There is no Indian equivalent for him. Father Jerome D’Souza, the Jesuit priest from Mangalore, who was a member of the Constituent Assembly of India and played a key role in ensuring protection for the minorities in India and for the right to practice and propagate one’s faith as fundamental, comes closest. But D’Souza is still, in relation to Tutu, a ‘distant near’.

The fact is that Tutu was a nonpareil. He was without an equivalent in South Africa, India or for that matter, anywhere, defying categorisation. Was he a politician in the cloth or a cleric in politics ? Did he advise politicians theologically from his pulpit or speak to his congregations — he was Bishop of Johannesburg from 1985 to 1986 and Archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 to 1996 — in the language of politics ? Those questions are unanswerable. But what is known and celebrated is that in the transition from apartheid to democracy, Tutu spoke as an African Christian who wanted truth to be respected, reconciliation to be attempted and justice to be inaugurated in the land of his birth without rancour mutilating the change and with remorse — real, spontaneous remorse — acting as a catalyst for change.

This goal and this practice made Tutu a natural ally for men of the Tambo-Mandela-Sisulu mould. It also made him, at the same time, co-extensively, a man who was thought too moderate by the extreme Left and too radical by the far Right. And altogether too ambivalent for politicians and theologians, both of who like their chocolates deadly dark.

Too radical for conservative upholders of apartheid, too moderate for black radicals and properly disliked by Marxists the world over for his anti-communism, Tutu yet remained staggeringly and consistently popular among the vast majority of the people of South Africa. How and why?

For the plain reason that plain honesty is instantly recognised and immediately respected. A large and growing number across the world saw in this plain-speaking man of God, who was also a man of loud reverberating laughter and equally of emotional meltdowns, a man of unquestioned earnestness and manifest integrity. They saw in him a man who showed that bondage is both external — political, social, economic — and within oneself in terms of racial prejudice, ethnic hatred and personal animosities.


Was this a political position or a religious one? The vast majority in South Africa, the rest of the African continent and the world at large that heard him did not bother itself with that question. It only saw in Tutu an African, deeply bonded into Mother Africa, declining to view its heritage through western norms but ready to see and correct its own limitations and errors. It saw in Tutu a Christian, deeply committed to the New Testament not as the West’s gift to the rest of the world but that of humanity’s better instincts to itself. Rather like it sees the Dalai Lama as a true Buddhist deeply committed to Tibetan Mahayana but equally to humanity’s quest for redemption through dialogue, atonement and that old-fashioned word taboo in ‘rational’ discourse — forgiveness.

No two humans could be more different, more similar than Tutu and the Dalai Lama, younger by four years. Laughter has held tears in check for those two Nobel Laureates. “You are a Christian,” the Tibetan tells the South African in a recorded conversation “and will go to Heaven. I am a Buddhist and will go to a different place…”. “You are a Buddhist”, Tutu responds, “and will re-incarnate”. Both break into laughter. And then turning very serious the Dalai Lama tells a sombre Tutu: “When I die, I will remember you…”

The need for human conscience

There has always been need and space in every society, in South Africa and in India, homes to both the peace-makers, for something called the human conscience. Tutu raised his voice for Palestinians in the Israel-Palestine conflict, fiercely opposed the Myanmar crackdown on the Rohingya, spoke up for gay rights, and against the death penalty, for legalised assisted dying and against orthodox views on birth control. Joining his voice to that of environmentalists he called for an apartheid-style boycott of corporates that are “financing the injustice of climate change”.

Countries need leaders in government, leaders in the opposition. But they also need social philosophers, conscience-keepers who do not seek popularity and are not afraid of unpopularity. Tutu was precisely that for South Africa — a physician for its conflicted soul.

A decade ago, when Tutu announced his retirement from public life, he said he wanted to spend time with his family “thinking and praying”. If, as he lay dying, news had reached him that a Jesus Christ statue had been vandalised in the Indian city of Ambala and Christmas celebrations disrupted elsewhere in our country, he would have thought of Gandhi and also remembered the man who said he would remember Tutu when he died — the 14th Dalai Lama. The human conscience laughs an increasingly lonely laugh.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi was High Commissioner in South Africa (1996-1997)

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