The second-century saint, St Irenaeus of Lyons, said, ‘The glory of God is man fully alive.’ Occasionally, we meet people who seem to exemplify this statement – people whose lives are so packed with meaning, struggle, love and joy that we recognise something of God in them – a source of renewal that never runs dry. Archbishop Desmond Tutu could be weary, weeping and broken at times, but he was never less than fully alive.
As a man deeply committed to the church and to the practical outworking of his faith in every sphere of life – not just the personal – he was inevitably politically engaged, yet never an acolyte. Some would say he played the prophet’s role – ‘speaking truth to power’ – no matter who occupied the seat of power.
In 2004, he foresaw the dangers of an ever-widening wealth gap in South Africa, criticising the ruling party for allowing a handful to become super wealthy while the majority remained in poverty.
He was also critical of the government’s spending on armaments, its appeasing of Robert Mugabe and the fact that Nguni speakers dominated senior positions. He was never a fan of Thabo Mbeki, whose government, he said, demanded ‘sycophantic, obsequious conformity’ among its members.
The great sadness is that we do not have more voices like his in South Africa today – leaders deeply rooted in their spirituality; radiating integrity, humour and humility; yet fearless, independent, willing to swim against the current in the service of truth.
Desmond Tutu was at the centre of decades of anti-apartheid activism, running afoul of many of his own congregation in 1986 when he called for sanctions against South Africa at a time when it was a criminal offense to do so. Three years later, he was a fortifying presence at protests against the last all-white election, when police broke up the gathering, whipping and beating even bystanders, including foreign tourists. People streamed into St George’s cathedral – long a rallying point of the anti-apartheid movement – and Tutu was called to come to their aid. His moral leadership was clear when he spoke first to the police, urging them to back down, and then turned to the frightened protesters, saying,
‘Say to yourselves, in your heart, God loves me, God loves me… God created me for freedom… My freedom is inalienable.’
His words injected courage into a frightened mob, and continued to be a source of consolation, strength and renewal to South African society for years after apartheid finally fell.
Today, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s name lives on the in Desmond Tutu Health Foundation associated with the University of Cape Town, which focuses on HIV research, prevention and treatment in communities in and around Cape Town. The Foundation sees HIV as a human rights issue, pointing out that while the number of AIDS-related deaths has dropped considerably from 2002 to 2020 – from 30.6% of those infected to less than 15% –
South Africa still has 7.6 million people living with HIV, a number that continues to rise every year.
The epidemic is by no means under control in our country, despite huge gains made in getting infected people onto ARVs.
Apart from its outreach work in hospitals and communities, the Foundation operates five mobile clinics, known as the Tutu Tester, the Tutu Teen Truck and the Tutu Kwik-Test trailers. Together, staff in these vehicles offer HIV, TB and STD (sexually transmitted disease) testing, counselling and medication; seeking to normalise health screening, whether it be for HIV, TB or STDs.
It is early detection that makes all the difference in the long-term health prognoses for these conditions.
Words cannot adequately capture a man whose life spanned 90 years and who grew from being a humble high school teacher to the highest position in the Anglican Church.
Tutu had the unique ability to identify with the oppressed while tempering the natural human tendency to act without restraint, to be led by emotions and to seek revenge.
In every gathering, he was the voice of moderation and non-violence, always preaching forgiveness in the midst of suffering, along with the God-given dignity of every person.
1. ‘There is something in us that refuses to be regarded as less than human. We are created for freedom.’
2. ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’
3. ‘Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.’
4. ‘There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.’
5. ‘Differences are not intended to separate, or to alienate. We are different precisely in order to realise our need of one another.’
6. ‘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.’
7. ‘We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.’