Archbishop Desmond Tutu will be remembered as an architect of South African democracy, despite being neither a party negotiator nor an author of the post-apartheid constitution. His conviction that reconciliation should be the cornerstone of South African liberation, a conviction shared by Nelson Mandela, helped define the foundational compromise of the transition.
But he was not the pliant supplier of absolution that the now-naked shortcomings of that negotiated settlement may imply. The jettisoning of fundamental economic justice as a feature of the democratic era was a betrayal beyond his remit – Tutu dealt in symbols and hopes, not shares and wages.
He did not shape the incrementalist substance of the liberal-capitalist bargain struck between the African National Congress and the National Party regime; he simply pushed for any trade-off capable of delivering the precious dignity of electoral democracy and the urgent relief of peace.
Similarly, the failure to bring apartheid criminals to justice cannot be laid at his door, or that of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he chaired. The decisions to grant immunity from prosecution to so many political killers, and not to pursue all those who did not receive or even seek immunity, were made by party politicians and by the prosecutors they appointed.
Tutu championed the power of restorative justice, but he knew it could only operate legitimately in a fine balance with retributive justice. And the apartheid-era Tutu fought as hard for that simpler, colder brand of justice as he did later for reconciliation. He was avowedly not a pacifist, believing in the legitimacy of armed struggle in the absence of change, while always seeking in his own work to prevent bloodshed.
Nor was he allergic to radical conceptions of Black resistance to racist violence. During the 1970s, when he worked for the Theological Education Fund and then became the Bishop of Lesotho, Tutu was a leading figure in the liberation theology movement – and helped define its ideological affinity with South Africa’s Black Consciousness movement.
Speaking at the funeral of Steve Biko in September 1977, Tutu described Black Consciousness as “a movement by which God, through Steve, sought to awaken in the black person a sense of his intrinsic value and worth as a child of God”.
And as Dean of St Mary’s cathedral in June 1976, he berated his white parishioners for their “deafening” silence in the wake of the Soweto uprising.
Later, he helped push the Anglican Church towards embracing same-sex marriage, towards ordaining women, towards respecting the equivalence of other faiths. Throughout his career, he sensed the latent emancipatory power of his institution and kept on unlocking it, using a mix of persuasive charm and abrasive conviction.
During the 1980s, Tutu made a rapid ascent in the church hierarchy. His growing fame across the world ended a sense of physical vulnerability he and his family had become used to – threats of assassination by the state security forces were a part of his life in the 1970s.
With every audience that he was granted with a major Western head of state, he entrenched the “respectability” of his campaign of resistance. But he deployed that special status with a style that was far angrier and more combative than he is now given credit for; the soft warmth of the presence of the older Tutu can serve to upstage his younger, tougher self.
Tutu created and occupied a protean role in the space between the state and the banned liberation forces. He was a global lobbyist for the anti-apartheid movement. He was a tireless chaplain and theologian of the long struggle and its bloody conclusion, consoling and honouring the bereaved, the tortured and the imprisoned.
He was a charismatic agent of political awareness, remorse and progressive action in South Africa’s white population. He was a forceful interrogator of the consciences of oppressors and liberators alike.
And of course, he was a showman – deploying his self-mocking comic flair to disarm and provoke and engage.
By his own admission, Tutu’s appetite for approval and affection – even from the enemy – helped propel his charisma. He was a “people-pleaser”, in pop-psychology parlance. “I love being loved,” he said on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs show in 1994. “And one of the most traumatic things for me was to be the ogre, the man most white South Africans loved to hate.” But by comparison with the jailed Mandela and other ANC leaders in exile, he was nothing like an “ogre” in the right-wing white imagination; he was a compelling priest whose very establishment status made him a particularly dangerous proposition for the regime. Tutu’s pre-emptive fear of demonisation was a motive force, alongside his strategic and ethical convictions, in his politics of persuasion.
It would be a cheap shot to accuse Tutu of having too much empathy, or too much vanity. Both emotional resources were essential fuels to his momentous contribution to the first chapter of the liberation project.
Restoration and repentance
But there might be a case to argue that his faith in the political power of faith was misplaced, or that he and other leaders in the reconciliation moment energised a costly national impulse toward the ritualisation of justice. Tutu’s idea of justice was expressed in the catharsis of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That was a process guided by the theory of restorative justice, but it was also steeped in the Christian notion that the burden of sin can be shed through repentance; in the laying bare of the story of a crime, both the victim and the offender are, in some measure, healed.
But for both parties in this schema, the moment of healing rests on the presence of a divine auditor, whether implied or explicitly appealed to. For the offender to escape earthly justice, he must account to God as well as the victim. For the victim to grant forgiveness, she must emulate God in doing so. The authority of judges is circumvented by holy judgment.
And Tutu was just one figure among millions who accepted that premise at that moment. The viability of the TRC rested on the deep cultural currency of Christian belief in South African society, across race and class divides. A bedrock of faith sustained resistance and endurance among the oppressed, when God was the only trustworthy judge available. But it also sustained oppressors and collaborators and beneficiaries, balming their consciences and camouflaging their actions and inactions.
During the course of the Commission’s hearings, Tutu himself was driven to tears by the evasions and repressions that lurked behind white politicians’ psychological paintwork of Christian religiosity. In particular, he was tormented by former president FW De Klerk’s refusal to admit that he had authorised – whether tacitly or explicitly, whether passively or actively – the grotesque violence meted out by apartheid security forces before and during the transition.
De Klerk’s deathbed apology for apartheid and his role in it, recorded in a video address to the nation this November, was clearly more heartfelt than the apology he offered to the Commission decades previously. But it was again incomplete and self-exculpatory, failing to confront his personal culpability in extrajudicial murders that were committed long after his supposedly Damascene conversion from high-apartheid ideologue to fearless reformer.
This may have bothered the ailing Tutu, but he did not attack De Klerk’s evasive final atonement; he respected his old adversary’s final vulnerability as both men confronted death.
Tutu’s credo was always love. And love has limits.
This article was first published by New Frame.