Desmond, who died on Boxing Day age 90 – inaccurately described as a ‘leading apartheid leader’ by many secular writers – was shaped by a firm Anglo Catholic faith and a deep sense of the presence of God.
It was a real blessing to know this man and to have been close to him during the most turbulent times of the struggle for justice and equal rights for black people in South Africa.
My first meeting with Desmond was in 1991 in Newcastle, Northern Ireland at the Primates Meeting of the Anglican Communion. Desmond swept in, a day late, because of an important political event that he felt it was necessary to attend and we became firm friends almost immediately. Indeed, there was much to admire in this small man with his engaging smile, infectious laughter and ability to defuse any tense meeting. He was quick to speak of Archbishop Trevor Huddlestone’s influence on his life and the fact that I knew Trevor, and had also benefited from theological teaching at Kings London brought us together.
But January 1994 would consolidate our friendship and bring me more closely into contact with the South African church’s struggle against apartheid. The Primates Meeting in Cape Town was the occasion and Nelson Mandela had just been released from prison. Desmond managed to persuade Mandela to address us. Introduced by Desmond, Mandela spoke with frankness about his experiences of conflict with white authorities. He spoke with appreciation of Desmond’s ministry during his absence in prison describing it as costly as well as inspiring. Most notably, Mandela spoke freely of his own faith and the crucial role of the Christian faith in the struggle for freedom.
It was during this visit that a meeting with President de Klerk indicated that the formidable and ugly walls of apartheid were about to collapse. The President met myself, Desmond, Archbishop Robin Eames and Presiding Bishop Ed Browning of the United States.
Desmond clearly had a professional, convivial but robust relationship with the President. But the meeting had its moment of tension. President de Klerk expressed some anger when I asked him whether he agreed that apartheid was very evil. He replied in personal terms arguing that apartheid was never designed to make black people second class citizens. He pointed to his father, a Dutch Reformed minister who had believed in this “social structure”. Then he visibly softened his tone admitting that apartheid had become evil.
I recall Desmond saying later that the President’s dawning admission of the evil of apartheid was a necessary step towards the ultimate goal of truth and reconciliation.
Other visits to the Province of South Africa showed the effective ministry of Desmond Tutu. His warm personality, sharp intellect and bright sense of humour were extraordinary gifts that he deployed to defuse the racial tensions that remained. But it is important to acknowledge the role of other Christian leaders alongside Desmond. This was no ‘one man band‘ show. Catholic, free church and other leaders were also very visible, joining hands in protests outside Parliament and uniting in worship. The Province of South Africa gave tremendous support to the Archbishop, releasing him to get on with being the voice and face of protest. Bishop Nuttall kept the reins of the church in his capable hands describing himself as ‘number two to Desmond Tutu’.
In his tribute to Desmond Tutu Archbishop Justin Welby compared himself as a mouse to the elephant that Desmond represented. But it is not necessary to make this personal. What made Desmond was that, like David of old against Goliath, Desmond used his office as Archbishop and his considerable personal gifts to take up the fight against evil. It was the events that shaped his ministry.
Desmond Tutu deserves a place in our liturgies alongside other great individuals, such as George Bell, for commemoration and prayer. Liturgists, get to work.
Church of England Newspaper January 6 2022