The Arch Who Came In from the Cold

Chuck Stevens on Desmond Tutu's Legacy


Once upon a time, Sophiatown was designated a black area.  Desmond Tutu grew up there.  Any whites he had seen there were soldiers or policemen – not friendly.  Then one day the unexpected happened.  It envisioned Desmond Tutu as a boy.  He was walking down the street with his mom.  Along came a white man, who tipped his hat and greeted his mother with esteem.  Tutu later said that this moment changed his life.  He got his first glimpse of what he would later dub the Rainbow Nation.

In today’s Africa, many would reject help from a white man, worse yet a missionary – with contempt.  The response to such kindness and respect could even give rise to a conspiracy theory – is he a CIA spy?

Later in life, Tutu became a keynote speaker.  He reached out to those who would listen to his critique of apartheid and his vision for a Rainbow Nation.  After the Treason Trialists were incarcerated on Robben Island in 1963, an icon-gap emerged.  It was illegal to even display Nelson Mandela’s photograph!  Tutu started to fill this space, as bishop, then as the first-ever black archbishop, and then as leader of the South African Council of Churches.  Now he did the awareness-raising, to awaken and enlist others.  Like Huddleson, he practiced what he preached, eschewing violence and envisioning others.

He stuck to his principles

Tutu started his career as a teacher, but after three years he resigned because of his contempt for government policy in education.  He entered Christian ministry.  While most people attended protests, boycotts and marches, he studied theology.  This led him to see deeper than most the lack of alignment between theory and practice.  In theory most churches preached freedom but in practice they did not take exception to oppression and exploitation.

Later in life, Tutu became a game-changer.  He was involved in the Institute for Contextual Theology, out of which came the “Kyros Document”.  This theological treatise led to a confrontation at the World Council of Churches conference in Ottawa, Canada, in 1982.  Apartheid was declared a heresy!  This pulled out the rug from under it, for Afrikaners had always been (and still are) a God-fearing people.

Tutu understood that crooked practice stemmed from crooked policy.  He worked to correct the policy, so that prevalent behaviour could line up with Christian values and principles.

Infectious laughter

Prince Harry and Megan have recently commented on this, and on Tutu’s sense of humour.  At the risk of offending some of you, let me recite a story that happened in Canada…

As a young priest, not yet so well known in the international forum, only in Anglican churches, Desmond Tutu was invited as a keynote speaker to some churches and colleges in Saskatchewan.  It was a world away from South Africa.  He was billeted with an Anglican family who had young children.  Growing up on the prairies at that time, the children had never seen black people before, so they were very curious about Desmond and his wife Leah.

The children asked what it was like to be black, and Desmond explained that it was sometimes not easy.  He tried to explain to them as simply as he could how shabbily blacks were treated in South Africa.  The children got very distraught and suddenly came up with an idea... why not get some white paint and paint yourselves white? they suggested.  Desmond and Leah broke into laughter and laughed hysterically at this simple and direct solution - out of the mouths of babes and infants.  They appreciated the concern that this silly solution reflected.  They did not get bogged down in political correctness or critical race theory, they just enjoyed the helpful advice that the children wanted to offer.

As a contextual theologian, Tutu was able to adapt.  He was flexible and not tied to “woke” thinking.  I even shudder to think what BLM will say when they read this memoir – a true story.

Novelist John Wyndam once wrote that there are two elements that set humanity aside from the animal kingdom – humour and compassion.  We need more than the capacity to just laugh; we need the humility to laugh at ourselves

Consistent critique

Mandela’s one-term presidency was something of a golden age.  It was a honeymoon period for the ANC.  But after his divorce to the late, great Winnie, he started taking Graca Machel along on State visits.  Guess who spoke truth to power?  It was Tutu, who said that this was inappropriate for such an esteemed role-model.  So Mandela married Graca – and they lived happily ever after.

Tutu’s critique of Mbeki’s presidency was even fiercer, and during Zuma’s presidency, Tutu did not relent.  As a result, he was sequestered.  Many South Africans came to despise him, although his global reputation remained solid.

Ten years ago, government refused to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama, who wanted to attend Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations.  Yet soon after, government authorized a whole jet-load of wedding guests coming from India to land at a top-security air force base!  Tutu was back out in the cold.  But he had been there before.

Only during Ramaphosa’s presidency have relations thawed.  It has become fashionable again to esteem Desmond Tutu.  He has been granted a category 1 State funeral.  Flags are flying at half-mast across the country.  But Tutu requested that he not have a lavish funeral, and that his coffin be a plain one.  I remember that Dwight Eisenhower made the same request and was buried in a simple pine box just like all the soldiers who had served him.  This was another rebuke to prevailing custom.  Even after his death, his critique is on-going.

In April 2006, with the Arch’s permission, C4L was renamed in his honour - the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership.   Among different facets of its ministry are lobbying, advocacy, public engagement, an Op-Ed column (called the Unembeza Desk, which is isiZulu for “conscience”), corruption-busting litigation, and books.  These facets of C4L’s ministry follow in Tutu’s footsteps.  The litmus test of good leadership is good followership.


Father Desmond’s sister has recently disclosed that he lived with a lot of pain during the last decade of his life.  But his faith never wavered.

Earlier in his career, he did not leave Civil Society to enter the public sector.  For example, he would have made an excellent ambassador.  But he stuck to his roots in faith, the church and the prophetic office.  “Lead me not into temptation.”

He did accept a role guiding the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for several years.  But even in those hearings, he always dressed in his priestly robes.  In doing so, he was saying something about the separation of powers.

For when liberation movements become governments, they tend to have an unfair advantage.  The real jockeying for power in South Africa is still not yet between the political parties, as much as it is between factions of the ruling party.  Tutu seems to have foreseen this.  Yes, there are the Judiciary and the Section 9 institutions (i.e. ombudswomen and men).  But even these were largely “for sale” under State Capture.

We could not have defeated this challenge to Democracy without the force of Civil Society.  That is, for the likes of… Corruption Watch, the SACC, the Helen Suzman Foundation, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, the Council for the Advancement of the SA Constitution, Accountability Now, and My Vote Counts.  To mention only a few.

Also, we should never forget that it was Father Mayibe of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace who first filed a complaint with the Public Protector about state capture.  Thuli Madonsela responded with an investigation that led on to the Zondo Commission.

At the front of this flotilla of nonprofit organizations was a role-model, always dressed in purple robes.  He didn’t have to say much anymore, the cross hanging around his neck said it all.  Even his silence spoke volumes.  He was the trend-setter; he championed the role that the church and NPOs must play, to keep the Democracy project on track.

Father Desmond, we will miss you.  But we promise that Civil Society will remain strong and continue your work of speaking truth to power.  Thank you for your example.  You have been our guiding light, our Southern Cross for navigation.  Your example will continue to inspire us, going forward.  Even when you were out in the cold, you were hot! 

Well done, good and faithful servant.

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About the author


Chuck Stephens is Executive Director at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership in South Africa.

About the author