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South Africa battles for legacy of ‘moral compass’ Desmond Tutu

fFrom the moment he resigned from his teaching position instead of following the orders of the racist, repressive apartheid regime in South Africa in 1958, Desmond Tutu never deviated from his principles and fought for tolerance, equality and justice in – and abroad. This brought him love, influence and moral prestige unmatched by few others on the African continent or beyond.

But Tutu, the cleric and activist who died in Cape Town on Sunday at age 90, was outspoken not only in support of the causes he believed were right — such as LGBT rights — but a fierce and irreconcilable opponent of what he felt was wrong. . Criticism was often tempered with humor. Occasionally it was neatly delivered. This earned him enemies, and still does.

Tutu’s first and most famous enemy was the apartheid system that reigned in his homeland from 1948. Tutu was fully involved in the freedom struggle from the late 1970s onwards and was a key figure in telling the rest of the world about the grievances of the exploited majority communities in South Africa. The cleric and activist, branded by the authorities as a ‘rioter’, couldn’t figure it out. Apartheid was as bad as ‘Nazism’, he told the United Nations in 1988, adding that politicians in the west who did not support sanctions campaigns against the regime in Pretoria were racists.

Tutu at a rally for Nelson Mandela in Hyde Park, London, in 1988. Photo: Nils Jorgensen/Rex/Shutterstock

“We don’t want to drive the whites into the sea, we don’t want to destroy the whites,” said Tutu, who won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent efforts to end apartheid and devastating conflict in the United States. to avoid south. Africa. “But is it too much to ask that in our native land we stand tall as humans made in the image of God? … To say we want to be free?”

In a letter, Tutu, then head of the South African Council of Churches, informed Margaret Thatcher in 1984 that a British invitation to the South African Prime Minister to visit the UK was “a slap in the face to millions of black South Africans who are the daily victims of one of the most brutal policies in the world”.

But he did not spare those in power in the ‘rainbow nation’ that emerged after South Africa’s first free elections in 1994. It was his own expression and he created aspirations that were never fulfilled. A decade later, Tutu gave a high-profile lecture summarizing his countrymen’s many achievements under democracy, but suggesting that many came despite their new political rulers seeking their own progress before that of the poor. “What is black empowerment if it doesn’t seem to benefit the vast majority, but a small elite that tends to be recycled? Don’t we build up a lot of resentment that we might regret later? We’re sitting on a powder keg,” Tutu said.

Desmond Tutu: in his own words – video obituary
Desmond Tutu: in his own words – video obituary

The Nobel laureate’s criticism of the ruling African National Congress party became even more acute during President Jacob Zuma’s tenure, which ended in 2018 amid accusations of systematic corruption and mismanagement. Relations between the ANC and Tutu improved slightly after Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union activist and tycoon who tried to push through moderate reforms and fight corruption, took power.

Ramaphosa’s tribute on sunday, with its reference to the passing of “a generation of prominent South Africans who have left us a liberated South Africa”, underlines the general sense of disenchantment with their successors and it will be the Anglican Church, not the government, that will funeral of the former archbishop, according to Covid restrictions as South Africa battles its fourth wave of infections.

Even now, some Zuma loyalists have distanced themselves from the outpouring of grief and tribute. One reason is the memory of the stern and personally harrowing leadership of the cleric in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated apartheid-era crimes to shut down the victims and the nation. Tutu’s commitment and determination not only angered supporters of the white officials who were forced to publicize the lootings of the apartheid regime. The council’s investigation into Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s former wife, for the kidnapping and eventual murder of a teenager continues to gnaw. On social media on Sunday, some called Tutu a “stooge for whites”.

Winnie Mandela with Tutu in 2013
Winnie Mandela with Tutu in 2013. The cleric’s role on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigating Mandela has angered some. Photo: Reuters

In reality, Tutu targeted exploiters and autocrats wherever he found them. Rightly hailed as an icon of nonviolent activism, he outraged those who prefer less peaceful means of effecting change or staying in power. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s former dictatorial leader, resorted to insults to refute Tutu’s cutting words, calling their author “an angry, angry and bitter little bishop”.

Such feelings didn’t bother the smiling, grinning, charismatic cleric — though Tutu confessed to an interviewer that he “likes to be loved.” Even in the Anglican Church, an institution to which he devoted much of his life, Tutu’s liberal understanding of the faith irritated many. No one questioned his faith or devotion to the institution, but not every cleric liked to hear about a God who had a “weak point for sinners,” much less on a continent torn by visceral homophobia appreciated his vocal, consistent support for LGBT rights.

“I wouldn’t worship a God who is homophobic and that’s how deeply I feel about this,” he said in 2013. “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I’d say, ‘Sorry, I’d much rather go to another heaven. take place.’” He also supported the right to assisted death, another controversial stance within the Church. Other interventions called for urgent action on climate change and a change in US policy toward Israel.

Until the end, Tutu was “on the side of the angels,” as a resident of a township not far from where the archbishop lived and died on Sunday said.

During one of his last public appearances, at the age of 89, he received a Covid vaccine, a major statement in a country that has lost up to 250,000 lives from the pandemic out of a population of 59 million, according to the pandemic. excess mortality rates, and suffers from widespread hesitation about vaccines.

Desmond Tutu to get Covid vaccine in Cape Town in May
Tutu will receive a Covid vaccine in Cape Town in May, one of his last public appearances. Photo: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

Analysts predict a battle for Tutu’s legacy as South African political factions scramble to claim they are the true heirs to “the Arch,” as he was known. At the moment, however, there is a deep sadness at the loss of the country’s “moral compass” and a genuine sense of mourning.

“South Africa and the world have lost one of its greatest parents and role models. [Tutu] was abnormally imbued with a sense of pastoral duty to serve the interests of its species – the human family – and the planet,” said a statement from the office of the Archbishop of Cape Town. “To do the right thing. To make people feel like they belong. To promote justice, humanity, peace and joy… His work is not done; it is now in our hands.”