Paul Samasumo – Vatican City.
“I was once a student of Desmond Tutu at the university in Lesotho. I then worked briefly with him at the South African Council of Churches … I was always present when, for over a decade, he spoke each year at the Regina Mundi (Catholic parish in Soweto) on June 16 … So, I have observed him closely,” reminisces the Catholic Archbishop of Johannesburg, Buti Joseph Tlhagale, O.M.I.
Archbishop Buti was speaking in an interview with Vatican News collaborator Sheila Pires, on Monday -the day South Africans began a week of mourning Tutu, the anti-Apartheid icon and first Black Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town.
Took on the leadership mantle
According to Buti, Archbishop Desmond Tutu emerged as a leader when he was General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches between the years 1978 to 1985.
“Desmond Tutu describes himself as a leader by default when most political organisations had been banned, (Black) leaders thrown in prison. There was a huge political vacuum in the country and that’s when Archbishop Tutu emerged … From then onwards, he put on the mantle of being a ‘political leader,’ as it were: Very visible in the country, opposing the Apartheid regime,” said Archbishop Buti.
Calling for sanctions
Archbishop Tutu was not only confrontational with the regime. He constantly engaged government officials directly to talk to them about the suffering of the ordinary people, especially those in the Bantustans.
The Bantustans, also known as Bantu homelands for Africans, were “native reserves” organised, by the Apartheid government, based on ethnic and linguistic groupings. In effect, they were impoverished and overpopulated rural areas put together for purposes of segregation.
“He (Archbishop Tutu) was different. I have actually not been able to figure this out. He confronted Apartheid government officials directly even when they, no doubt, looked down on him,” said Archbishop Buti. Buti explained that Apartheid leaders condescendingly looked down on almost all non white persons.
Archbishop Tutu was not deterred. He continued to speak out about the plight of the majority and “increasingly became a spokesperson of the Black people, oppressed people, overseas -especially in North America,” said the prelate of Johannesburg.
Tutu’s call and support for sanctions against South Africa was heavily criticised in the country. It was seen by the Apartheid government as a betrayal and treason.
An inconvenient peacemaker
Apart from his forthright voice against Apartheid, Archbishop Tutu was never afraid to take on unpopular positions such as against necklacing, a gruesome form of mob justice used by Black communities during Apartheid, to punish suspected spies and perceived collaborators of the government.
“Archbishop Tutu intervened and calmed local Black communities when they wanted to necklace those who were considered collaborators. Some in the communities did not like that peacemaking role of Archbishop Tutu,” remarked Archbishop Buti.
Forgiveness as the way forward
As chairperson of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Archbishop Tutu was tasked with reviewing crimes committed during Apartheid.
The Commission is an emotive and controversial topic to this day in South Africa. Some in South Africa think that the Commission fell short of expectations. By the end of the Commission’s mandate, many in the former Apartheid regime received amnesty. Yet some Apartheid generals and commanders are said to have avoided the Commission and have never been made accountable. Some blame Archbishop Tutu for this.
“Many criticise the Commission saying perpetrators got off scot-free. But that was the nature of the deal. That if you came forward, you would be forgiven but if you didn’t, you would be pursued and imprisoned … so there is a lot of unhappiness about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” stated Archbishop Buti.
A deeply contented person
In a nutshell, Archbishop Buti describes Archbishop Tutu “as someone who followed his thought. A convincing leader. A deeply contented person even in the midst of so much pain. He was jolly. An emotional person who was not afraid to cry in public. A very noble person … someone who lived for the purpose of giving hope to others,” concluded Archbishop Buti.
New Year’s Day funeral
Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s funeral is set for 10am on Saturday, New Year’s Day, in Cape Town’s Anglican Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr.
Due to covid-19 restrictions, the Funeral Mass will be limited to 100 persons only. The Archbishop’s remains will be cremated, and his ashes interred at the Cathedral.