Tutu's Moral Stature

Desmond Tutu has become a symbol of integrity within South Africa and on the international stage. While local audiences are aware of his sometimes controversial, always humorous political presence, they are even more familiar with the scarlet-robed clergyman's unifying, peaceful leadership.

Even before his 1984 Nobel Peace Prize win, he was known in international circles for his bold challenges to the apartheid system and its government.

His leadership, founded on the principles of morality and forthrightness, steered him naturally into a pivotal role in South Africa's transition to democracy in the early 1990s. Tutu played the role of mediator among and between all races, cultures and levels of South African society.

At a grassroot level, he encouraged black pride and an end to violence. He played an instrumental role in controlling the violence, which defined the early to mid 1990s and showed solidarity with those suffering from loss as a result of this violence.

He also played a critical part in mediating between the various political players in the shaky negotiations that gave way to the "new South Africa", as the new democratic dispensation became known. He boldly nudged negotiations forward at times of deadlock. And while Tutu, like others, shared conflicts and exchanges with fellow politicians, these were more symptomatic of the tense times than anything more sinister.

As the chairman of the TRC, he continued on this unifying and reconciling path. Many feel that his humane, sympathetic and morally outstanding guidance was an indispensable and defining feature of the TRC process - one that made a profound qualitative contribution to the work of the commission.

Emissary for global solidarity

Most likely distributed at the time of Tutu's Nobel Prize win in 1984, this postcard speaks of Tutu's international image as a moral and unifying figure associated with peace, global solidarity and truth.

• See an image of the commemorative postcard
- Commemorative postcard, from Tutu Nobel Prize file in the Diocese of Johannesburg Collection, Wits historical papers, Cullen Library, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Rabble-rouser for peace

These extracts from John Allen's Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorised Biography of Desmond Tutu reveal the fundamental role played by Tutu in the transition to democracy, a role hinged on his moral uprightness and his conviction that peace must prevail. Allen cites a number of instances which exemplify Tutu's integrity during this fragile and turbulent time - his guidance and comfort to the angry South African grassroots or those bearing the brunt of the political violence of the time, and his high-level political mediation in brokering a transition deal through his relationships with Mandela, Buthelezi and others.

His bold public calls for progress in negotiations, his considerable oratory skills, which exercised a unifying power over whichever volatile crowd he happened to be addressing, and his concern and support for South Africans across racial and cultural lines are striking elements of his moral integrity and stature. The repetition of the word "truth" in the first paragraph is telling in retrospect given Tutu's work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in subsequent years.

Instinctual conciliator

[Extract] Back at work in 1990, he [Tutu] turned his attention to what became the heart of his contribution to a negotiated settlement: cajoling and lobbying black South Africans to unite for peace. Even if a hidden "third force" was instigating violence, he told them, it was unacceptable that they should become pawns in the hands of others. Black consciousness had clearly not accomplished its objective of instilling in blacks a sense of self-respect when they allowed themselves to be manipulated. His most eloquent and powerful public admonition was delivered at a lunchtime service at St George's Cathedral during a week of prayer and fasting for peace the week before Easter 1991. There were many reasons for violence, he told the congregation. A period of transition was inherently unstable: "Yes, that is true." South Africa had no culture of tolerance of opposition: "Yes, that is true." The "ghastly single-sex hostels" of the migrant labour system were an explosion waiting to happen: "Yes, that is true." The security forces had on the whole behaved disgracefully: "Yes, that has added fuel to the fire." All this was true, he repeated.

But it is not all the truth. A lot of the violence is due to political rivalry. Political groups in the black community are fighting for turf and they do not seem to know, or certainly some of their followers don't seem to know, that a cardinal tenet of democracy is that people must be free to choose freely whom they want to support...

Something has gone desperately wrong in the black community... Ultimately we must turn the spotlight on ourselves. We can't go on forever blaming apartheid. Of course it is responsible for a great deal of evil. But ultimately, man, we are human beings and we have proved it in the resilience we have shown in the struggle for justice. We did not allow ourselves to be demoralised, dehumanised. We could laugh, we could forgive. We refused to be embittered at some of the worst moments in the struggle.

What has gone wrong, that we have seemed to have lost our reverence for life, when children can dance around someone dying the gruesome death of a necklacing? Something has gone desperately wrong when our leaders are not listened to by their followers. There is much to admire in our political organisations, but there is much also which is not right. Some of those who belong to these organisations are totally undisciplined and you can't wage a struggle unless you are dedicated and disciplined.

... In December 1991, the national convention for which Tutu had been pleading since his letter to Vorster in 1976 began meeting, as the politicians argued over a basis for the new democratic state, the country lurched from crisis to crisis. It was as if the negotiators were travelling along the edge of a precipice, alternately walking and running, sometimes turning back, frequently brawling along the way, regularly driven off course by events that were sometimes out of, but at other times within, their control - coming to their senses only when it seemed they might all plunge over the edge together.

Tutu did not need to think through the question of taking on a new role of facilitator and conciliator; it came more easily to him than confrontation, and he moved into it instinctively. [End of extract]

Healing the wounds of Boipatong

The day after the [Boipatong] massacre, [then Bishop of Natal, Michael] Nuttall proposed to a distraught Tutu that they should visit Boipatong. With Peter Lee and an ecumenical delegation led by Frank Chikane, they toured the community, visiting the homes of the dead and the injured, inspecting the wounds of toddlers, and praying with traumatised survivors. Chikane was in despair. He told Tutu he was sick and tired of delegations visiting such sites again and again, arriving only after the killings had happened, unable to do anything to stop them.

Tutu replied as a father to a son, but perhaps also addressing himself. Yes, he said, they should do all in their power to prevent evil. But they were clergymen, and their vocation was above all to be pastors. This required no more of them than that they should simply be with people in their pain, listen to them, and pray with them. To the people of Boipatong, he said: "We try to bring a little oil to pour on your wounds. We are bringing small little handkerchiefs; let us wipe your tears. We are also crying."

... Ten days after the pastoral visit to Boipatong, Tutu returned to preach at the funeral on the township's soccer field. As rows and rows of coffins were laid out side by side in front of a crowd of thousands, the anger was palpable - unusually so, even for a mass funeral. A black youth kicked out at Mike Terry, executive secretary of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain, as he arrived with Trevor Huddleston, who had been invited by the local council of churches.

The politicians delivered a series of speeches described by Nuttall as "very strong" and by Lee as "political invective". Huddleston delivered a homily commending the virtues of hatred: it was justified, he said, to hate evil. Tutu made no comment, but his discomfort was visible.

Away from the stadium, while the funeral was still proceeding, youths caught a young man with dreadlocks whom they accused of belonging to Inkatha. In front of horrified photographers, a man came out of the mob, lifted a large rock high in the air, and smashed it down on the victim's head, setting off a frenzy of beating and stoning...

Back on the field, Tutu began his sermon. He told the mourners that each one of them was made in the image of God, that God was neither blind nor deaf, but that as the Old Testament said, God was "in the fiery furnace with us". He spelled out his demands to [FW] de Klerk, appealed for discipline and dignity and had the crowd chanting with him, "I am black and I am proud." The funeral ended peacefully. Lee thought Tutu's sermon one of his great peacemaking moments.

... The Boipatong massacre added impetus to a campaign of strikes and demonstrations that the ANC had begun after the deadlock in negotiations. When the confrontation escalated, Tutu resumed the role of mediator... [End of extract]

The Assassination of Chris Hani

[Extract] The event that came closest to moving South Africa into open civil war came on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, in 1993, when a Polish immigrant and anticommunist zealot assassinated Chris Hani, the hugely popular general secretary of the South African Communist Party...

Four million people stayed at home on the day of Hani's funeral. More than 120 000 gathered at the country's largest soccer stadium, outside Soweto, for a service that was broadcast live throughout the country... The stadium was dangerously overcrowded. Banks of seating swayed side to side as young people danced the toyi-toyi. Outside, peace monitors watched helplessly as gangs of youths burned houses nearby.

Unidentified gunmen fired automatic weapons at police helicopters. Inside, monitors were concerned that ANC marshals had lost control of the crowd. Tutu was the preacher, assigned the task of giving direction at the end of the service. It was the most important test he had ever faced of his skills in igniting and then channelling the feelings of a volatile crowd.

He adopted as his text a familiar passage from Paul's letter to the Romans: "If God be for us, who can be against us?" He greeted the mourners in five languages, conveying condolences to Hani's family in their home languages of IsiXhosa and Sesotho. The rabble-rousing started quickly: "Is there anyone here who doubts that Christ was a great son of the soil?" ("No!") "I don't hear you." ("No!") He paid tribute to Hani, mocked white South Africans' obsession with communism - "those who oppressed us were not communists" - and said that just as the resurrection followed the crucifixion, Hani's death could become a victory. Then:

The death of Chris Hani gives... the government and all the key players another chance. We want to make a demand today... We demand democracy and freedom. When? ("Now!") They don't hear you in Pretoria. They don't hear you in Cape Town. We demand democracy and freedom. When? ("Now!") We demand a date for the first democratic elections in this country. When? ("Now!")
South Africa was marching to victory, he repeated again and again, "the victory of light over the darkness of apartheid... the victory of goodness over the evil of apartheid". He invoked a phrase first used at the Cape Town City Hall four years earlier:

We are the rainbow children of God! We are unstoppable! Nobody can stop us on our march to victory! No one, no guns, nothing! Nothing will stop us, for we are moving to freedom! (Whistles.) We are moving to freedom and nobody can stop us. (Whistles and cheers.) For God is on our side!

Finally, Tutu asked the tens of thousands spread out in front of him to lift their hands in the air. Mandela, Sisulu and Slovo - who had been in jail or exiled when Tutu developed his techniques - sat enthralled, their eyes fixed on him, as he led the crowd in swaying their arms back and forth:

We will be free! ("We will be free!") All of us! ("All of us!") Black and white together! ("Black and white together!") We will be free! ("We will be free!") All of us! ("All of us!") Black and white together! ("Black and white together!") For we are marching to freedom! (Cheers, whistles.)

Hani's murder brought South Africa's leaders closer to the precipice than ever before. Having contemplated the drop below, they stepped back and resumed negotiations with a new sense of urgency. [End of extract]

Bringing Inkatha to the party

[Extract] Tutu's confidence grew - if the transition had survived this crisis, it could survive just about anything. But Inkatha was resisting the setting of an election date, and Buthelezi and Mandela had not had bilateral talks in more than two years.

Early in June 1993, Tutu visited Pietermaritzburg for the consecration of a new bishop of Zululand and the unveiling of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi outside the local railway station... As the congregation at the consecration service exchanged greetings of peace, Tutu asked Buthelezi if he would meet Mandela. He agreed. The next day, Tutu and Nuttall pulled Mandela aside at a lunch after the unveiling and put the same question to him. He too agreed... [End of extract]

Reassuring the Afrikaners

[Extract] Tutu was an enthusiastic proponent of reassuring gestures to Afrikaners during the transition, taking time to give interviews to Afrikaans newspapers assuring them that their language would survive and supporting South Africa's return to international rugby under its traditional springbok emblem.

He continued the effort in meetings of the committee planning the presidential inauguration. During negotiations, two national anthems had been adopted: Die Stem, which was dear to Afrikaner nationalism; and Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. A proposal was brought to the inauguration committee that an English translation of Die Stem should be used. Tutu opposed the idea - the symbolism of using Die Stem would be diluted if it were translated, he said. His view prevailed. [End of extract]

- Allen, J., Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorised Biography of Desmond Tutu. London: Rider Books (an imprint of Ebury Publishing, Random House), 2006. pp. 327-338 (selected extracts)

"An Instrument for healing"

THIS extract from Alex Boraine's A Country Unmasked points to the incontrovertible value brought to the TRC by Tutu, in as much as he is a fundamentally caring and sympathetic individual. It also points to the long history of Tutu's reputation for moral rectitude as well as the broad consensus that existed around it.

[Extract] A final factor, which I think assisted the Commission enormously was the person of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. There is no doubt that the commissioners who were appointed had been publicly tested and tried, and each, in his or her own way, had a contribution to make, and made it.

However, none of us was indispensable. There were other South Africans who could have served equally well on the Commission. With one exception. I don't think the Commission could have survived without the presence and person and leadership of Desmond Tutu.
A Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a tireless fighter for justice in South Africa, he was a household name long before he came to the Commission. He had demonstrated in his life and work an enormous compassion for the underdog. His sense of humour, his twinkling eyes, his tiny stature, his presence rather than his performance, meant that he was and is an icon in South Africa.

His sense of humour, his twinkling eyes, his tiny stature, his presence rather than his performance, meant that he was and is an icon in South Africa.

His choice by President Mandela was an inspired one. He assisted the Commission enormously in every possible way to become an instrument for healing, perhaps because he always saw himself and his colleagues on the Commission as wounded healers, not better than anyone else, not wiser than anyone else, but simply people who had been given a job to do and who cared very deeply for victims and perpetrators alike. [End of extract]
- Boraine, A, A Country Unmasked. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2000. pp. 268-9


back to the Archbishop Desmond Tutu memorial page

"It has been an incredible privilege to preside over the process of healing a traumatised and wounded people."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 1993
Picture: © The Sunday Times


In this lesson plan, learners will be offered the opportunity to think about the impact of personal testimony about apartheid-related events. They will also be asked to interpret a cartoon, and to think about the long-term effects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Lesson plan
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The truths that hurt
Contains extract from the SABC’s coverage of the TRC showing the testimony of Singqokwana Ernest Malgas and Archbishop Tutu’s emotional reaction to it.