South Africa’s statesman Desmond Tutu was one of the greatest global leaders of the last half of the 20th century and the first 20 years of the 21st. His death last Sunday at the age of 90 marks the end of a generation of world leaders of vision who dared speak their minds and critise lesser beings for their failings. South Africa’s protracted struggle against apartheid produced three well deserved Nobel Peace Prize laureates: African National Congress (ANC) Chief Albert Luthuli in 1960, Tutu in 1984 and former President Nelson Mandela in 1993.
Born in 1931 in the mining town of Klerksdorp, Tutu trained first as a teacher but when apartheid Dictated that black children would receive poorer quality education than that of their white compatriots, Tutu, shifted to the Anglican priesthood. While he was morally influenced by the Reverend Trevor Huddleston, a strong British supporter of the ANC, Tutu did not follow Huddleston’s political path until the mid- 1970s. At that time, he felt he had no choice but to join his people’s liberation struggle as the ANC leaders were either in prison or in exile and the country’s churches were divided.
Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists and others condemned apartheid while the Dutch Reformed Church broke ranks with the rest amd defended the policy of apartheid, enforced separation between whites, browns and blacks. This did not mean “separate but equal” but the relegation of the black community to the lowest rank of society below whites, Indians, and mixed-race coloureds.
While rinsing within the clergy to head the South African Anglican church, the South African Council of Churches, and the All Africa Council of Churches, Tutu found his voice and adapted Mahatma Gandhi’s strategy of peaceful resistance as the means to liberate people of colour in South Africa and, ultimately, elsewhere. For South Africa he put forward a simple programme: equal rights for all citizens, abolition of pass laws which inhibit movement of non-whites, a national educational system, and an end to the relegation of blacks to enclaves dubbed “homelands.” He upset whites in the Anglican church by backing the imposition of international sanctions on South Africa, the tool which, eventually, compelled the white regime to change course.
While campaigning to end apartheid, he castigated the regime for its harsh repression of black people and the ANC for resorting to violence as the means to overthrow the system. The ANC and its supporters refused to accept his criticism and snapped back at him. On the world stage, he was met with anger when he urged other peoples struggling for freedom to adopt peaceful resistance while being subjected to violent repression by governments.
After the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president, Tutu highlighted the “gravy train” mentality adopted by prominent ANC personalities who fostered nepotism and corruption. Although Mandela was not best pleased, truth-telling Tutu was appointed to head its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. During this period Tutu conducted his mission energetically with passion, humour and compassion and called upon victims to forgive oppressors, again eliciting sharp criticism. Many South Africans were disappointed with his handling of the Commission because politicians, policemen and officials from the apartheid era were not punished with long terms in prison for killings, imprisonment, and gravehuman rights violations. Tutu feared cracking down on them could spark civil conflict.
There is little or no mention in Western obituaries of Desmond Tutu of his interventions in the affairs of this region. Along with Mandela, Tutu strongly opposed the 2003 US war on Iraq and Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Both regarded the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the legitimate representative of Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom and urged Israel and the PLO to opt for peace rather than violence. In 2013, Tutu told the Washington Post, “I wish I could keep quiet about the plight of the Palestinians. I can’t.”
Nineteen years ago, cand drew comparisons with South Africa. His brave stand infuriated both Israel and its foreign backers, particularly the US, and warned off Israel’s critics who saw that its policy toward Palestinians — with its movement passes, home demolitions, and deportations — amounted to apartheid. Israeli and international human rights organisations only dared to draw all too obvious parallels this year. Perhaps they forgot Tutu’s stance.
While stating that Israel should exist in peace within secure borders, he called for a viable Palestinian state. He pointed out that while members of the South African Jewish community became keen supporters of the ANC, Israel sold arms to the apartheid regime during its campaign to crush the ANC’s fight for freedom equality and justice. During his May 2008 visit to Gaza, he conemned Israel’s siege of the strip as “a gross violation of human rights” and said Israel’s policy of cutting off fuel and food supplies “jeopardizes the lives of ordinary men and women.”
In 2009, he led a peace delegation from the “Elders” group of retired world figures to Israel and Palestine and in 2014 he declared his support for the Palestinian “boycott, divestment and sanction” movement designed to exert pressure on Israel to end the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
On this movement he wrote in the Israeli liberal daily Haaretz, “Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of ‘normalcy’ in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice. They are contributing to the perpetuation of a profoundly unjust status quo.” While he condemned violence by both sides, he said Israel’s actions were “disproportionately brutal.” He argued, “There is no military solution. The solution is more likely to come from that nonviolent toolbox we developed in South Africa in the 1980s to persuade the government of the necessity of altering its policies.” Israel has ignored his advice.