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Desmond Tutu (1931-2021): Remembering Heroes and their Limitations

Posted on Sunday, January 2, 2022
by AMAC Newsline

AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel


The death of South African archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu at the age of 90 on December 26, 2021, marks the definitive end of an era. With Nelson Mandela, his moral witness and advocacy helped to end the reign of South Africa’s Apartheid regime that kept black South Africans separate and desperately unequal. In today’s age in which free speech and colorblind policies are labeled as “white supremacist,” it’s good to be reminded that real white supremacy as embodied in the South African regime actually happened and has largely been removed from the globe. It is also good to be reminded of the very real heroism Tutu exhibited. But, finally, it’s also good to be reminded of Tutu’s post-Apartheid misjudgments. Unlike the woke left, we don’t need to tear down the statues of heroes with feet of clay or clouded minds. We do, however, need to be able to notice that heroes have these traits—and don’t need to be followed at all times.

Tutu was born on October 7, 1931, to parents from two different tribes. As a young man, he became a teacher and then, because of increasing racial restrictions in the field of education enacted in the Bantu Education Act, decided to become an Anglican priest. Until several years after his ordination in 1960, he took part in little political activism despite the increasing brutality of the regime. A well-liked young man, he was spotted by Anglican authorities who wanted more black Africans in positions of authority and was sent to study theology at King’s College in London. In England, he reported that though there was racism, he experienced very little of it. It was there that he began to sense his own dignity and equality with white people as well as his calling to reconciliation between people of different races as well as Christians of different denominations.

Upon return to South Africa, he embarked on an academic and pastoral career that involved support of student protests and also speaking out about the injustices black South Africans faced in the country. By the 1970s, Tutu had come into contact with a number of currents of liberal Protestant thought, including feminist theology and especially black liberation theology, which evaluated the Bible and Christian theology according to the experiences of segregation and subjugation that black people had experienced in the modern world. At the same time, he began to rise to power, becoming the first black dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg, then Bishop of Lesotho, and General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches within a matter of three years from 1975-1978.

At this point, his ministry was much more politically oriented, and he faced retribution from the government, having his passport taken away several times due to his advocacy abroad for a boycott of South Africa until apartheid ended. When he was abroad, he spoke to the United Nations and to various heads of state. By 1984 he had received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. In 1985 he was elected the first black Bishop of Johannesburg, the largest Anglican diocese in the country. Continuing his habit of worldwide travel, he continued to press for economic sanctions in other countries. By 1986 he was elected Archbishop of Cape Town, an important symbol since South Africa’s Parliament is located in the city, and Tutu’s taking up residence in the bishop’s house was technically illegal since it was in an area reserved for whites and he had requested no exemption. His acts of civil disobedience increased over this period until the fateful early 1990s when apartheid was dismantled, and universal suffrage was admitted in time for the 1994 general election in which Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president. Though he retired as archbishop in 1996, from that year to 1998, he chaired the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, designed to bring justice and political closure to the apartheid period.

There is no doubt that Tutu was a heroic figure up until about 1999 on this issue, at least. Though he may have had flawed ideas at times, he showed incredible courage. At a funeral, many mourners became convinced that one man was a government agent and proceeded to “necklace” him, a procedure in which the victim has a tire doused in gasoline placed around the chest and arms and is then set aflame. Tutu bravely stepped in and stopped it. He tried to be fair in most of his dealings.

But many who admired his anti-apartheid work also noticed that his liberal and liberation theology was already driving some rather bad decisions. Religiously, even in the 1960s, Tutu had picked up the notion of “gender-inclusive language,” stripping from liturgies in his churches references to God with masculine pronouns and insisting on female acolytes. As a bishop, he installed gay priests in important positions and privately insisted that they should not have to be celibate. And theology seemed to give way to politics quite often. At his installation as archbishop of Cape Town, he had activists give political speeches. In his post-bishop career, he became famous as an advocate for all the sex-and-gender-identity issues that plague the world today and eventually advocated for assisted suicide. His theology became the kind of vague interreligious soup that would allow him to give Christian communion to. . .the Dalai Lama.

Politically speaking, he also showed bad judgment. His interventions in the Israel-Palestinian disputes from the 1970s on were filled with the kind of language and advocacy that observers such as Alan Dershowitz have persuasively described as persistently antisemitic. He was an early proponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement aimed at Israel—though not at any other countries he also thought were unjust. He later embraced apocalyptic versions of climate change and proposed boycotting companies that did not embrace his vision.

In short, outside of the struggle for which he is most famous, Tutu was not a reliable guide. And even in his own context, he was a figure whose judgment was not always good. His general support of the African National Congress was always controversial because of the leftist vision that party held. Like Tutu, they had a general belief that “capitalism” must be crushed to have equality. Unlike Tutu, who had the parson’s vague “socialist” ideals, they were allied with the Communists. Tutu was himself shocked to discover at those Truth and Reconciliation the terrorist acts the party was engaged in. Post-apartheid South Africa has largely been a basket case, something that Tutu himself began to see. Indeed, he was quoted as saying after apartheid that “it pains us to have to admit that there is less freedom and personal liberty in most of Africa now than there was during the much-maligned colonial day.”

Indeed, today’s South Africa is rife with inequality, violence, and economic despair. As the South African writer Rian Malan has written earlier this year, this situation has come about because, in 1999, the country embarked on the kind of racialized “equity” programs that Ibram X. Kendi would love to have in ours. “In addition to paying taxes at Scandinavian levels, South African corporations were required to cede large ownership stakes to black partners, whether or not they brought anything to the table besides black skin and connections in high places.” Quotas in hiring and government contracts have led to stagnation and a decrease in investment in the country. Unemployment has more than tripled since that fabled 1994 election—and utter misery is again the fate of the large black underclass. Tutu had little to say that would be of use in righting this situation over the last two decades.

That doesn’t mean we cannot admire him. I certainly did and do. Like other figures, he was a man for a moment. A man of prophecy for the days when white supremacy really did exist in the world and ruled a particular place. In 1995, shortly after the great triumphs in his home country, I was studying in Oxford and had the opportunity to hear him preach at an Anglican church. His sermon struck me as true but a bit abstract. It was about the Spirit of God being poured out on a people as the precondition for opposing tyranny.

I didn’t quibble with him as we chatted over sherry afterward. But I’ve since thought of Tutu as a kind of a cautionary tale letting us know that a fairly clear vision of one societal devil may allow one to exorcise it but not successfully ward off the others who come to replace it. We can be grateful for Tutu’s heroism but note that when white supremacy was not in view, his blindness prevented him from being the kind of hero and prophet who could have helped the world and also his country. May all of us in 2022 not only see obvious problems but hidden ones—and a clear path not merely to drive them out but to solve them.

David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast.

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Tom Wills
Tom Wills
2 years ago

Tutu’s steadfast support for abortion led to the deaths of far more black lives than apartheid ever did. He is a villain.

2 years ago

Like Martin Luther King, Tutu is a hero of Blacks, but he was an underhanded politician with serious character flaws. An anti-Semite of the first stripe. South Africa now has more murders and violence than it had under Apartheid: if more people are dying, how is that better than before?

Philip Hammersley
Philip Hammersley
2 years ago

I don’t know all of Tutu’s policies but Alan Dershowitz has labeled him an anti-Semite. Being a left-winger, that wouldn’t be surprising. Also, now the blacks are forcibly taking over farms and ejecting the owners. Are South Africans ACTUALLY any better off than before?

Tim Toroian
Tim Toroian
2 years ago

Many, many years ago an African frequented my place of employment. A couple of years later I’m listening to the CBS Evening News with some relatives. I suddenly say I know the guy, look up and it was Tutu. Surprised me.

anna hubert
anna hubert
2 years ago

Tutu and Mandela two saviors of Africa where peace love and prosperity reigns is that why we are bombarded with images of misery asked for more money?

david frankel
david frankel
2 years ago

tutu was and is a racisit bigot a criminal

2 years ago

Like the rest of us Tutu was imperfect. His anti apartheid work was to me his best work. Beyond that he veered to the left many times going against what the church I know stands for and promotes. Much like today’s kooky pope. RIP

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