Giants loom large in world mythology, frequently representing the most ominous of foes. Their huge size immediately evokes ideas of superhuman strength and formidable abilities, and yet in many legends the giant is in fact a tragic character, often suffering an incongruous death. Today we know that giant men did not really exist, but we still talk of giants in the field of human endeavour.
Desmond Tutu was one of them. He was only 1.68 meters tall, but the diminutive Archbishop became a towering figure in South Africa’s history, comparable to fellow Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela, a prisoner during white rule who became South Africa’s first Black president. Tutu and Mandela shared a commitment to building a better, more equal South Africa.
Dubbed “the moral compass of the nation”, Tutu’s courage in defending social justice, even at great cost to himself, always shone through — and not just during apartheid. He often fell out with his erstwhile allies at the ruling African National Congress party over their failures to address the poverty and inequalities that they had promised to eradicate.
I referred to the tragedies of the mythological giants, but those tragedies often reflect the plight of the men who created them in their imaginations. Tragedy is, in fact, a useful tool for ethical reflection and insight; it forces us to re-examine what it means to be a human being and to focus on what is truly important in living well.
Tutu’s courage in defending social justice, even at great cost to himself, always shone through.
The philosopher Aristotle even wrote a treatise on tragedy. In his Poetics, he illustrates the moral imperfections of men in terms of his ethics. Examination of scenes from two Greek tragedies, the Antigone and the Agamemno, reveal just how difficult moral choice is and the value of an ideal of moral perfection to human life and worth. A careful study of both may serve to aid in the development of moral depth in ourselves.
Morality is what Desmond Tutu exhibited in large doses, moving Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town, to say that “His legacy is moral strength, moral courage and clarity.” Former U.S. President Barack Obama hailed Tutu as “a moral compass for me and so many others. A universal spirit, Archbishop Tutu was grounded in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country, but also concerned with injustice everywhere.”
In 2020, during the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, Tutu said it was an “inconvenient truth” that the lives of certain groups in society were considered more valuable than those of others. Tutu’s words of caution followed the violent death of African-American George Floyd during a police operation in the US. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, reminds us that one of Tutu’s sayings is terse, but forceful and true: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Tutu worked passionately, tirelessly and non-violently to tear down apartheid — South Africa’s brutal, decades-long regime of oppression against its Black majority that only ended in 1994. A lively wit lightened Tutu’s hard-hitting messages. Plucky and tenacious, he was a formidable force with a canny talent for quoting apt scriptures to harness support for change.
In 1990, after 27 years in prison, that other icon Nelson Mandela spent his first night of freedom at Tutu’s residence in Cape Town. Later, Mandela called Tutu “the people’s archbishop”.
Upon becoming president in 1994, Mandela appointed Tutu to be chairman of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which uncovered the abuses of apartheid. Early in 2016, Tutu defended the reconciliation policy that ended white minority rule amid increasing frustrations among some Black South Africans who felt they had not seen the expected economic opportunities since apartheid ended.
The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Tutu in 1984 highlighted his stature as one of the world’s most effective champions for human rights, especially LGBTIQ rights and marriage equality — a responsibility he took seriously for the rest of his life. From the pavements of resistance in South Africa to the pulpits of the world’s great cathedrals and places of worship, the Archbishop distinguished himself as a non-sectarian, inclusive champion of universal human rights.
“I would not worship a God who is homophobic,” he said in 2013, launching a campaign for LGBTIQ rights in Cape Town. “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say, ‘Sorry, I would much rather go to the other place.’”
Tutu said he was as passionate about this campaign as he ever was about apartheid. This stance that put him at odds with many in South Africa and across the continent as well as within the Anglican church.
He was as passionate about LGBTIQ rights as he ever was about apartheid.
With the end of apartheid and South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Tutu celebrated the country’s multi-racial society, calling it a “rainbow nation”, a phrase that captured the heady optimism of the moment.
But, over the years, he grew disillusioned with the African National Congress. His outspoken remarks long after apartheid sometimes angered partisans who accused him of being biased or out of touch.
Of course, being “out of touch” is all too often the label attached to people who continue to wear their moral armour by those who have become amoral, or even immoral.
In paying tribute to Tutu, President Cyril Ramaphosa described him as “a person who carried the burden of leadership with compassion, with dignity, with humility and with such good humour”.
As to humour, I love what he once wrote, “I wonder whether they have rum and Coke in Heaven? Maybe it’s too mundane a pleasure, but I hope so ─ as a sundowner. Except, of course, the sun never goes down there. Oh, man, this heaven is going to take some getting used to.”
It was always clear to all that the buoyant, blunt-spoken clergyman felt with the people. In public and alone, he cried because he felt people’s pain. And he cackled with delight when he shared their joy. Tutu’s friend, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, has added that Tutu’s life was “entirely dedicated to serving his brothers and sisters for the greater common good. He was a true humanitarian.”
Even though he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997, Tutu wouldn’t — or couldn’t — stay completely out of politics. In 2014, he called for a boycott of mining and oil companies. Climate change, he said, should be fought with the same vigour that apartheid was fought in the 1980s.
The tributes being paid to Archbishop Tutu show the esteem in which he was held all over the world. Of him, the Vatican said that “Mindful of his service to the gospel through the promotion of racial equality and reconciliation in his native South Africa, His Holiness Pope Francis commends his soul to the loving mercy of Almighty God.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also referred to Tutu’s deep faith as a “powerhouse that made the world a better place”.
So, it is not remiss to say, with the rest of the world, “Go well, good and faithful servant.”