In the decades when Nelson Mandela was in prison, Desmond Tutu was the voice of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, a voice motivated by Christian values.
“You brought us the Bible and we are taking it seriously,” Tutu explained. He did not separate religion from politics but preached a non-violent activism that challenged the white supremacy he labeled un-Christian.
Tutu was educated in Anglican schools and influenced by Father Trevor Huddleston, who came from a wealthy family in England to serve the neighborhood of Sophiatown in Johannesburg. Unable to pursue either a medical career, because of the cost, or a teaching career, because he refused to teach under restrictions the government placed on schools for blacks, Tutu became an Anglican priest instead. Rising through the ranks to become a bishop and then general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, Tutu then became the Archbishop of Capetown in 1986, the first black person to hold that post as leader of the Anglican church in South Africa.
In his role as a spiritual leader at a time when political leaders of the anti-apartheid movement were all in exile, in jail, or dead, Tutu constantly denounced apartheid, but he preached non-violence. He once stepped into a mob to rescue a man suspected of being an informant. He had the rare ability to talk to both blacks and whites. To whites he said that a belief in racial superiority was un-Christian. To blacks he said that the enemy was white supremacy, not white people. Christianity promised freedom, he said, and God was on the side of the oppressed. Tutu’s message was easier for whites to hear than the more revolutionary voices, but his voice demanded action, too, allying in a search for justice.
He also had a sense of humor which he used to chide the powers that be. When some whites saw him as an ogre because of his political activism, he responded, “I manage with consummate skill to hide my horns, under my funny bishop’s hat, and my tail tucked away under my trailing cape.”
His Christian activism inspired me when I wrote a young adult biography of Tutu in 1988, two years before Mandela was released from prison. In an international phone conversation, more difficult in the days before cellphones, the Archbishop invited me to South Africa to interview him, but his government would not issue a visa. Clearly considering Tutu a troublemaker, they responded that he comes to “your country” often enough. (When Tutu traveled to churches around the world urging economic pressure to provoke non-violent change in South Africa,the government routinely withheld his passport.) So I enlisted the help of a South African journalist to interview him and send me a tape, and I interviewed his daughter, who was living in the United States. Only later, in 1987, did I meet him in person when he gave the commencement address at Oberlin College, the same year as my 20th reunion.
His message was the same: peace would come through the efforts of “black and white together.” He preached justice, peace, and reconciliation, in that order. When Mandela was freed in 1990, Tutu could go back to being just a bishop. When Mandela was then elected as the first black president of South Africa, he chose Tutu to lead a process of reconciliation.
Reconciliation is still in process. The evolution of a more democratic structure in black-majority South Africa has not been smooth, but Tutu’s legacy of dialogue between whites and blacks, at a time of violence by the white government and violent resistance, established the framework for a path forward.