Archbishop Desmond Tutu loves to tell jokes — like the one about the time when he and P.W. Botha came together for a meeting. They didn’t want anybody to hear what they were saying to each other. So they met in a small boat in the middle of a lake. Suddenly a wind blew Botha’s hat into the water.
Tutu said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get it’ — and he stepped over the side of the boat. To everyone’s surprise, he just walked across the water to fetch Botha’s hat.
The TV and newspaper people watched this miracle from the side of the lake. But the next day, the newspaper headlines read: ‘Tutu kan nie swem nie” (Tutu can’t swim).
The joke is a good example of how the SABC -TV and many (white) newspapers twist the truth when it comes to Desmond Tutu. They always do their best to show Tutu in a bad light.
But who is this man the South African government and its friends love to hate?
A woman from England, Shirley Du Boulay, has just written a book about this great son of South Africa. The book is called TUTU — VOICE OF THE VOICELESS. It is the story of Desmond Tutu’s life — and how he has come to speak for his people suffering under apartheid.
THE STORY BEGINS
The book begins with a chapter called “Hertzog is my shepherd.” It is the title of a poem written in 1925 that mocks General Hertzog and his racist laws. Life was not as bad for blacks as it was to become when the Nationalists came to power in 1948 — but it was bad enough.
Desmond Mpilo Tutu was bom into this world on 7th October 1931 in Klerksdorp in the Western Transvaal. His father, Zachariah, was the headmaster of a Methodist Primary school.
Desmond’s mother, Aletta, was a domestic servant. She was a gentle woman who was known as ‘Kgomotso’. This means ‘the comforter of the afflicted’. She always took the side of the person who was losing an argument.
The third of four children, Desmond grew up in a family where there was much love — but not much money. Many times he travelled to and from the white suburbs, collecting and returning the laundry his mother washed. Young Desmond Tutu sold oranges and peanuts at railway stations, and worked as a caddy on golf courses.
Desmond was bright at school. He did not have a head for figures — his arithmetic was not good. But he had a memory like a camera. He could read a book and not only tell everything the book said — he could tell you on what page you could find it!
THE LONG SICKNESS
When Desmond was 14 years old he got that sickness of the lungs called Tuberculosis (TB).
He had to spend 20 months in hospital. But his time in hospital was like a cloud with a silver lining. He made friends with the famous Father Trevor Huddleston. This well-loved priest served the people of Sophiatown for many years. Now he is the head of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain.
Father Huddleston visited the patients at the Rietfontein Hospital — and young Desmond came to love and respect him. The priest liked Desmond and brought him many books to read.
The young Desmond was hungry for knowledge. He read all the books — and learned much about the world from his hospital bed.
NEARER TO GOD
Desmond’s time in hospital and his friendship with Father Huddleston gave him strength — and a new-found faith in God.
One dark night Desmond was very sick. He was coughing up a lot of blood. The young boy was scared. He thought he was going to die. But then he felt a very deep calm. He remembers saying to God, “Well, if I have to die, OK.”
When he was well again, Desmond felt nearer to God. He was thankful to God for letting him live. When Desmond left hospital, he became a server in the church of St Paul’s, in Munsieville near Krugersdorp. This was where his parents were now staying.
After Desmond finished matric, he wanted to be a doctor. He was accepted at medical school — but he could not go. There was not enough money. So he decided to follow his father and become a teacher.
FALLING IN LOVE
Du Boulay’s book does not say much about Tutu’s private life. But she says that in 1955 Desmond Tutu fell in love. The woman who won his heart was Leah Shenxane. She had been one of his father’s brightest pupils — and she became Desmond’s brightest star when he married her.
After his marriage, Desmond taught at Munsieville High School. This was next door to the Anglican school where his father was the headmaster. Many pupils still remember being taught at primary school by the father and at high school by the son.
Desmond Tutu was a brilliant teacher — and a brave one. One day some gangsters came to the school in search of girls. The headmaster hid in his office, and the teachers locked the classroom doors.
But one teacher was different. Desmond Tutu — all five feet and no inches of him — walked tall and went outside and spoke to them. The gangsters were soon feeling ashamed. They gave the young teacher their gun. It was not the last time that Desmond Tutu was to show his courage. He has risked his life many times since then.
FROM TEACHING TO PREACHING
The young Tutu had only just started teaching when the government made a new law. This law was the Bantu Education Act.
The aim of Bantu Education was to keep blacks down — and this made Desmond angry. He wanted his pupils to grow up being free and able to think for themselves. He stayed with his pupils for another three years, to see them finish school. Then he left.
Du Boulay says Desmond did not feel sorry for leaving teaching. It was then that he decided to become a priest. Many people, like his father, thought he was doing the wrong thing. But Desmond could not help it. He says: “God grabbed me by the scruff of the neck at that time.”
The people who thought Desmond was wrong to be a priest were in for a big surprise. He did very well at St Peter’s, a college for priests. It was a place where his spirit grew stronger, like a flower that blooms under the summer sun.
A TASTE OF FREEDOM
In 1962 Tutu travelled to England to study for a degree in Theology. It was his first time overseas — and his first taste of freedom from apartheid.
“It is difficult to tell you about the feeling of joy and freedom, of being made to feel human,” Desmond says of life in England.
Desmond and Leah walked all over London. For the first time in their lives they did not have to produce a dompas — and there was no-one to tell them what to do.
Although he was a Christian, Tutu was interested in all kinds of religion. For his master’s degree, he studied the Islamic religion.
BACK IN THE RSA
When Desmond got back to South Africa in 1965, he taught at Fedsem in the eastern Cape. This was a new college for priests. The University of Fort Hare was nearby.
One day in 1968, Tutu preached at Fort Hare. It was just after the Russians had invaded Czechoslovakia. Desmond said blacks in South Africa were like the Czechs, whose freedom had been crushed by the Russian tanks. After this sermon, the university did not allow him back to preach again.
Later that same year, the students at Fort Hare began a boycott of classes. They were unhappy with the conditions at the university. They sat peacefully outside their classrooms. But the university called the police. They attacked the students with dogs and guns and teargas.
Tutu hurried to the university to be with the students. He wouldn’t let the police stop him. The police forced the students off campus. Tutu stayed with the young people all the time. But afterwards he felt very hurt.
“I was angry with God,” he says. “I couldn’t understand how he let all that happen to the students. The next day he cried for the suffering of the students, as he led the church service in prayer.
“GOD IS NOT NEUTRAL”
Tutu has always liked to travel, and to do different things. In 1969 he went to Lesotho, to lecture at Roma University. At this time, Desmond felt he must do something about the injustice in South Africa. He became very interested in ‘Black’ or ‘Liberation’ theology.
Tutu wrote: “He (God) is not a neutral god. He took the side of the slaves, the oppressed, the victims. He is still the same even today; he sides with the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the victims of injustice.”
In 1971, Tutu went back to England to work for the Theological Education Fund. This organisation gives money for priests’ education in the poor countries of the world — the so-called ‘Third World’.
In his new job, Tutu spent half the year travelling in Africa. This was sometimes dangerous. He was searched by Ian Smith’s police in Rhodesia. They found a paper about Black Theology on him. “That’s not theology, that’s politics!” they screamed at him. But they let him go.
BATTLES WITH VORSTER
In 1974, it was time for Tutu to come home. He had a top job waiting for him — as the new Dean of Johannesburg. This made him the second highest Anglican Church official in Johannesburg.
In May 1976, Tutu took his first political action. He wrote an open letter to Prime Minister John Vorster. This letter was printed in the newspapers.
In the letter, Tutu pleaded with Vorster to listen to reason. He said blacks wanted to share in the wealth of South Africa, which they had helped to create. He said it was wrong for the army and the security police to have so much power.
And he warned the Prime Minister that there would be bloodshed if there was no real change.
But Vorster did not listen. He said Tutu had only written the letter to make trouble. But it was not long before Tutu’s warning came true.
On the 16th June 1976, the students of Soweto rose up in anger. Their peaceful march was met with police bullets. Over 600 students were killed in just a few weeks.
BISHOP OF THE MOUNTAINS
Soon after the Soweto uprising, Tutu was made Bishop of Lesotho. Tutu did not want to go to the mountain kingdom — but the church in Lesotho said there was no-one else for the job.
It was a hard job, too. Tutu had to travel long distances over the mountains on horseback. But he was a city man, not used to riding horses. He once complained, “There is no understanding between me and the horse — when I go up, he goes down, with rather unpleasant results for some parts of my body!”
It was during Tutu’s time in Lesotho that Steve Biko was killed. The bishop spoke at Biko’s funeral. Like Biko, Tutu thought it was important for black people to have pride in themselves. But he asked people at the funeral to pray for whites too — he believes whites have paid a price for their oppression of others. They had less ‘ubuntu.’
It was not long after this funeral that Tutu came back to South Africa. He was the new Secretary General of the South African Council of Churches (SACC).
“HEARD THE JOKE ABOUT…?”
Du Boulay doesn’t only tell the story of Tutu’s life. She has also spoken to many people about the kind of person he is.
She says Tutu can be strict — but he is also a very sensitive person, someone who really wants to be loved. When he started his job as Secretary General, his staff asked him what he should be called. “Father,” he replied — and this is what nearly everyone calls him now.
One of the best-loved things about Baba Tutu is his sense of humour. He can joke about anything — even about South Africa. He is always telling jokes, like the one about how the whites took South Africa:
“We had the land and they had the bible. Then they said, ‘Let us pray’, and we closed our eyes. When we opened them again, they had the land and we had the bible!”
THE NOBEL PRIZE
Baba Tutu has travelled far and wide, telling people about the evils of apartheid — and asking that they do all they can to bring it to an end. This has angered the government. They have taken his passport away many times.
The world has seen how Tutu has struggled for his people. He has been given many awards for this work. The biggest came in October, 1984.
At nine o’clock one morning, the Norwegian Ambassador to the United Nations went to a little flat in New York where Tutu was staying. He was carrying a big bunch of flowers. He had come to tell Tutu that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Only one other South African has won this world-famous prize — Chief Albert Luthuli.
Tutu said the Nobel Prize was not just for him. He said it belonged to those “whose noses are rubbed in the dust every day.” He meant it was for all the oppressed in South Africa, and, “for all those who seek to change the evil system of apartheid peacefully.”
A MAN OF PEACE
Tutu is a man of peace. He is against violence — but at the same time he says he is not a pacifist. He thinks war is only right when there is no other way of winning justice.
Tutu believes there is still hope for peaceful change in South Africa. This is why he calls on other countries to bring the downfall of apartheid peacefully — by not investing money in South Africa.
This has angered and frightened many whites. They say Tutu is a traitor to South Africa. They say it is blacks who will suffer more than whites from sanctions — because blacks will be the ones to lose their jobs.
But Tutu says: “They would be unemployed and would suffer for a time. But it would be suffering with a reason. We would not be doing what is happening now, where blacks are suffering and it is going on and on and on.”
WITH HONESTY AND COURAGE
In 1986 Tutu was elected ArchBishop of Cape Town. This is the highest position in the Anglican church in South Africa.
The little boy who lay in a hospital bed suffering from TB all those years ago has come a long way. But he has never forgotten his humble beginnings. Like his mother, he too has become a “comforter of the afflicted.”
Tutu has often said that he would much rather be a simple priest preaching to his flock — but he believes that it is his God given duty to speak for his people while their true leaders sit in prison or in exile overseas.
And speak he does, with great courage and honesty. He is indeed the Voice of the Voiceless! That is why Archbishop Desmond Tutu has won the love and respect of millions upon millions of freedom loving people, both here at home and all over the world.
*The book “Tutu — Voice of the Voiceless” by Shirley Du Boulay is published by Hodder & Stoughton. It is still only available in hard cover. It costs R44.95 plus GST.
NEW WORDS lake — a large area of water surrounded by land “comforter of the afflicted” — somebody who comforts those who are in pain or suffering laundry — washing Theology — the study of religion neutral — when you “sit on the fence” and don’t take a side a sense of humour — a person who has a sense of humour likes to make jokes and have fun sanctions — a punishment. For example, when other countries stop doing business with South Africa because of apartheid