ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: A mark left on a nation in need of healing

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: A mark left on a nation in need of healing

By Cheryllyn Dudley (Former MP 1999-2019, Author and political advisor for DiaLOGOS)

Twenty plus years ago, knowing little about Desmond Tutu, I had a shallow and bigoted view of the Arch. I had heard only what legalistic, pessimistic, and ‘fearful’ Christians had to say about him and little else.

To my shame, as I write this, I remember an incident in the KZN Legislature, before I took office as a member of Parliament. I was making a submission on behalf of the ACDP on the drafting of the KZN constitution and was challenged by John Jeffery, a lawyer and KZN MP at the time. This formidable, sarcastic legal mind challenged me on the ACDP stance on homosexual rights and said that even Bishop Tutu, a Christian, took a different view. I replied, “I know Desmond Tutu claims to be a Christian but that does not necessarily make him one. If I insist I am a Zulu, the lack of evidence supporting my claim is likely to leave you in some doubt as to the legitimacy or reliability of my claim.”

Since then, however, having purposefully addressed my ‘condition’ (limited knowledge of recent history and current affairs, arrogance and a self-righteousness attitude), my respect and appreciation of Desmond Tutu, grew little by little over the years. Today I cringe at my uninformed, biased and self righteous comment and am grateful for this colourful authentic man, warts and all. I tend to think, despite his human failings, he may well be in the presence of his maker right now hearing the words, “well done good and faithful servant”.

It was early in 1996 when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a court-like body, came into existence with Desmond Tutu taking the reigns. Despite many criticisms over the years, the TRC represented an important moment in the history of this country. The intended purpose was to begin a process of healing, not only for the individuals who had been victims of gross human rights violations, but for the whole of South Africa.

By 28 October 1998, the Commission completed its report which condemned both the perpetrators of apartheid atrocities and the perpetrators of liberation atrocities. Interestingly many Christians were sceptical of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Looking back, the tendency to be suspicious of these practical steps to facilitate a process of healing showed a lack of humility and a tendency to believe God could only work within the bounds of our individual understanding of the Church and the Bible.

In fact, the TRC was a crucial part of our transition to democracy, and, despite its human failings, it was generally regarded by onlookers (especially those outside the country) as very successful at the time. The mandate of the commission was accomplished through three committees:

  • the Human Rights Violations Committee, which investigated abuses that took place between 1960 and 1994;
  • the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee, which was charged with restoring victims’ dignity and formulating proposals to assist with rehabilitation;
  • and the Amnesty Committee, which considered applications for amnesty for those charged with atrocities during apartheid.

The two conditions for amnesty were that the crimes committed had been politically motivated and that the entire and whole truth was told by the person seeking it. 849 applicants were granted amnesty and 5,392 were refused.

Ingrid De Kock’s beautiful poem paints a picture of how the work of the Commission began.
“On the first day after a few hours of testimony
the Archbishop wept.
He put his grey head on the long table of papers and protocols
and he wept…
his misted glasses, his sobbing shoulders, the call for a recess…
That’s how it began.”

Reconciliation, the building of trust and the building of a sense of unity, could not, of course, be achieved within two years. The purpose of the TRC was to PROMOTE reconciliation; not ACHIEVE it.

It was never going to be smooth-sailing either as the process necessitated the opening up and exposing of awful abuses, hurts and degradation. Through talking, telling stories and sharing memories, opportunities for healing were however created.

Sadly, as Christians in general, it seems to me that we did not pay enough attention to highlighting issues around reparations and restitution, missing the opportunity then and other opportunities since. We understood forgiveness and reconciliation but missed the Scriptures that spoke so clearly about restitution. In order to redress the legacy of human rights abuses, judicial and non-judicial measures have been implemented yet so much of what has been attempted, has been done in the face of much opposition or just plain apathy.

If we want to change the perception that reconciliation to date is a facade, a unity without cost or ‘cheap justice’ as some would say, then talking will have to result in substantially addressing poverty and inequality. Government cannot do this alone. It is us, ordinary South Africans, who have the opportunity and even responsibility to continue this work through the promotion of reconciliation in our homes, schools, places of employment, and places of worship, in our conversations, our writing, and in our actions.

Finding creative ways to give every child, young person and adult the opportunities we want for ourselves, our own children and our grandchildren will mean something different for each of us. And each of us on our own, cannot not help everyone, but we CAN make a difference in the lives of those we ARE able to help. Many have begun the work and we can strengthen their hands and hold up their arms through our generosity.

We are still a nation in transition from the gross human rights abuses of the past toward a more just society. There is no magic wand that can be waved to produce an instant climate for justice. There are things to be done on this journey toward justice and we will need to take responsibility. There is no quick fix, and it is not a job for the impatient or faint-hearted. Like everything else, this is a process, and generosity of spirit coupled with patience is needed if our efforts are to make a positive difference.

In this we can be sure we will all be tested. And yet… with our trust not being in our own strength but in the one who died for the very purpose of reconciling us to our father in heaven, we need not fear or get despondent. He is more than able. Besides, it is His will and not Ours that must be done.

Thank you, Archbishop Tutu, for daring to be authentically you, for acting on the clarity you had from Our Father in Heaven, for your generosity, your patience and so much more. As Jay Naidoo writes so beautifully:

“Your Truth swims against the currents of our anger. Your truth pierces the fragile birth of a new activism. Guiding it’s difficult journey with your overflowing compassion. Strengthening our moral fibre. Confronting our own demons. Our shadow of our dark side. You patiently pastored our broken bones. Rekindling our spirit. I thank you Arch. You were an ally… our midwife… our wise father in the search of our Humanity. You taught me humility. And your bubbling laughter even in our most terrible moments made our spirit soar… confronting the norm of fear even when they came for you. Thank you Arch. For a life fully embraced. For those moments when you held me. Especially spiritually… in times of uncertainty and doubt. You have been my teacher. My pastor. My spiritual father. And I am grateful to have your light and the optimism of your conscience in my humble Life.”

Last but not least I would like to quote President Cyril Ramaphosa who commended Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu for his bravery and being the voice of the voiceless saying:

“Over the years, he was concerned about some of the errors within the governing party; he spoke out about it. He was brave; he was forthright – love him (if for no other reason) just for that.”

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