The great west doors of Westminster Abbey opened onto a bright July day. It was three months since South Africa’s historic 1994 elections, marking the final end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as President, at the head of a black majority government. It was two months since that same government, in one of its first foreign policy decisions, had applied to rejoin the Commonwealth of Nations, an organisation it had left in acrimony and recrimination thirty-three years before. Inside the Abbey, before Queen Elizabeth II, Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s Deputy President, had just presented his country’s new multicoloured flag to the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Emeka Anyaoku, for it to assume its proper place in the display of Commonwealth flags arrayed before the High Altar. South Africa had left an organisation of twelve member nations, its white president, Hendrik Verwoerd, defiantly declaring that he would not receive the diplomatic representatives of newly independent black African Commonwealth nations. Now this preeminently ‘rainbow’ African country was rejoining a changed international organisation of fifty sovereign members.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who had played such an important part in apartheid’s demise, had preached the sermon at a grand service to welcome South Africa’s return to Commonwealth membership. The Abbey’s intricately carved and gilded pulpit could not contain Tutu’s happy exuberance. As the service ended and the congregation spilled outside, Tutu led the way – dancing a jig of pure joy into the expectant crowd and the waiting media.
Tutu came from an illustrious group of clerics, of all denominations, who stood up for human rights and were not afraid of confronting the apartheid state. They included Michael Scott, Trevor Huddleston, Ambrose Reeves, Frank Chikane, Allan Boesak, Beyers Naude and Denis Hurley. Indeed, as a teenager Tutu was a server at the Church of Christ the King in Sophiatown and became a protégé of its outspoken priest, Trevor Huddleston, who later helped him train for the priesthood. As he rose through the ranks of the Anglican Church, Tutu’s increasing clashes with apartheid caused him to wrestle with the theological implications. He wrote: “Black theology has to do with whether it is possible to be black and continue to be Christian: it is to ask on whose side is God.” Although he had no doubt of the answer and took every opportunity to side with the oppressed and campaign for their liberation, he also recognised that apartheid diminished and dehumanised its white oppressors too. The wholeness of this belief in an indivisible humanity was repeatedly demonstrated in dramatic fashion, whether as Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, weeping uncontrollably at the testimonies of suffering and evil before him; or fearlessly placing himself among anti-apartheid demonstrators facing armed police; or, in his clerical robes, throwing himself across the body of an alleged police informer to prevent his summary execution by ‘necklacing’ by part of a large crowd Tutu had just been addressing. The first black Bishop of Johannesburg, he was within a few years also the first black Archbishop of Cape Town and Primate of the Anglican Church in South Africa. In moving into his official residence, Bishopscourt, in an affluent white area – an illegal act under the Group Areas Act – he daily proclaimed his defiance of apartheid, even while St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town became a place not only of worship but of sanctuary and resistance. These were the actions, as Justin Welby put it at Tutu’s funeral, of a “God-filled life.”
Tutu’s constituency reached far beyond his congregation and his influence was much more wide-ranging than pastoral care. After the Soweto uprising of school students in 1976, in the face of indiscriminate killing and brutality, he was part of a new leadership, operating on the margins of legality, which helped build a mass, democratic movement committed to non-violent methods. This was at a time when most of the anti-apartheid leadership was in prison and the key non-white parties banned. In 1983, the United Democratic Front (UDF) was formed, channeling an important new dimension in the anti-apartheid struggle, despite many of its activists being harassed and imprisoned. It was a difficult balancing act for Tutu – not only in relation to the regime and his political activities but also as regards the African National Congress. As the principal liberation party, the ANC was sometimes suspicious of an organisation which, while supportive of many of the ANC’s goals, did not participate in the armed struggle. Nevertheless, at such an important time, Tutu’s voice could be heard constantly and courageously; and often crucially, such as in his outspoken support for international sanctions against South Africa.
Sir Sonny Ramphal, then Commonwealth Secretary-General and a key figure in galvanising the Commonwealth’s own stand against apartheid, recounts how he organised a dinner meeting in Marlborough House, the Commonwealth’s headquarters, shortly before the 1985 Nassau Commonwealth Summit was about to confront the sanctions issue. Desmond Tutu, speaking alongside Oliver Tambo, the ANC’s president, talked movingly of the ‘killing fields’ of South Africa. As Ramphal recalls: “He pleaded with us to help end apartheid quickly before his country was consumed not just in flames but in hatred.” In advocating a package of sanctions on South Africa to an audience that included British bankers and industrialists, he explained “how time was running out for peaceful change – and for people like himself who were standing out against violence on all sides.”
Fortunately, Tutu’s plea was to be answered in South Africa’s largely peaceful deliverance from apartheid – even if Tutu’s unceasing struggle for a broader humanity was cut short only by his death.
Stuart Mole has served as a Commonwealth diplomat, Director-General of the Royal Commonwealth Society and as immediate past Chair of the Round Table Editorial Board. He is currently the Chair of the Commonwealth Association.