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A personal tribute to Archbishop Tutu

28th Jan 2022
A personal tribute to Archbishop Tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1931-2021) (Photo credit: Ashraf Hendricks/Anadolu Agency)

On December 26, 2021, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu passed away in Cape Town, South Africa, at the ripe age of 90. Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born on October 7, 1931, in Johannesburg. In 1961, he was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. From 1978 to 1985, Tutu served as secretary-general of an ecumenical body, the South African Council of Churches. It was in this capacity that on December 10, 1984, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his Anti-Apartheid activism and human rights work in South Africa.

He subsequently rose to become the first black Archbishop of Cape Town (1986-1994), and shortly after the demise of Apartheid, he was appointed by President Nelson Mandela to lead South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996-1998).

In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, as a young Imam of the Claremont Main Road Mosque, I became inspired and active in interfaith and interreligious activities through the South African Chapter of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP-SA).

As a beneficiary of South Africa’s rich and robust interfaith and interreligious solidarity movement, I believe that through my indefatigable passion for interfaith activities; I am not merely honouring, but also giving profound thanks to the rich and diverse legacy bequeathed to us by Archbishop Tutu.

Desmond Tutu is the embodiment of interfaith and interreligious solidarity. Our beloved country, the African continent, and indeed the world, can honour the memory and profound legacy of Archbishop Tutu by living up to the egalitarian ideals he espoused and continuing the struggles for human dignity, social justice, and interfaith and interreligious solidarity that he championed during his life.

South Africa has a unique and unparalleled interfaith and interreligious solidarity movement, thanks in large to the wise leadership and sterling contributions of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mphilo Tutu.

Emblematic of this robust interfaith legacy is that since the inception of South Africa’s non-racial and democratic Parliament in 1994, its proceedings have consistently been inaugurated by interfaith prayers.

One of the most significant dimensions of Archbishop Tutu’s rich legacy is that of his prophetic witness to social justice and human dignity for oppressed and exploited people wherever they may find themselves.

In my view herein lies the most significant part of the legacy of Desmond Tutu, namely that of his prophetic witness, i.e. speaking truth to power. The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Tutu in 1984 was indeed in recognition of his prophetic witness during the Apartheid era of social justice and human dignity.

In his unrelenting pursuit of peace with justice, human rights and dignity, Tutus’ speaking truth to power did not end with the demise of Apartheid in 1994 but continued during the final quarter-century of his life (1994-2021). His strong criticism of the corruption within the post-Apartheid African National Congress (ANC) led Government is well-known. The most infamous of the litany of rebukes Tutu directed at the ANC led Government because of their graft and neglect of the poor and marginalised in the country came on his 80th birthday celebrations on October 7, 2011.

Tutu lashed out at the South African Government for its refusal to grant the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, a visa to attend his birthday party. He vowed to pray for the downfall of the ANC. Unsurprisingly, Tutu paid a price for his outspokenness and calling the ANC Government to account for their moral mandate to the people of South Africa.

In 2013, with the passing of his close friend and comrade, Nelson Mandela, the ANC led Government omitted to invite Tutu to the state funeral. It was only after the intervention of some senior religious and civil society leaders that Tutu was given a late invitation and persuaded to attend. It was a slight that hurt him deeply, but he refused to seek patronage from the new political elites.

I wish to highlight three examples in which Tutu’s bold prophetic witness was directed at global struggles against injustice. The first, and most significant case, is that of Tutu’s decrying of Israel as an apartheid state. In 2002, after a visit to the Holy Land, Tutu created a stir in a widely publicised speech denouncing the oppressive Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians and calling for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. Tutu’s commitment to global struggles against injustices is epitomised by the following statement he made at the tenth international Israeli Apartheid Week in 2014: “Those who turn a blind eye to injustice actually perpetuate injustice. If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”.

Archbishop Tutu remained a fierce critic of state-sponsored terror in Israel throughout his life, for which he was to suffer great ignominy. The pro-Israeli lobbyists have continued to denigrate Tutu as a senile anti-Semite.
The second example of Tutu’s prophetic witness at the global level came in 2003 when Tutu decried the US-led invasion of Iraq as immoral and unjust. He continued to be a fierce critic of the war in Iraq long after it had ended. He subsequently called for both George W Bush and Tony Blair to face prosecution at the International Criminal Court for their role in the war on Iraq.

Tutu condemned his fellow Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi in 2007 for not opposing the Myanmar regime perpetrating what he called the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya people. In an open letter posted on social media, Tutu said: “I am now elderly, decrepit and formally retired, but breaking my vow to remain silent on public affairs out of profound sadness [at the persecution of the Rohingya people].”

The highest honour we can bestow on the memory of Archbishop Desmond Tutu is to embrace his prophetic theology of holding those in power responsible for their moral and political mandates. This is a responsibility that should not only fall on our current religious leadership, but on all of us as responsible global citizens. We express our profound gratitude for the remarkable contribution of Desmond Tutu to the struggles of the oppressed and exploited masses in South Africa and all over the world for a life of dignity and equality.

Imam Dr A Rashied Omar,

Claremont Main Rd Masjid, Cape Town, South Africa & Scholar,

Islamic Studies, Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame, US

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