Desmond Tutu may be retiring, but he will find it hard to stay silent
One of the great figures of the 20th century vowed he was going into retirement yesterday. Do not believe it. Desmond Tutu has retired before and whenever a serious injustice has reared its head, he has returned.
Desmond Mpilo Tutu was one the central forces in the dismantling of Apartheid in South Africa. Over the years, the white regime had responded to protest and resistance by arresting tens of thousands of black activists. Many more in the African National Congress (ANC) had gone into exile, to continue their opposition abroad.
The torch of resistance passed to the South African churches, the one group the white government could not outlaw. Its most prominent leader was Desmond Tutu, who in 1975 had become the first black man to be appointed Dean of St Mary's Anglican Cathedral in Johannesburg.
“It was people of faith who by and large kept the fires of revolution burning,” he later told me for a BBC documentary. He came to international attention for his vigorous condemnations of the massacre of schoolchildren in Soweto. Tutu spoke out, encouraging a Western economic boycott of South Africa. Sanctions might throw blacks out of work, Tutu argued, but at least they would be suffering “with a purpose”.
He travelled abroad, raising an international outcry. And his behind-the-scenes visits to powerful financial institutions in the US helped to encourage disinvestment. In 1984, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Two years later he was made Archbishop of Cape Town. Desmond Tutu had a shrewd understanding of how to play politics at an international level because he had spent so much time in the UK. He took his theology degrees at King's College London in the 1960s. His first job was as a curate in Golders Green.
His exposure to Western media taught him how best to use it. He became so well known, he once told me, that when he met a hermit nun in California she told him that the first thing she did
each morning was to pray for him. “I am being prayed for by a nun at 2am in the woods in California each day: what chance does the Apartheid government stand.”
His astuteness extended to politics. When a new white president, FW de Klerk, took over in 1989, Tutu assured him that, if there was change, the blacks would not turn on the whites. Within a year, De Klerk had released Nelson Mandela, who spent his first night of freedom in the home of Desmond Tutu.
Tutu did not escape criticism for his pledge. Some in the black community asked by whose authority he gave such a promise. He made his reply at the funeral of the South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani in 1993, when he spurred a crowd of 100,000 into chanting, over and over: “We will be free, all of us, black and white together.”
Then he finished his speech with a quote that was to resonate around the world: “We are the rainbow people of God. We are unstoppable. Nobody can stop us on our march to victory. We are moving to freedom and nobody can stop us. For God is on our side.”
Two things were on display. Tutu's extraordinary bravery. But also his unshakeable faith in the intrinsic goodness of human beings.
His latest book, written with his daughter, Mpho, is called Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All The Difference. To the public, Desmond Tutu is a highly political priest, but those who meet him see first a deep spirituality.
He tells a great story: “When the missionaries came, they had the Bible and we had the land. And they said: ‘Close your eyes and let us pray’. And we dutifully did so, but when we said ‘Amen' and opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”
Perhaps, he says, it was not such a bad deal.
He has spoken truth to power repeatedly, condemning human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, criticising Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and attacking homophobia in his own church.
Even when diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997, he did not give up but convened Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and others to form The Elders, a group who would help resolve world problems.
“Desmond Tutu's voice,” said Nelson Mandela recently, “will always be the voice of the voiceless”.
That voice has not yet finished speaking.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has a strong connection with Northern Ireland.
In 2006 he visited the country for a series of TV programmes that brought victims and perpetrators of violence together, including loyalist mass killer Michael Stone.
Prior to that, in 2001, the Nobel Peace Prize winner toured troublespots in Belfast, including the flashpoint Ardoyne area.
The clergyman, who rose from humble beginnings in a South African gold-mining township, was a tireless campaigner against Apartheid, and since then for human rights around the globe.