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When I first saw Desmond Tutu

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu

I first saw Desmond Tutu as a Stanford junior in January 1986.  His soaring voice and rolling Rs as he decried the evils of apartheid nudged me to get off the sidelines and into the freedom struggle.

After joining the campus anti-apartheid movement that fall, I rose for an early morning jog with then-President Donald Kennedy during which I debated the merits of the university’s divesting from companies that did business in South Africa.  The student newspaper published a column I wrote describing our exchange. Inspired by Tutu’s address, these experiences stirred in me a dream that I might one day visit Alan Paton’s beloved country.

That vision came true in 1995, when I taught for a year at one of South Africa’s first private, multiracial private schools.  It was a heady time. Galvanized by President Nelson Mandela’s donning a green Springbok jersey, South Africa had won the Rugby World Cup just six weeks before I arrived.

Tutu headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that remains the most comprehensive national confrontation with governmental human rights abuses.

I went to KwaZulu-Natal’s first day of hearings in early May. I sat riveted as speaker after speaker testified about the detentions, torture, and murder they or their relatives had endured for years from police, security forces, and supporters of Mangosotho Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party.

Their answers to commissioners’ inquiries about what they wanted seemed achingly meager.  One mother asked to receive her son’s arms and lower limbs so that her family could bury them with the rest of his charred remains. A former activist sought the identities and motivations of the policemen who had tied cords to his genitals while torturing him.

Two sisters of a woman killed in a 1986 bombing on Durban’s waterfront took aim at Robert McBride, the man in the African National Congress’ armed wing who detonated the bomb.  McBride was working in the Foreign Affairs department at the time of the hearing. “He has no right to be in public office,” Cher Gerrard declared, her voice dripping with anger.   “He is a convicted murderer.”

Tutu spoke after the sisters finished. He thanked them for their contribution to the nation’s healing, then said that their position illustrated by contrast the miracle of those who had been able to go beyond and forgive their oppressors.

And, with that, he ended the day’s session.

I subsequently came to understand that many found Tutu’s Christian and spiritual-based approach insufficient for achieving justice. But at that moment I felt as if I had just witnessed the one man who could help South Africa move from its brutal past into a future aligned with the lofty ideals on which the freedom struggle had been waged.

I approached Tutu and tentatively asked to take a picture with him. He complied with characteristic grace and good humor.  While standing together, I reminded him of his earlier visit to Stanford and told him about my involvement in the divestment movement.

“Oh, yes, you people were good on that issue,”  he said.

I saw him for the third and final time 20 years later, when my wife and I attended a Eucharist ceremony “the Arch” presided over at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town.  Walking with great effort, he didn’t hear well at moments and his once sturdy voice sounded faint. But his mind and fabled sense of humor were intact and his eyes gleamed with compassion, spirit and love.  Tutu asked visitors to introduce themselves at the beginning of the service.  I stood and explained my history with him.  He didn’t remember me, but I could see that the story had made him happy.  We planned to return to “the people’s church” the following year, but learned that he had taken a well-deserved retirement from public life.

On Sunday, like people the world over, I woke up to learn that Archbishop Tutu had died.

When I was a pulpy college student, his advocacy for the ideals to which he tirelessly dedicated his life pushed me to shake off my hesitation and join the global fight for justice.

As a young man enacting a long-held dream he helped spark, watching him preside over his nation’s diving into its horrific atrocities fueled my own efforts to confront the past.

And as a middle-aged father and husband, witnessing one of his final public appearances at the church where he had led marches and campaigns against apartheid fortified me to persist.

Along with his unwavering moral force and humanity, these memories will guide me as I contribute for as long as I am able to healing our beautiful, wounded, and blood-soaked world.

By Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

Author is the executive director of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) and the Padnos/Sarosik Endowed Professor of Civil Discourse at Grand Valley State University. 

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