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Whatever else he was, Desmond Mpilo Tutu was a man of his times and his country. South Africans. Being the sort of people who would start trouble in an empty house, it is therefore no surprise that the legacy of “The Arch” is already being hotly debated.
No doubt the Nobel Peace Prize winner would appreciate that; maybe he would even chuckle. Debate, he always maintained, was preferable to war.
And, perhaps, in debating the role of Desmond Tutu in the history of our country, we can step back and take a long look at ourselves.
In the wake of his death on, of all days, the Day of Goodwill on Sunday, the expected tsunami of praise for Tutu has been leavened – some may say cheapened – but the small but vociferous minority of those who want to revise history and regard the cleric as someone who “sold out” black people.
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Those voices, primarily, are in and around the camp supporting Jacob Zuma, as well as the Economic Freedom Fighters, which has questioned the way in which Tutu handled Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
They have been peddling incorrect facts – including that Tutu, as chair of the TRC, accused Madikizela-Mandela of murder because of the events around the killing of Stompie Seipei in the late ’80s.
Tutu did nothing of the kind… he treated her with respect and finally made her admit that “mistakes” had been made during the time of her brutal Soweto football club.
Another accusation is that Tutu was part of a “rubber stamp” process n the TRC which allowed many of apartheid’s worst villains to get off scot free.
Yet, the Archbishop on many occasions lamented this fact and the sad truth that most white South Africans had still to come to terms with their role in the past and how that past shapes the present and the future.
Without that acknowledgment, he would say, there could be no real reconciliation.
Tutu was also outspoken on issues like land restitution and how it was moving too slowly – hardly the attitude of someone selling his people down the river. The Arch would never see himself as “the conscience” of a whole country
Why would it be necessary for people to have someone be that for them? He was, however, the man who repeatedly reminded all of us about doing the right thing.
Above all, he was moral. And so he could not be readily dismissed in the apartheid years as being a “revolutionary” or a “terrorist”, even though he was often portrayed in this way by the government-supporting media of the time.
And, most importantly, his morality was not partial and nor was it for sale.
Hence, he spoke out strongly against the ANC for its multiple failures – from Thabo Mbeki’s failure to move quickly enough on the HIV epidemic, to the unsuitability of Jacob Zuma as a man to lead this country. For that he was pilloried by some of the leaders of the ANC.
Those leaders now seek to portray him as “their” struggle hero. Tutu would undoubtedly be angered by that.
Because he did what he did for the people of South Africa, and for the world. The best way to honour Tutu is to ask ourselves, before we speak or act, “What would The Arch do?”