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A tribute to Arch-Bishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu (1931-2021)

(Photo By Stephen Voss/Redux/eyevine)
(Photo By Stephen Voss/Redux/eyevine)

By Professor Simangaliso Kumalo, University of KwaZulu-Natal

In the last few days, I have been glued on Channel 199 listening to the tributes to the Arch. The more I listened and watched these tributes especially those from politicians and academics, the more I felt compelled to believe that whilst he was amongst us, we were blessed to be in the presence of greatness. The tributes that people were paying to him were less about him but more about themselves. The angles in which they saw him were shaped and influenced by their own interests, skills, biases and perspectives.  I just feel like simply thanking God for giving South Africa this extra-ordinary human being. He was an extremely complex figure, no wonder he was not fully understood by the apartheid leaders as well as the leaders of the democratic South Africa. None can claim to have fully understood and appreciated him. He was indeed an enigma, not a saint, just a sinner like many of us but better than most of us because he took his spiritual disciplines more seriously than some of us. That is the benefit of being an Anglican. I just want to share a few observations on how I saw and experienced him.

1. A son of mixed ethnicity

One of the unique qualities that he inherited was that he came from a mixed marriage ethnically. His father was a staunch Xhosa- Fingo cultural heritage, whilst his mother was a Motswana. The father a school principal and mother an ordinary mother worked as a cook. His father was an extremely patriarchal man and his mother a typical gentle Tswana woman, always ready to take the side of the little person in a situation of conflict. In an ethnically charged society Tutu’s background reminds us of the richness of character that can be inherited by children growing up in families of mixed marriages. They are much richer than poorer.

2.  Rich ecclesiastical heritage

Tutu was baptised a Methodist and then after the family moved from Klerksdorp to Sophia town joined the AME and then later became Anglican through the influence of his elder sister. Whilst Methodism might have planted the seed of passion for the gospel and social holiness, the Anglicans gave him the spiritual disciplines – the love of the Eucharist, prayer, contemplation and retreats. From these he drew the strengths of being with God in a much deeper way especially during the times of oppression.

3. Called to the ministry through circumstances

One of the things he usually said is that his call to the ministry was not extra-ordinary or had some supernatural experience. He had wanted to be a doctor but could not afford medical school. Then he became a teacher. When the government imposed the Bantu Education System he could not teach that to black children then he felt the best way to serve his people was to offer himself for the ministry. That is how he received his call to the ministry. He saw the need and responded to it by offering to become an epitome of a pastor of the people. This teaches us that God can use any person no matter their motivation for joining the ministry; they can be the best minister.

4. Pastor or Politician

Sometimes people thought that Tutu was being political in his ministry. Tutu was clear, that he was not a politician nor did he harbour ambitions of being one but like all good pastors his ministry had some implications for the political dynamics of the time because it emerged from the peoples experiences. He had no interest in politics personally, but his ministry responded to the political situation of the time.

5. The Relentless Reconciler.

He had a vision of how South Africa can build a new nation. Unfortunately, the road to that destination had to go through reconciliation. This is a Christian message not a political one. For this reason, people looking at it from a political perspective do not understand it and mistake it as ‘selling-out’. His message was much complex no wonder those standing on the privilege of hindsight throw accusations at him. At some stage he called on the privileged white folks to contribute to the wealth tax, to be used for reparations but it seems some critics have conveniently forgotten that call.

6. Consistent Prophetic Ministry

Tutu’s prophetic voice reverberated without being silenced during the democratic South Africa as it did during apartheid. So, the idea that the prophets of liberation are not prophets of the Promised Land was trumped by Tutu’s ministry. The prophetic ministry can be consistent from one era to another as we have seen that from the Arch.

7.  Theology as an analytical tool

Tutu validated the discipline of theology as a tool for social change in ways never seen before. He represented those who believe that you can use theology to interpret, understand and change society than just political theory or communism. In his early days he wrote papers on African, Black and Liberation Theology. This dispelled the myth that theology is just the ‘opium of the poor’ but rather a tool for liberation.

8. An all-embracing God

Tutu once asserted that his God was not just Christian. God is much bigger than the church. He asked, if God is Christian, then what was God before Christianity which is just two thousand years old. This enabled him to become an ecumenist par-excellence.

You can also find more about the life and works of Arch-Bishop Tutu from the official statement from the presidency and the homily preached at the inferring of the ashes of the late Arch-Bishop at St Georges Cathedral.

Here are more links to great articles on Arch-Bishop Tutu.

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