Portrait of an African Clergyman
• Desmond Tutu is a man who elicits very powerful emotions – for better or for worse – whenever his name is mentioned. The Southern Times’ correspondent, PHILIP T SHINGIRAI, gives us his personal opinion of a clergyman that many people love to hate and hate to love.
More often than not, it is difficult to understand South African clergyman and human rights activist Desmond Tutu.
Some view him as one of the most resolute clergymen in Southern Africa, who spoke out boldly against a system of repression and segregation against the black people of South Africa and world over.
At the same time, others view the retired Anglican leader as a man who lends his voice to matters that really do not warrant his attention and go beyond the scope of the church’s altar.
In the past, he has accused the leadership of his native South Africa of being African Nazis after the Dalai Lama failed to visit the country when his visa took longer than he had expected for it to be issued.
In 2010, Tutu came to Namibia to initiate a programme that was meant to improve the living conditions of the marginalised Namibian San people.
There had been much talk about improving the conditions of the San, both in Namibia and Botswana, but not much progress had been registered on the ground.
Tutu obviously felt that lending his familiar voice to the matter would speed things up a little.
My experience of Tutu then when he visited at that time with his wife was of a man who is responsive to the needs of previously disadvantaged people of the continent.
“There is need for our countries to have a system that empowers all the marginalised people like the San people. We once fought for Independence and that was for us to get liberated.
“That era has passed and all our people should now start enjoying the fruits of independence.
“That starts with governments reaching out to its entire people both in towns and also those ones that are still living in remote areas,” Tutu said in an interview.
He answered all the questions put to him smartly and evaded anything that linked him to any political affiliation.
“I believe in ubuntu (togetherness) and that ubuntu starts with respecting each other and everyone despite the backgrounds we come from.
“The African continent today has a lot of challenges that have seen the marginalised continuously being marginalised.
“There is need to propel our people. I am actually impressed that here in Namibia government contributes immensely to helping the San people access civilisation.
“I am not a politician and I would not be one anytime soon but I openly speak of anything that I feel is not fair to the people.”
But despite his best efforts to appear outside of mainstream political activity, his utterances always result in him being dragged into political storms (others say he is not dragged into the storms, but rather that he wades into them.)
Unfortunately, the political aspects of his statements oftentimes drown out his humanitarian side and his social activism.
During his visit to Namibia, Tutu spoke of the moral decadence that has affected South Africa and most countries in the region, explaining that, “There is a growing wave of violence in these countries of ours.
“Such levels of despondency are caused by poverty and negligence. In the liberation struggle, we used to rise and fight a system that was imposed by a segregationist system.
“I still believe today a close look at the growing violence from our youths today is because there is lack of support from government.
“Governments in the SADC region do not have a culture of empowering marginalised societies and that system needs to be changed.
“The fact that at one point we had a movie (in reference to “The Gods Must Be Crazy”) made by marginalised people of the region and it became a hit and a possible income earner for them, means there is more to be done to empower them,” he said.
What makes it difficult for some people to define where exactly Tutu stands is the perceived contradictory nature of his public positions on several issues.
For instance, while he has referred to the ANC’s leaders as “Nazis”, he has also heaped praise on Africa’s oldest liberation movement where it has done well.
My take is that he is thus a man who is unafraid to speak his mind: lauding that which he thinks is good and disparaging that which he thinks is otherwise.
In his biography he said, “When you become neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.
“If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
That statement just about sums up the vocal clergyman who builds bridges just as easily as he burns them.