Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: “Death is not life’s simple opposite, or its necessary terminus, but rather its completion.”
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu’s passing has concluded his life gracefully and consistently with the values and character that were manifested throughout the 90 years that he lived.
The standard word of comfort when someone has died is that they will live on through the individuals that knew and loved them.
However, in the case of Archbishop Tutu, his loss is beyond those who knew him personally.
But the loss is clear: there will never be another like him.
Armed only with his unshakeable faith in the Bible and in the ultimate victory of his cause, Desmond Tutu, who emerged as the most visible and most outspoken critic of the apartheid government, was a warrior of justice.
Tutu, an austere man of unquestioned moral rectitude, heeded Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s calls that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” and that “a time comes when silence is betrayal”.
Similarly, he was also inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi dissident, who said: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Henri Amiel posits that “truth is violated by falsehood, but it is outraged by silence”.
Electricity exuded from him constantly. Dr Martin Luther King Jr reminds us that the ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand in times of challenge and controversy.
Undoubtedly, the Archbishop has been equal to the challenge.
When a giant like Tutu has fallen, the term greatness comes to mind. But what determines greatness? Is it one’s physique? Is it one’s intellect? Is it the wealth one leaves behind?
Historian HG Wells says: “A man’s greatness is measured by what he leaves to grow, and whether he started others to think along fresh lines with a vigour that persisted after him.”
In remembering Archbishop Tutu, it is befitting to use the poet Maya Angelou’s assertion to the effect that “a great soul serves everyone all the time” and “never dies” as “it brings us together again and again” to capture the legacy of the man of the cloth.
And so it is with Archbishop Tutu. A line from the great Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, perhaps best summarises both Tutu’s life and his legacy: “What use is our thought if not for humanity” (’The Hoopoe’, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise).
And on a more personal final note, I would endorse the spirit of another line of poetry, this from May Swenson: “Don’t mourn the beloved. Try to be like him.”
The death of Archbishop Tutu provides not an occasion for mourning but, rather an opportunity to celebrate a long life, well lived.
The great Leonardo da Vinci said in his notebooks nearly half a millennium ago: “As a well spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death.”
In sharing our cherished recollections of him, we assuage our sense of loss. Speaking about death, Nelson Mandela perspicuously remarked: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
William Barclay used to say that there are two days in a person’s life – the day we are born and the day we discover why.
Tutu discovered why he was born through his selfless sacrifices he made for South Africa to become a liberated country.
He was a courageous man whose voice would bellow against injustice, and inequality, prejudice and pretension, greed and the abuse of political office, and who fought with courage of the lion-hearted. Tutu was an honest straightforward man.
From his prison cell, before he would be killed by the Nazi government, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian and leader of an underground seminary, wrote the following words about the future of his country: “What we shall need is not geniuses...or cynics...or misanthropes...or clever tacticians...but plain, honest straightforward men (and women).”
Archbishop Tutu was such an honest straightforward man for South Africa, whose courage did not lie in making the hard decision, but rather found full expression in his refusal to make the easy one; the one taken more or readily by all the good and wise and powerful people – silence in the face of adversity.
He declared that white rule was finished. “The powers of injustice, of oppression, of exploitation, have done their worst, and they have lost. They have lost because they are immoral and wrong, and our God...is a God of justice and liberation and goodness. Our cause must triumph because it is moral and just and right.”
Dr Martin Luther King Jr once said: “Cowardice will ask, is it safe? Vanity will ask, is it popular? But conscience, God consciousness asks, is it right?”
There is no doubt that Archbishop Tutu was a man of conscience, consequence and a warrior for change. He was simply the conscience of the nation.
He articulated biblically and theologically why the struggle against apartheid was the duty of a Christian.
Mark Gevisser once posed a question: Can one nation have two icons of reconciliation at the same time?
Tutu has been at pains to underscore the fact that reconciliation must not be confused with forgetfulness. Reconciliation is possible only after the truth is said; after things are named with their proper names.
Maya Angelou’s poem – When the Great Trees Fall – helps us to show how much Tutu’s life’s legacy will reverberate. “We can be. Be and be better because Archbishop Tutu existed.”
Archbishop Tutu will be deservedly remembered. He has left a rich legacy that, fortunately, will last much longer than his 90 years.
Miguel de Cervantes puts it well when he says “there is a strange chasm in the thoughts of a good legacy, or the hopes of an estate, which wondrously removes or at least alleviates the sorrow that men would otherwise feel for the death of friends.”
This is particularly true with Archbishop Tutu whose selfless service to humanity has left an abiding legacy for posterity to emulate.
As already alluded, Tutu had a great sense of humour. As we humorously wish him to repose in eternal peace, and in case we think that he might rest for a long time, may we please be assured that, in no time at all, he will protest some injustice that he will find in his place of final abode.
Tutu will protest because it was in his nature to protest against something that he thought was wrong.
Dr Vusi Shongwe works for the KZN Department of Arts and Culture and the piece is written in his personal capacity.