Tutu did not spare Mbeki or Zuma

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Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and President Jacob Zuma at the Wesleyan Church in Bloemfontein, South Africa on January 7, 2012 ahead of the ANC centenary celebrations. Photo: Muntu Vilakazi/City Press/Gallo Images
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and President Jacob Zuma at the Wesleyan Church in Bloemfontein, South Africa on January 7, 2012 ahead of the ANC centenary celebrations. Photo: Muntu Vilakazi/City Press/Gallo Images


That Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, passionate as he was about the struggle against apartheid, was not afraid to be unpopular among his fellow travellers for justice was obvious when he intervened to prevent an angry mob at a funeral from necklacing a man suspected to be an apartheid collaborator in Duduza on the East Rand in1985.

After taking the man to safety, he warned the mourners not to adopt self-defeating methods while fighting for a good cause.

READ: Mondli Makhanya | Tutu: A body of oak, a heart of an angel and the courage of a lion

On that occasion in 1985, with most political parties and leaders banned, Tutu was one of the few brave crusaders against apartheid providing leadership inside the country. However, he did not hesitate to defy and upbeaid the estimated 15 000 people who were hell-bent on dispensing mob justice.

That commitment to truth and fearlessness were to remain his trademark, even after liberation was gained and the ANC rose to power. Although he was a great friend to South Africa’s first post-apartheid president Nelson Mandela, he spoke out strongly when the ANC was failing to meet the expectations of the people after 1994.

READ: Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu praised for his contribution to education

Mandela, in turn, embraced the criticism and noted that Tutu’s most characteristic quality was his readiness to take unpopular positions without fear.

However, Madiba’s readiness to accept and learn from criticism was never replicated by his successors, who wanted Tutu to keep quiet and confine himself to religious matters.


According to the book The Dream Deferred by Mark Gevisser, one of the first clashes between Tutu and Mandela and the governing party emerged when Tutu, as chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, wanted to publish the commission’s final report, which contained information about the ANC’s own gross violation of human rights. Incoming president Mbeki was opposed to publication of the report, but Mandela strongly supported Tutu in calling for it to be made known to all.

When Tutu criticised Mbeki, the latter accused the archbishop emeritus of “being full of a dark, foreboding about a future without President Mandela, the defender of national reconciliation, tolerance and liberty, all of which are thought to be in grave danger now that the tyrants-in-waiting are poised to take over”.

READ: Political parties pay tribute to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

This was the just one of Tutu’s many clashes with Mbeki and, later, former president Jacob Zuma. In 2004, Tutu delivered the Nelson Mandela lecture, where he criticised the growing sycophancy of the ANC under Mbeki. “We shouldn’t too quickly want to pull rank and demand an uncritical, sycophantic, obsequious conformity. We need to find ways in which we engage the hoi polloi – the so-called ‘masses’, the people – in public discourse through indabas and town hall forums, so that no one feels marginalised because their point of view matters; it counts. We should debate more openly, not using emotive language. We shouldn’t be browbeaten by pontificating decrees from on high,” declared Tutu.

Mbeki responded that Tutu would do well to familiarise himself with the truth before going public with criticism. 

The archbishop emeritus has never been a member of the ANC and would have very little knowledge of what happens, even in an ANC branch. How he comes to the conclusion that there’s a ‘lack of debate’ in the ANC is most puzzling.

"Rational discussion about how the ANC decides its policies requires some familiarity with the internal procedures of the patry, rather than gratuitous insults about our members, based on a refusal to ‘accept the bona fides of all’.”

Unfazed, Tutu responded sardonically.

Thank you Mr President, for telling me what you think of me – that I’m a liar with scant regard for the truth and a charlatan posing in his concerns for the poor, the hungry, the oppressed and the voiceless.

"I’ll continue to pray for you and your government by name daily, as I’ve always done and as I did even for the apartheid government. God bless you,” he replied.

Tutu was equally critical of the ANC government’s failure to alleviate the lot of the poor, its soft stance on the Mugabe regime and its controversial handling of the HIV/Aids issue – all sore points in the Mbeki presidency. Nevertheless, this did not prevent him from criticising the ANC in 2008 for forcing Mbeki out of office in a humiliating manner, months before the end of his term. “I’m deeply disturbed that the nation, the state, South Africa, has been subordinated to a political party. Why humiliate the nation’s president in this fashion?” he asked.

Former President Thabo Mbeki engages professionals
Former president Thabo Mbeki has questioned the calibre of ANC members. He said the ANC is dead if the governing party fails in its renewal project. Photo: Rosetta Msimango/City Press

Tutu was to also become a thorn in the flesh of former president Jacob Zuma, openly expressing his embarrassment that the former KwaZulu-Natal finance MEC was about to become the head of state. “In the year of [Barack] Obama, can you imagine what it’s like when you’re walking in New York and they ask you who South Africa’s next president will be?” he said. By then, Tutu had had enough of both the ANC and Zuma and was not mincing his words.

The true extent of his anger only became visible after the Dalai Lama – who had been invited to South Africa to attend the 14th world summit of Nobel Peace Laureates – was denied a visa by Zuma’s administration, in deference to the interests of the Chinese government.

Brimming with outrage, Tutu addressed a press conference in which he warned the ANC that it would lose power in the same way as the apartheid regime had.

Mr Zuma, you and your government don’t represent me. You represent your own interests and I’m warning you. I’m really warning you out of love. I’m warning you as I warned the Nationalists. I’m warning you. One day, we’ll start praying for the defeat of the ANC government.

"You are disgraceful! You’re behaving in a way that’s totally at variance with the things for which we stood. I’m warning you that we’ll pray, as we prayed for the downfall of the apartheid government. We’ll pray for the downfall of a government that misrepresents us. You have a huge majority. That’s nothing. The

Nationalists had a huge majority that was increasing, but they bit the dust. Watch out, ANC government. Watch out. Watch out. Watch out.”

READ: Desmond Tutu and the post-apartheid government: Clashing heads with the ANC

Zuma responded by telling Tutu to stay in his lane and stick to clerical matters, but his supporters were less restrained – notably Bheki Cele, who declared: “The archbishop himself, Desmond, Tutu must shut up. He must go home and shut up. He must learn one thing: that he must follow Jesus. He mustn’t think he’s a vice-Jesus Christ. He’s not a deputy-Jesus Christ.”

When Cyril Ramaphosa became ANC president in 2017, he apologised for the way Tutu had been treated, assuring him that the ANC had changed.


Rapule Tabane 

Political Editor

+27 11 713 9001
69 Kingsway Rd, Auckland Park
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