TRIBUTE | Gus Silber: May the heavens ring with Desmond Tutu's laughter

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Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. (Photo: Beeld)
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. (Photo: Beeld)

Journalist Gus Silber writes about the day he met Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1995. "But I'm enjoying life, man! It's great, it really is wonderful to be alive at this time and to see the vindication of the people's hopes," Silber writes what Tutu said. 

"Oh Lord," said the archbishop, as the Toyota Camry crammed its way into a gap in the traffic, on the early morning pilgrimage from Bishopscourt to St George's Cathedral in the centre of town. 

The Arch was sitting in the back seat - he had insisted, despite my protests, that I sit upfront with his driver and press secretary John Allen, who I had known when he was the Religious Affairs reporter on The Star in Joburg - and I could see him in the rearview mirror, resplendent in his purple cassock with the ebony crucifix, raising his eyes to the heavens and sighing.

"I take my life in my hands continually," he said, and I thought he was referring to Allen's stop-start, speed-up-and-slow-down driving on the crowded M3. But as it turned out, he was just having a casual conversation with his Boss.

"Yet I do not forget your law," he continued, as we cruised on the shoulder of Newlands Forest, the congregation of trees hugging the foothills of the mountain.

"The wicked have laid a snare for me, yet I have not strayed from your precepts. Your commands are the joy of my heart."

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I was spending a day in the company of the Arch, following in his footsteps from dawn, when he had raised a hand in greeting as he strode, white-Reeboked and purple-tracksuited, on the treadmill in a small room at his official residence, to the setting of the summer sun over the Atlantic.

At the cathedral 

It was a few weeks before Christmas, in 1995, at the peak of what would come to be known as the Rainbow Years - it was the Arch who had minted the phrase, "the Rainbow People of God" - not long after the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela and the Springbok victory over the All Blacks at the Rugby World Cup. 

We arrived at the cathedral just in time for the Eucharist, only to find that in Cape Town, hardly anything ever happens just in time.

Someone had snuck into the Arch's reserved parking spot, so Allen declared he was going to have to look elsewhere for parking, and the Arch wordlessly opened the door and slipped out, his cassock flapping with hurried grace.

Inside, as I stood waiting in the cool and cavernous space, I saw him emerge, a changed man, now clad in a green chasuble, for the sharing of the bread and wine.

I tried to remain invisible, far back, with my notebook and pen, partly for the sake of journalistic detachment, but also, what did I know about the finer points of the Anglican liturgy?

The Arch caught sight of me. He interrupted himself, shouting, "Come, come! You can't stand there on your own! Come over here and join in our fellowship, man!" 

And he laughed, that famous chuckle rising to a guffaw and echoing off the stone. Later, his laughter pealed in the churchyard, as he wandered among his flock, shaking hands, taking hugs, delivering tidings.

A visiting theologian, from Germany, told me he was horrified by the sight, concerned for the Arch's safety in a society undergoing such a volatile transition.

But the Arch shrugged off such worries, with a finger pointed at the sky: "God, I am doing your work. It is jolly well your business to look after me.

At Tape Aids for the Blind, near Goodwood, after a quick-as-a-flash photo opportunity with the staff, he obliged the engineer with a sound-check - "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, I'm sitting in my chair and hoping for Heaven" - before delivering his Christmas message in one perfect take.

"Bethlehem is God's graffiti for the world," he signed off, "I just want to say I love you."

On the way out, politely declining tea, he bestowed benedictions in triplicate. "God bless you, God bless you, God bless you. Good morning and bye-bye."


Back at Bishopscourt, close to lunchtime, someone asked the Arch how he was feeling. He lifted his purple skullcap and patted his bald spot. "Moeg," he said, turning the word into a wounded bellow.

He was sitting on a chair in the shade of a bottlebrush tree, waiting for his interview for a BBC "Songs of Praise" insert, when the cameraman whoomphed a white light onto his face. The Arch recoiled, wincing.

The producer checked the image on the monitor and offered a technical explanation.

"Unfortunately, Archbishop," she said, "the light is necessary. Otherwise, you'll look very dark." The Arch's shoulders jiggled with giggling.

"But I am very dark!" he said. "And very hot. Are you trying to prepare me for the other place?" 

The producer asked the Arch a question about the way he saw his place in the world.

"Nobody is indispensable," he replied. "You are indispensable in a way because there is nobody quite like you, but in another sense, you are not. You are on a stage at the moment. But your act will pass, and some other actor will come onto the stage. And those of us who are Christian know that death is not the worst thing that can happen to you."

A weighty pause, and he threw his hands up in the air. 

"But I'm enjoying life, man! It's great, it really is wonderful to be alive at this time and to see the vindication of the people's hopes. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful."

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At the end of the day, a radio interview with Nigel Murphy, for the SABC's Microphone-In. A listener called, harrumphing about the way the Arch behaved in public.

"How can you Tutu," he asked, before recognising his Freudian slip. "I beg your pardon, how can you toyi-toyi? In the church aisles? How can you clap and sing? Where is your dignity?" 

The Arch slapped his knees, almost weeping with laughter.

"I don't care for dignity!" he said. "I frankly am not worried one little bit. I am an African. I am me. I will dance in Washington, I will dance in St-Martin's-in-the­-Field, I will clap my hands and make a joyful noise unto the Lord. What makes you think that God does not laugh?"

Rest in peace, Arch, and may the heavens ring with your laughter.

- Gus Silber is a journalist and author based in Johannesburg.

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