OPINION | Tebogo Khaas: The idea that Tutu ‘sold out’ is one of the most idiotic conspiracy theories

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(Getty Images/Gallo Images)
(Getty Images/Gallo Images)

Tutu's truth and legacy, like a lion, needs no one's affirmation or defence, writes Tebogo Khaas

It has become a predictable pattern. A venerated leader of society and doyen of the liberation struggle dies and then, as if on cue, peacetime revolutionaries reach for their social media forged hammers in an effort to bludgeon their ironclad integrity and achievements. On a day best known as Boxing Day, it happened again after the news of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu's demise hit the airwaves and the internet. 

The frenzy was not only predicated on the antipathy peacetime revolutionaries have for Tutu, but on the fragile hope that it would sully, if not erase, his indomitable legacy.  

Let me explain.

When future historians and sociologists consider the role The Arch - as Tutu is affectionately called - played in helping birth our democratic experiment, they would do well to consider delivering a few chapters on the essence of Tutu's timely, towering, fearless, irrepressible and compassionate leadership role. 

ALSO READ | Valli Moosa: Archbishop Desmond Tutu – My comrade

Greek philosopher Aristotle once counselled: "Nature abhors a vacuum".

During the turbulent 70s and 80s, when the justifiably restless youth of Soweto stepped up and usurped the political baton from a mostly obsequious preceding generation, including the early 90s, when the beast of the apartheid system lay dying and a new nation was being forged, Tutu, alongside many other religious, community and political leaders across the spectrums, played an immeasurable role in the struggle for our political freedom. 

A glaring political leadership vacuum 

With most of the Soweto '76 uprisings student leadership cohort that included Tsietsi Mashinini, Khotso Seatlholo, Murphy Morobe, Mapetla Mohapi, Seth Mazibuko, and Sibongile Mkhabela, either being forced to go into exile, incarcerated, in hiding or banished to far-flung areas, a glaring political leadership vacuum ensued.  

Tutu, having left for London and later Lesotho a month after the uprisings, fortuitously (or not!) returned to Johannesburg in 1978 to assume the helm as general secretary of a newly-established South African Council of Churches (SACC). This, at a crucial time when most Soweto parents, clearly eclipsed and paralysed by the events of June 1976, were too timid to engage the repressive apartheid regime in its ruthless attempts to suppress the militant youth.  

Like an accidental Sherpa, Tutu not only provided religious, political and emotional sustenance and stewardship to a brutalised black community especially in the politically volatile Pretoria, Witwatersrand and Vaal (PWV) area as he was also thrust into being the voice of the voiceless black majority – with most of whose leaders incarcerated, in exile and operating underground.  

The inexorable intersection of liberation theology, politics and civic consciousness in South Africa helped fill the leadership void when organised political activity was suppressed through draconian apartheid laws and a plethora of state of emergencies in the 80s.

To say that the black townships in South Africa were under siege would be an understatement.

With most black urban areas in the PWV area rendered practically ungovernable, leaders Dr Nthato Motlana formed a civic movement constituted by professionals, teachers, business people and the clergy called the Committee of Ten. Although it was primarily established to counter the imposition of urban Bantu councils which were a creature of the apartheid system, the Committee of Ten, of which Tutu was a founding patron, soon became a vessel through which community activism – rent and shopping boycotts - was channelled.


When marauding bands of "comtsossis" (comrade tsotsis) masquerading as the Mandela United Football Club (unmistakably commanded by Mama Winnie Mandela), the Orlando East-based Makabasa gang, and Dube Village's irreverent Tebogo M'rembola unleashed a reign of terror on Soweto residents with their anti-social behaviour, which included attacks during public gatherings, car hijackings, jack-rolling, rapes, theft, robberies, assassinations and "necklacing" activities, it took the courage and fortitude of Tutu to rein in such excesses.

When the newly-established Black Consciousness-premised Azapo and the United Democratic Front (Tutu was a patron) were at each other's throats in the mid-80's, Tutu was the only leader whose leadership ethos transcended political divides and commanded universal respect.  

Lest we forgot, the Azapo campaign in the 1980s of "asispini ekasi, asikhawathi u darkie", loosely translated to mean "we don't commit crime in the townships, we don't hurt blacks", was one way Azapo sought to delegitimise comtsotsis and their nefarious, counterrevolutionary conduct to the chagrin of some under the spell of Mama Winnie who seemed to excuse blatant criminality and ill-discipline.

ALSO READ | Mondli Gungubele: Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke truth to power - even against the democratic government

Tutu not only mobilised global solidarity through disinvestments and sports boycotts. Mindful of a future need for requisite black skills to occupy positions in a post-apartheid South Africa, Tutu warned against the perils of an uneducated and unskilled generation. He eschewed the then prevailing "Charterist" slogan: "Liberation Now! Education Later!" It is for this reason that he arranged overseas scholarships for many deserving black students.

In May 1982, New York Times columnist Joseph Lelyveld wrote, "The black voice that wins the broadest acceptance among blacks in South Africa these days - and thus grates the most on the ears and consciences of whites - happens to belong to an irrepressible Anglican churchman, Bishop Desmond M. Tutu." Tutu was general secretary of the South African Council of Churches at the time. 

'Idiotic conspiracy theories' 

Therefore, the idea that Tutu "sold out" is one of the hardiest and idiotic conspiracy theories on our political economy. And like most conspiracy theories, this one suffers from some internal logic problems. Yet, lots of otherwise smart people who see conspiracy theories as solely a means of advancing their quixotic political ambitions. However, they do seem to succeed in getting their maddeningly obtuse and incurious sycophants to believe their conspiracy theories, in part because, as with so many such myths, the "Tutu sold us out" conspiracy theory originated with a few facts during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Let it be made abundantly clear: No one was more eminently qualified to chair the TRC than Tutu.

Those critical of the Arch's imploring Mama Winnie to apologise for egregious, non-struggle related crimes committed by her or anyone under her command, fail to see the wood for the forest that was the TRC.  

And there's another major hole in the Tutu conspiracy theory. None of its adherents seems able to cogently explain why it would make any sense for Tutu to turn against a struggle icon.

The TRC emotions meat-grinder might have been enough to persuade even the most hardened man of the cloth to retreat to the pulpit and the customary eucharist, but Tutu persisted with his calling: the unyielding pursuit of social justice.

In any event, Tutu's truth and legacy, like a lion, needs no one's affirmation or defence. All that needs to be done is to unleash the TRC record and help edify the uneducated and ignoramus. But for these odious, peacetime revolutionaries and their venal leaders, this will not suffice as they sure will keep hammering at the truth as if their very own survival and relevance depended on it. 

Of course, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

- Tebogo Khaas is a political commentator and trustee of Public Interest SA. 

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