Desmond Tutu, A Lifetime of Universal Peace


When Steve Biko died in September 1977, Desmond Tutu was the Bishop of the Anglican Church in Lesotho. Upon hearing about the murder of Steve Biko, he dropped everything in Lesotho and rushed back to South Africa where he addressed about 20 000 to 30 000 people at the funeral.

Before the funeral of Steve Biko, Desmond Tutu was not considered a very important target by the Apartheid government. But with his deeply emotional speech at the funeral where he compared Steve Biko to Christ, things changed. He was a serious target.

After the Steve Biko funeral there was a push for Desmond Tutu to be appointed as the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), the most powerful religious-political force among Africans, that time. Negotiations and lobbying with all stakeholders went smoothly and Desmond Tutu was officially appointed as General Secretary of SACC in March 1978.

Titan of Universal Worldly Peace

Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu is celebrating his 84th birthday this Wednesday. Over 350 organisations across the world will be officially commemorating the event. All these organisations are named after Desmond Tutu and carry on his great legacy of universal peace and stability.

It used to be that Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and the Pope were the most recognized universal iconic figures of world peace and stability.

Desmond Tutu first met the Pope in 1983 and from then he was to be in dialogue with the Vatican over the years.

Desmond Tutu has also met and established alliances with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Mother Teresa was a distinguished Roman Catholic leader who devoted her life to helping the poor. In 1950, she established the Missionaries of Charity spread across the world  with the mission to give "wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor."

When the magisterial Time Magazine in April  this year went on a worldwide search for a person that could write a feature story about Pope Francis they finally settled on Archbishop Desmond Tutu. They believed it is Desmond Tutu who is qualified to provide such weighty opinion on the Pope.

According to the world leading book publisher HarperCollins “Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a spiritual leader and symbol of love and forgiveness”.

The former Vice President of United States Al Gore has considered Desmond Tutu as the global truth-force and likened him to Mahatma Gandhi.

With regard to his country of birth South Africa Archbishop Desmond Tutu stands toe to toe with Nelson Mandela, in terms of the sheer amount of work he did for the creation of democratic South Africa. He has been the hands of Nelson Mandela in the construction of a democratic South Africa. He was a shining light that flickered and gave hope and healing to many.  He was the centre and the very pulse out of which a new South Africa developed.

Archbishop Tutu has received more than 100 honorary degrees from major universities across the world.

I reproduce here some parts of Archbishop Tutu’s concise Time magazine feature he was asked to write about Pope Francis:

“During his term as Archbishop in Argentina, Pope Francis eschewed the extravagant trappings of his office, living in a simple apartment and cooking his own meals. Then he packed his pastoral humility in his suitcase and took it with him to Rome”.

“There, he has instilled a new sense of human-centeredness in the papacy. Though I understood he was motivated by his concern for members of his flock in China, I was saddened in December when His Holiness the Pope buckled to political pressure and declined the opportunity to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama. They have so much in common”.

“Even so, I love and admire His Holiness the Pope just as much as I admire and love His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Few would dispute that Pope Francis is a special gift from God who has brought a breath of fresh air to the Vatican”.

Early Life

Desmond Tutu once jovially remarked about his ethnic heritage "My father was a Xhosa and my mother was Tswana. So what does that make me"?

Tutu was born in Makoeteng - a Tswana village outside Klerksdorp in the North West. He was given his second name Mpilo (meaning life) because growing up he was a sickly child. He acquired polio from open sewage buckets that will lay in front of the house for days waiting for fetching by the municipal workers.

Desmond Tutu's sister Sylvia reports that there was no hope that his brother Desmond will survive the polio, and their father Zachariah Tutu has already prepared for the funeral. But the young lad did triumph over the deadly polio. But still the polio remained noticeable throughout his life, his right hand has atrophied (it is shaking and weak). Since then Desmond Tutu even today is still using his left hand to write and pick stuff.

Added to that there was a time during winter season when Tutu was warming himself on open fire, and his clothes caught fire, and his body was burnt. He was hospitalized for the burns and he still has scar on his thigh.

Desmond Tutu's father was a primary school teacher. His grandfather Solomon Tutu was a minister within a network of independent African churches. These African churches were not connected with the overseas missionaries, they had the tradition of mixing Bible teachings with the plight of their conditions as Black people grappling with colonial aggression.

In physique, Desmond Tutu has always been diminutive.


When Desmond Tutu was in high school her younger sister Gloria had a friend called Leah. Leah was the daughter of a successful black small farmer in Brits. Leah was also once a student at the school where Desmond Tutu's father was teaching.

As friend of Gloria she would occasionally visits the Tutu family and from there she developed intense whirlwind affections with Desmond.  As lovers Leah and Desmond sculptured a genuine portrait of charmed, youthful sweethearts. They could not help it, they ate together, went to places together, held hands whenever they walked.

Since then, Leah has been a companion, best friend, confidante and wife to Desmond Tutu. They have remained movingly close together throughout the 60 years of marriage(they married in 1955).

Throughout their romance, leading into marriage Lead and Desmond took seriously the Christian mystery that two persons can indeed become one in marriage.  Their first born son Trevor is named after Trevor Huddleston. When Tutu started as a pastor in 1961 in Thokoza, a township outside Germinston the young family were living in a garage.

First Time meeting  Nelson Mandela

Desmond Tutu was a student leader and head of the debating society at Pretoria Bantu College in the early 1950s where he was training as a teacher. At one point in 1951 or there about Tutu and his fellow students went to Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work in Johannesburg for a debating contest. The judge of the debate was Nelson Mandela.

Both Mandela and Tutu did not realize at that first meeting that they will go on and live at the same street in Orlando West, they will receive Nobel Peace Prizes, and ultimately will become the father figures of the democratic South Africa. And be universally acclaimed as paragons that brought down the evil system of Apartheid.

Strengths and Qualities

Desmond Tutu is an elephantine encyclopedia of stories, his speeches are dramatic. A man with a stunning sense of humor. Not only does he have the knack for uplifting stories, but he also comes ready with a large, resounding laughter. He has one of the loudest, and longest, laughs that envelops and enchant the audience.

At the height of his beaming youthfulness Tutu could keep any audience riveted with a harvest of jokes that will make Trevor Noah an amateur.

Stanley Mogoba remembers vividly that while they were students at Pretoria Bantu College one white Afrikaner teacher was teaching English and was fumbling words in front of the class, he had a poor grasp of the English language. So the white Afrikaner teacher as he was fumbling with English words in front of the class making a fool of himself, Desmond Tutu could not contain himself, he burst in an explosive laughter, clapping his hands and stamping his feet.

The teacher was angry and expelled Desmond Tutu from class for days.

Desmond Tutu , and the New South Africa

When Nelson Mandela announced Desmond Tutu as the man to lead reconciliatory efforts, the most crucial and delicate work in South Africa, it was a fitting recognition of Tutu's stature as a man of ideas, goodwill and, above all, a patriot.

"The truth is going to hurt," that was one of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words as he opened the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The first day of the Commission there were bomb threats, but Desmond Tutu was not distracted – the Commission got down into business.  The first witness was Nonhle Mohapi. She spoke about her husband, Mapetla Mohapi, a disciple of Steve Biko, who was never seen alive again after police took him into custody in 1976.

Mapetla Mohapi was a member of the Black Consciousness Movement who died in detention during Apartheid. He became the permanent Secretary of the South African Students’ Organisation while studying at the University of the North.

Mandela and Tutu's largeness of spirit, free of the smudge of prejudice, stands as exemplary and a rebuke of bigotry that is still being felt across the country. Through their larger personalities we come face to face with a vision of national cohesion.

The South Africa society that Desmond Tutu envisaged and tirelessly worked hard to conceptualize was a bouquet of hope; a South African society that inherently has the most effective alignment of diverse people in advance of the common good; an emerging South Africa that was expected to bring political and social and economic freedom for all.

Desmond Tutu's tragic luck, the tsetse flies

Desmond Tutu's tragic luck is that he was born and gave himself tirelessly to a country that was soon overran and overwhelmed by tsetse flies.

If there is anything that we have managed to achieve after Tutu and Mandela left the public life is this; we have managed to successfully create a system that empowers a few looters, the few individuals to mindlessly loot the resources of the larger collective.

Our country is now infested by tsetse flies.

Each year the tsetse flies cause more than R50 billion in agriculture income losses in some parts of Africa. The tsetse flies suck cattle's blood, and they  weaken and often kills these animals. Those cattle that survive produce little milk, pregnant cows often abort their calves, and manure is not available to fertilize the worn-out soils.

South Africa does not have the problem of tsetse flies. But the destruction that is done on the economic health of our nation through massive, entrenched and systematic corruption has the same effects to the countries with tsetse flies. Corruption in South Africa destroys like the tsetse flies. Consider reports that reveal that R700 billion was lost to mindless corruption in 20 years.

According to the reputable and respected ENSafrica, South Africa is one of the corruption hotpots in Africa. The question to ask is how did it happen and who is doing it, and is there any hope to eradicate corruption?

During the great anti-corruption marches last week Wednesday one protester with a placard complained: “We have failed ourselves, our leaders have failed us; big crimes of corruption are committed on a daily basis.”

On the eve of the anti-corruption marches Tutu said: “A society that assigns resources on the basis of peoples’ proximity to power is no less sinful to one that assigns resources on the basis of skin colour. We live in a beautiful country richly endowed with natural resources, and each is entitled to a fair share. Nobody is more entitled than anyone else.”

Desmond Tutu - Made for Goodness

But still in the midst of all these current problems Desmond Tutu stubbornly refuses to yield to the darkness or to surrender to despair about his troubled country. In his retirement he continually provides tidbits that gives hope and encourages ordinary South Africans to set their sights beyond the immediate interests and the flaws of the leaders - to cast off their eyes to another future that will redeem the ills of today.

Desmond Tutu's distinguished public life has always been actuated by the confidence in his fellow South Africans to  rise to the highest expectations.

As I pondered his larger public and global life, I found myself drawn again and again to Mahatma Gandhi and his exhortation to live simply so that others may simply live. Emeritus Desmond Tutu was a creed of humility and still is.

We need him, to continue to inspire as well as guide and edify with that gift of stories that brings joy and delights in the midst of utter despair, that laughter that generates positive thought waves that travel through space changing our choked atmosphere.

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