Losing A Voice of Freedom: Desmond M. Tutu (1931-2021)

Dec 13, 2021 | Featured Initiatives, Freedom Forum

“An unfree human being is a contradiction in terms. To be human is to be free. God gives us space to be free and so to be human. Human beings have an autonomy, an integrity which should not be violated, which should not be subverted.”[1]

The easy-going naivete of my teenage years at a boarding school in Ontario came to a halt when I met a student from South Africa. The student only stayed a few days in our dormitory as he was travelling. Although I forget his name, I have not forgotten his comments. His short visit profoundly impacted my view of the world.

Since I had not met a person from so far-flung a place, I was curious and asked about life in South Africa. Over the following minutes, I got the low-down on what it was like for a person of colour to grow up in a segregated society. I was horrified to hear that he could not be on the same beach or use the same washroom as a white person. I thought that kind of thing had ended in the long-distant past. I simply had no idea that it continued in my lifetime.

Suddenly I was mindful every time I heard news that involved South Africa. What kind of place was it that, in the early 1980s, there still existed such racism? Later, when I went to law school, I met a fellow law student from South Africa who shared his deep resolve to defend his homeland. While he felt that there were excesses in South African history, if it ever came to the point that his family were to lose their land to government expropriation, he was prepared to return to the country and take up arms.

Obviously, in the 1980s and early 1990s, South Africa was at a boiling point.

During the turmoil there was one voice rising from the cacophony that had my ear. It was that of Rev. Desmond M. Tutu. His diction caught my attention right off. I admired his rolling “r”s when he spoke. I wanted to speak like him. Being from Newfoundland in an Ontario board school made me keenly aware of accents, and Bishop Tutu’s voice was unique.

Of course, it was not merely his articulation, but the substance of his message that proved to be most eye opening. He spoke truth to power at a time when passion was high. He did not hold back his criticism of South African presidents, whatever their skin colour. He courageously spoke to President F. W. de Klerk as well as President Nelson Mandela and later Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. He spoke as he saw it.

In the 1960s, Tutu was blessed to get funding to attend graduate theological school at King’s College London, England. For the first time he and his wife lived without apartheid. While he said, “there is racism in England, … we were not exposed to it. Maybe we were protected by the fact that we belonged in a church community.”[2]

Biographer Shirley Du Boulay describes the novelty of life in London compared to South Africa at the time. He would walk with his wife Leah, “in Trafalgar Square, late at night or in the early hours of the morning, just to savour the freedom of knowing they would not be accosted by a policeman asking for a piece of paper, knowing they would not be told there was a curfew and that black people should not be there. They sometimes asked for directions, even knowing perfectly well where they were going, simply for the pleasure of being addressed courteously by a white unarmed policeman. Once Tutu was waiting in a bank, due to be served next, when a white man rushed past him in a great hurry and tried to jump the queue. ‘As a well-behaved Bantu, I was ready to let this happen when the lady bank clerk told him firmly but politely that I was next. You could have knocked me down with a feather.’ He went back later to thank her and tell her she was now his ‘pin-up’. He was even more impressed when she told him she would have done it for anybody.”[3]

Du Boulay also tells of Tutu’s fascination with the English tradition of the “Speakers’ Corner.” “There he witnessed people ‘sometimes spewing forth the most outlandish sentiments’ in the presence of a policeman, there not to silence the oratory but to protect freedom of speech. Similarly he was amazed, after the bland lies broadcast by the South African Broadcasting Corporation, to hear the irreverence and abrasiveness with which politicians were interviewed on television; impressed that the Prime Minister, when responding to the weekly challenge of ‘Question Time’ in Parliament, was treated with such scant respect. There was, he thought, ‘a proper iconoclasm about. Sacred cows were for the slaughter. It was exhilarating.’”[4]

Tutu was “slow to take an active part in the maze of South African politics,” but upon becoming Dean of Johannesburg in 1975, he showed “in both words and deeds, that religion and politics cannot be separated. If his attempts to stand above division and to reconcile opposing parties have left him isolated and subject to criticism from all sides, so too has it given him a freedom to speak what he feels is God’s will.”[5]

In an address to students at the University of the Witwatersrand on freedom and education, he “accused the educational system of teaching people what to think rather than how to think: ‘It is designed to produce docile unquestioning creatures who could not say “boo” to a goose. They are taught that the best way to survive is by toeing the line, not rocking the boat and keeping in with the herd – totally at variance with the ideals of true liberalism (which, do note, is close to liberation).’ … Good education, for Tutu, is meant to make people realise their full potential, become more fully human.”[6]

Tutu had hope on multiple fronts: “He found hope in the Black Consciousness Movement, that was giving blacks a sense of their own worth. Hope that the Afrikaner, who had braved dangers in the pursuit of his own freedom, would understand that others shared this need. He had hope of the English, because they come from a tradition that affirms human freedom; hope because of the many in the white community who stood up for justice. Ultimately, he had hope because ‘This is God’s world and he is in charge. We were all created by the same God, redeemed by the same Jesus Christ and are sanctified by the same Holy Spirit. We belong together.’”[7]

Bishop Tutu’s voice is now silent. I will miss his expressive language and diction. More importantly, I will miss his powerful voice for freedom. Freedom for all people – even those who disagreed with him. He recognized that as we occupy this planet together, we owe each other mutual respect and freedom to live in accordance with our conscience.

[1] Desmond M. Tutu, “The First Word: To Be Human is to be Free,” foreword to John Witte, Jr. and Frank S. Alexander, eds., Christianity and Human Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 1-7. Online: https://canopyforum.org/2021/12/26/the-first-word-to-be-human-is-to-be-free/

[2] Allen, John (2006). Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorised Biography of Desmond Tutu. London: Rider. 87.

[3] Shirley Du Boulay, Tutu: voice of the voiceless  (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988) 44-45.

[4] Shirley Du Boulay, Tutu at 45.

[5] Shirley Du Boulay, Tutu at 18.

[6] Shirley Du Boulay, Tutu at 44.

[7] Shirley Du Boulay, Tutu at 104.

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