Archbishop Besmond Tutu
Archbishop Besmond Tutu

A Beacon of Hope and Light

Last year, during the insurrection, we had cause to remember the struggle and cost of birthing our democracy. It placed into stark relief the past decade, in which cynicism has pervaded the public discourse and the overriding premise of engagement has been that the time for compensation had arrived for those who claimed to have sacrificed for creating the democratic dispensation. They believed that, as the leaders of the liberation struggle, they had suffered disproportionately, and therefore deserved greater recompense.

Even now we are wrestling with the consequence of a country led by people who speak the language of the poor and downtrodden, whilst they campaign to undercut the democratic institutions and norms that can uplift and address the centuries-old systems of oppression.

The immediate question that came to my mind during the insurrection was, ‘Who could guide us out of this quagmire and reassure us that we should not succumb to despair?’ The person who instantly stood out for his ability to fulfil this role, was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His integrity came to mind when addressing the insurrection in my July 2021 ISASA Executive Director’s Report.

Unfortunately for us, Archbishop Tutu was of advanced age and had long retired from public life.

A deeply personal passing

For me, the passing of Archbishop Tutu in December last year was deeply personal. One of my early memories was traveling with my parents to the airport in Johannesburg – now named OR Tambo International Airport – to meet Father Tutu and Mama Leah on their return to South Africa. He returned to South Africa to become the Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, where my father was a curate and where rituals were influenced by the Oxford Movement.

I remember the majestic installation of Tutu as Dean and then later his consecration as Bishop. I also recall the trip to Lesotho when Tutu was installed as its bishop. Throughout my childhood, Father Tutu and Mama Leah were presences in my life until I left, again on his account, at the age of 14, for the United States. It was Father Tutu’s nomination of my father to a fellowship at an American university that led to my siblings and me, ultimately, joining our parents in that country. It was thus my great fortune to be deeply influenced by this 20th century global icon during my formative years.

It is soon forgotten how bleak the days of apartheid were and that victory was not guaranteed. However, the power of Desmond Tutu and others is that they illustrated the joy in the struggle, even when victory was not assured. Surely, we are obligated to draw upon that example, even after the dawn of democracy? We must remember the reward of doing what is right, no matter the consequence.

A moving commemorative service for Archbishop Tutu

In February 2022, I had the pleasure of being invited to a commemorative service for Archbishop Tutu at St Mary’s School, Waverley. The present Bishop of Johannesburg (a position that Tutu previously held after his episcopacy in Lesotho), Steve Moreo, reminisced fondly about the time they prepared to march to a local police station, which was undertaking disruptive activities in the local school.

Bishop Moreo shared that Bishop Tutu reminded them, with a twinkle in his eye, and always having consideration for the practical, to pack their toothbrushes and facecloths because the escapade they were about to embark upon, would, in all likelihood, cause them to go to jail.

This commemorative service was compiled by the new chaplain at St. Mary’s, Reverend Rakgadi Khobo. The multilingual liturgy in English, Sesotho, isisZulu, isiXhosa, Afrikaans and Shona was interspersed with readings from Archbishop Tutu’s writings. The linguistic inclusiveness, brought to life by the girls of St Mary’s as they delivered the readings, resonated with the worship tradition I grew up with in the Anglican church that Archbishop Tutu ultimately led.

Archbishop Desmond TutuHaving experienced this linguistic kaleidoscope, I fully support ISASA’s advocacy for linguistic inclusion in our schools. It is not an impossible feat, but one that fulfils the aspirations of our constitution and what Bishop Tutu and others made manifest during the struggle to end apartheid. When the apartheid government dictated balkanisation, those who viewed the gospel message to be that of love and human universality, in contrast, exemplified inclusiveness, by the fact that the languages spoken by South Africans can be shared and celebrated. Reverend Ragkadi, in an extract from Tutu writings, added this quote to her service:

The church of God has to be the salt and light of the world. We are the hope of the hopeless … We must transfigure a situation of hate and suspicion, of brokenness and separation, of fear and bitterness. We have no option … to be the alternative society; where there is harshness and sensitivity, we must be compassionate and caring; where people are statistics, we must show they count as being of immense value … where there is grasping and selfishness, we must be a sharing community now.

I would proffer that this is not only applicable in the church, but can be a guiding dictum for our schools: that they be communities of healing.

The other person to give a remembrance message at the service was Mama Thandi Chaane, St Mary’s School Board Chair and ISASA Council member. Mama Thandi shared her experiences as a mentee of Father Tutu when she was a young woman.

She marvelled at the memory of going with Bishop Tutu to a funeral for people who had been killed by the police. At this funeral, an alleged police informer was singled out. Placing himself between the person under attack and his assailants, Tutu managed to save this man’s life. As is known, Tutu was emphatic that those battling for human rights should never adopt the tactics of the oppressor. The ends do not justify the means.

One of the poignant moments in the service was when Mama Thandi relayed her challenge to Bishop Tutu regarding the prohibition of women joining the Anglican priesthood. Rather than only speak to him, he encouraged her to raise her concerns publicly within church structures. Tutu was a proponent of the ordination of women and now, after his death, we were sitting in the chapel of a girls’ school celebrating his life, with a service drawn-up by a woman priest.

As we know, the work of gender equity in our country is far from done. In fact, girl- and woman-hood remain in peril in our country.

Held in high regard

Bust of Archbishop Desmond TutuArchbishop Tutu meant a great deal to many ISASA schools. During his life, some of them took an opportunity to express their high regard for him. As a young man, Tutu was admitted to Wits University Medical School, but was unable to pursue these studies due to a lack of funds. Instead, he turned to teaching before undertaking theological studies. St Mary’s, in its acknowledgement of his initial desire to become a medical doctor, named its science building in his honour.

To recognise Mama Leah and Archbishop Tutu’s role of uniting people, Roedean School (SA) and St John’s College, dedicated the bridge over Joe Slovo Drive that connects the two schools in their honour. Outside the chapel of St Andrew’s College, Makhanda, there is a bust of Archbishop Tutu.

The last time I heard Archbishop Tutu address an audience was at Bishops Diocesan College in Cape Town. Guy Pearson, my former housemaster at St Peter’s Preparatory School and, at that time, the Headmaster of Bishops, had invited Archbishop Tutu to address the delegates of the International Boy Schools’ Coalition conference.

In his humorous speech to the delegates from around the world, he said that he felt sorry for racists, because, when they died and tried to go to heaven, they would find out that we were all Africans. This address was not long after the discovery of the Homo Naledi child that was found in the remote depths of the Rising Star Cave in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.

What the loss of Archbishop Tutu alerts us to, is that the adoption of our constitutional democracy was not the end but the beginning of a continuing struggle. Nefarious agents exist in every generation and those who oppose a more humane world are ever-present. As a country, we still have not resolved the misogyny that pervades many aspects of our society.

The question of giving equal consideration and promotion to South Africa’s official languages has still not been fully realised. ISASA schools, and schools generally, can and should do more.

On public platforms, there are prominent voices which seek to divide us along so-called racial lines; we must strenuously resist such false fissions. We must not be blinded by assertions or claims of progressive causes if proponents utilise hate as their tool. The days of apartheid were disheartening but they, too, came to an end.

The manner in which South Africans stood together during the insurrection gives renewed hope to our beleaguered democracy. In our efforts to realise the promise of the South African constitution, we must not lose our sense of humour, nor forget the necessary practical steps required of each one of us on a daily basis to embody its principles in everything that we do within our schools. The life and work of Father Tutu needs to be continued by us all in our vocation as educators.