The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Desmond Tutu stood for Palestinians and many others. We should honor his global struggle for justice.

A mourner brings flowers to St. Georges Cathedral, where a Wall of Remembrance for South African anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been set up after the news of his death. (Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images)
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Redi Tlhabi is a South African journalist and presenter of “The Big Debate” on ENews Channel Africa.

Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, one of South Africa’s greatest citizens, has gone to his eternal rest at age 90. I grew up in the township of Soweto, in Johannesburg, home to another global icon, Nelson Mandela. Tutu and Mandela were neighbors and it was a source of much inspiration to have two Nobel laureates in the area.

But it wasn’t always like this. To understand Archbishop Tutu, we must return to the dark period of South African apartheid. Fear and despair hung like an albatross around our necks. It was a time of unprecedented bloodshed. The townships, where Black people lived, were on fire and the police and army ruled the streets through the barrel of a gun, killing and maiming many.

That’s when a diminutive clergyman came into the scene. He walked through the streets of the burning townships, confronting the police, calming angry crowds, trying to quell the inferno with his authoritative voice. He spoke at mass funerals, condemning the apartheid state whilst risking his credibility among Black youth who were fired up and thirsty for revenge.

What distinguished Tutu from the rest? Perhaps the answer lies in his African name, Mpilo, meaning “life” in the isiXhosa language. Tutu’s parents had lost an infant shortly before his birth and this name was an expression of comfort and hope for a meaningful long life. Tutu lived up to his name and lived a long, rich life.

Archbishop Tutu’s weapon of choice was the truth. He spoke it in all circumstances. He campaigned fiercely against apartheid and took his message to the world. This earned him the Nobel Prize in 1984.

His service to South Africa did not end with the fall of apartheid. He chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC, despite its limitations, unearthed the atrocities of the past in shocking detail. Families got to hear how their loved ones were tortured and killed by apartheid’s machinery. It was raw and Tutu would often bow his head and weep during the hearings.

Some anti-apartheid activists became too comfortable once they reached power. Tutu was consistent and chastised the same African National Congress leaders he supported during apartheid. Their corruption and lack of accountability were anathema to him.

Former President Thabo Mbeki earned Tutu’s wrath for his denialism of the AIDS epidemic, which cost hundreds of thousands of lives, according to some estimates.

Tutu was coherent and demanded the same from all of us. There was no course too difficult or too dangerous. His quest for justice went beyond South Africa. The power of his moral clarity was undeniable. Mandela was correct when he said his voice “will always be the voice of the voiceless.”

A few years ago, he refused to participate in a summit in Johannesburg because former British Prime Minister Tony Blair would be a speaker. He was unsparing in his criticism of Blair or President George W. Bush. On Iraq, he wrote: “Those responsible for this suffering and loss of life should be treading the same path as some of their African and Asian peers who have been made to answer for their actions in the Hague.”

In 2017, he called on the Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out against attacks on the Rohingya people. Tutu was emphatic in an open letter: “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”

He drew parallels between the fight against apartheid and the urgent need to tackle climate change. “Just as we argued in the 1980s that those who conducted business with apartheid South Africa were aiding and abetting an immoral system, we can say that nobody should profit from the rising temperatures, seas and human suffering caused by the burning of fossil fuels,” he wrote.

But it was perhaps his support for Palestinians and his criticism of Israel that got him in trouble with many who wanted to preserve him in amber, a sort of living monument to a past struggle. “When you go to the Holy Land and see what’s being done to the Palestinians at checkpoints, for us, it’s the kind of thing we experienced in South Africa,” he told The Post in 2013.

Many around the world have reached the inevitable conclusion that Israel is an apartheid state, including leading human rights organizations.

Archbishop Tutu believed in forgiveness as an important step to healing a broken nation. His version of forgiveness was not devoid of accountability and reparations. His abiding source of disappointment was that reparations were not paid to victims of apartheid and that those who committed atrocities, yet shunned the TRC process, were not prosecuted as recommended.

The world has lost a towering figure, whose imprint on the soul of our humanity can never be erased.