DM168

OP-ED

Desmond Tutu taught us that to fight for justice, equality and human rights is godly

On 26 December 2021, the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu led to an outpouring of admiration for the man and his struggle for social justice. (Photo by Gallo Images / Oryx Media Archive)

The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s assertion that religion by itself could not bring about political change, that it needed to be accompanied by political action, was expected from a stereotypical Christian leader. 

Thokoza, and the adjacent township of Katlehong on the East Rand, today Ekurhuleni, became a site of political and social action because of Desmond Mpilo Tutu’s revolutionary spirit, ignited in him by the Benedictine motto of ora et labora, or pray and work.

Important as prayer is in human activity, it comes to nought when it is not accompanied by social action. 

“We cannot pray for the coming of the kingdom of heaven when we do not by social action create heaven on Earth by removing obstacles such as the injustices of oppression and inequality,” Tutu once told me in an interview at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in Pretoria several years ago.  

His former altar server in the early 1960s, Bonke Mtshali, now a frail man of 72, said even then, when they were young boys, Tutu had something about him that inspired them. His assertion that religion by itself would not bring about political change if it was not accompanied by political action was a profound statement from a man of the cloth.

“His sermons were peppered with the political words of Inkosi Albert Luthuli, then president of the banned African National Congress,” said Mtshali.

“Even us, young as we were, began to understand that something was wrong with the politics of South Africa; we knew that what we heard being articulated in his sermon about apartheid was real. Tutu, in his sermons, concretised it for us. And we loved him, and saw him as our liberator.”

Today, three images of Nelson Mandela are emblazoned on the outside wall of Tutu’s former mission house in Thokoza, adjacent to the Anglican parish church of St Philip’s from where for many years he preached the gospel of Jesus Christ and liberation, alongside the gospel of his hero, Luthuli.

“The images of Nelson Mandela on the wall of his former mission house says a lot about my late mentor and spiritual leader. He was a man of faith, but also a practical man who was troubled by apartheid atrocities. The image of Mandela on the wall tells us he aligned himself fully with his teaching and political beliefs.

“In large measure, we joined the ANC because we heard Tutu tell us from the pulpit that apartheid was a sin which must be eradicated, which was also inconsistent with the teaching of Jesus Christ.

“We heard him tell us that, in the absence of justice and equality for all, he could understand why leaders such as Oliver Tambo, a Christian to the core, could embrace the armed struggle as a means to attain political change and social justice.

“Because a call for a political solution to end apartheid and oppression fell on deaf ears, the armed struggle became a question of necessity, and of last resort by the ANC to attain political change.”

Mtshali, with some students of his era, followed the example of Tutu, who had in 1953 quit his teaching post because of the Bantu Education Act, and studied in Swaziland, now Eswatini, to further his high school education. This was because, he says, “he had told us that Bantu education was inferior, and was designed to retard the progress of a black person to reach the firmaments”.

Such was the power of Tutu’s ministry, that even altar servers, barely in their teens, could heed his call to make sound judgments about their future in the face of an untenable political system designed to keep black people ignorant by imposing on them a “poisonous” educational system.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s rectory when he was priest at the parish church of St Philips. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)
Desmond Tutu’s former mission house in Thokoza bearing images of former president Nelson Mandela. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Mtshali told DM168 that almost every young person in the church wanted to be an altar server “as a ploy to be near to the one gifted with the courage to challenge the apartheid system, even as a priest”.

“The popular thinking in religious circles bordered on a stereotype that a priest is supposed to be a softly-softly Christian leader whose vision is focused on a better life in the afterlife. Desmond Tutu was different. He taught us that to fight for justice and equality and human rights was to be godly, for God hated any form of injustice. And to achieve this we needed to dirty our hands, and to be involved in activities of destroying an unjust system,” Mtshali said.

“He taught us that it is good and noble to pray, but it was equally true to work hard to attain justice for ourselves and for posterity, warning, though, that there was a heavy price to pray, including a possible jail term or persecution by those who are bent on preserving the status quo.”

Mtshali recalled that the reason why the Anglican church in Thokoza and Katlehong became in the 1980s and 1990s “a site of political struggle” was because Tutu was a prototype for the liberation struggle, and that his demeanour was that of a man of action, refusing to tolerate injustice.

“A white priest had all the privileges, he had a car, a beautiful rectory stocked with good study [material] and good facilities. But not so with a black priest.

“I recall travelling on a bus and train with Father Desmond to take a service to some faraway outstations of a parish. He, the one with high qualifications, did this with love of his community. So, in that sense, Tutu saw the oppression and unequal treatment of priests as an instrument to demean black people.

“When the time came for the Struggle, we who had been conscientised by his teaching, did not hesitate to join the ANC in our numbers because Tutu had, by implication, approved [us to] do so, even though he had not, in so many words, told us to do so.

“We knew he would not frown upon it, when we, his altar servers, join the ANC, others as MK combatants, and others as trade unionists, to fight the evil apartheid system, which also manifested itself in the workplace, affecting the working class. So, the Struggle had to be fought on all fronts.”

Mtshali is right. Tutu, to help further the aims and objectives of the Struggle, used international sanctions to force the apartheid system to the negotiation table, and as he did that, he did not condemn the armed struggle because he understood it to be a complementary element to the total onslaught needed to collapse the unjust system.

In Thokoza, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the local Anglican church stored and hid arms to be used by the self-defence unit to defend the local communities from being annihilated by reactionary forces let loose and abetted and supported by the apartheid regime. This onslaught on the people of Thokoza was directed from the top echelons of the South African Defence Force, with the approval of the apartheid government.

Many Thokoza residents were mowed down by the apartheid army and the reactionary tribal political unit. Blood flowed in Khumalo Street during the internecine war that took place there. Many residents were forced to flee their homes, which were subjected to bombing and other forms of mayhem.

Mtshali remembers Tutu’s scriptural quotation: “I am for peace, but when I speak of it, they make themselves ready for war.”

“That has been so in our township, Thokoza. The violence was fomented by outsiders, steeped in tribal politics because they wanted, for the sake of political hegemony, to dominate the township folks.

“We would not allow this to happen. We had a duty to protect our community. We remembered the words Tutu quoted from the pulpit, from Psalms 120.7, and so reacted accordingly, if only to protect our community. The just war theory tells us we are entitled to protect ourselves when we are attacked,” said Mtshali.

But it was not all about politics. Tutu loved music, one of his early 1960 congregants in Thokoza, Dina Ndlovu (87) said. “He was of high spirit, always jubilant, helping us to practise wonderful musical melodies for Mass. Then young, funny and naughty. Loved by all, and made church interesting. But behind the naughtiness, there was a man committed to a just South Africa.”

Eddie Sabi, a community leader in Thokoza, said: “The Arch was always with the people, and the people of Thokoza were dear to his heart.

“He worked with liberation political movements across the spectrum, including the Black Consciousness Movement, and subscribed to the ethos of the Freedom Charter and inspired the United Democratic Front.” DM168

Jo-Mangaliso Mdhlela is a journalist, an Anglican priest and a former trade unionist.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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