“It’s realpolitik, this forgiveness thing,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu to me in 1996 with characteristically blunt eloquence, about the job he had to do as chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). “It’s not just something in the realm of religion or the spiritual. If justice is your last word, you’ve had it. You’ve got to go beyond it.”
The notion of a place “beyond justice,” as I wrote at the time, came from Tutu’s mission to connect Christian faith and African communalism. This extraordinary man—the heart and conscience of the South African body politic for the past 50 years—minted much of post-apartheid political discourse. Among his contributions was a popularization of the African philosophy of ubuntu: “I am human only because you are human.” As he put it to me: “If I undermine your humanity, I dehumanize myself. You must do what you can to maintain this great harmony, which is perpetually undermined by resentment, anger, desire for vengeance. That’s why African jurisprudence is restorative rather than retributive.”
With the curdling of the South African dream of liberation into deepening inequality and a political corruption that continues with impunity, the country has found itself “beyond justice” in a far less satisfying way. Tutu—who articulated that dream better than anyone—did not mince his words in his latter years. He was one of the very first Black South African leaders to condemn the corrupt president Jacob Zuma, calling his conduct “disgraceful” and his government “worse” than the apartheid one—because at least then you knew what to expect.
And yet, for a younger generation of radical Black South Africans, the politics of reconciliation as embodied by Tutu is very much part of the problem. Tutu was, in fact, the first to talk of racial reconciliation, when he was Archbishop of Cape Town, a decade before Nelson Mandela’s release. It was he too, borrowing from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who named South Africans “the Rainbow Children of God” and thus coined the term “the Rainbow Nation.”
But the South African student uprising of 2015 offered an angry critique of “rainbowism”—one that endures among many younger Black South Africans. For Rekgotsofetse Chikane, one of the intellectual leaders of this movement, “the rainbow nation motif, in hindsight, was probably the most toxic way of bringing our nation together,” “an artificial conch of righteousness [that] belied the truth of the country’s reality.”
In his 2018 book Breaking a Rainbow, Building a Nation, Chikane argues that “the rainbow nation is simply an emotional ploy to garner support for a South Africa whose foundations are based on whiteness and, as such, perpetuates various forms of discrimination—often using our own democratic institutions to do so.” In this reading, Tutu was a brand ambassador for white capital’s agenda to maintain the status quo—and an old-timer stuck in archaic Christian notions of grace deployed to make white folk more comfortable with their privilege.
In the 1980s, when he was the country’s ranking Anglican cleric, Tutu enraged the mainstream of his white congregants by articulating a Christian position in favor of a just war, and called for sanctions against the apartheid regime. Many of those who now embrace “the Arch”—as he is affectionately known in South Africa—as a cuddly icon of reconciliation saw him, in the 1980s, as nothing less than an ermine-clad demon.
Meanwhile, “time and again” in those volatile years, writes Tutu’s biographer John Allen the archbishop “moved into the space between young people armed with bricks and stones on one side, and [security forces] with fingers on their triggers on the other. Time and again he roused the passions of the young with rabble-rousing rhetoric which scared the bejesus out of some of his white bishops, then channelled the anger of the crowd into constructive action with humour and stern admonition.”
This was his gift: not just of righteousness and courage, but also of timing. And the critique of the “born free” generation, as articulated by Chikane above, simply fails appreciate how knife-edged things were in the years of transition, and how vital Tutu’s sense of timing was in pulling this country over the brink. This was done by staging a national drama—the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—that gave Black South Africans the impression that they were being heard, and white South Africans the feeling that they were welcome in the new society. Without it, the fragile peace negotiated by Nelson Mandela may well have collapsed.
Tutu understood the realpolitik: The commission was a negotiated compromise between previously warring parties, and a way to assure apartheid leaders that they would not find themselves behind bars. This prevented civil war and midwifed the transition. But notwithstanding his comments to me, Tutu had loftier aspirations, and up to his death he remained disappointed: at the way white South Africans failed to take the olive branch of reconciliation by making more sacrifices to bring about equality, and at the way the ANC government failed to prosecute those who did not apply for, or obtain, amnesty from the TRC.
Desmond Tutu’s vision for South Africa ran far broader than racial equality—fundamental though this was to it. He committed himself to fighting gender oppression, went up against the ANC government on behalf of people with AIDS and disabilities, and even said, once—against his fellow congregants in the African Anglican church—that if heaven were homophobic he would rather go to hell. Indeed, if South Africa has not experienced the violent official homophobia of other African countries, it is primarily because of the powerful influence of Tutu’s church, who not only failed to provide the ideological ballast for homophobia but also offered its corrective, in humanist ubuntu.
I opened my 1996 profile of Tutu in the South African Mail & Guardian by comparing him to the then-president: “If the grave and plodding [Nelson] Mandela is our reliable father,” I wrote, “then that hyperactive little figure in ermine at his side is our naughty uncle; the one who carries all the family’s emotional baggage, weeping for us when we grieve, dancing when we celebrate.”
All this is true: There has been no one else in South African public life as emotionally fluent, as exuberant, as lovable. But Tutu was so much more, and I deeply underestimated him. Even if we South Africans fail to live up to the principles of ubuntu he has articulated and embodied with such effervescent grace, he has set our lodestar. His legacy and influence cannot be overstated.