I first heard the name, Desmond Tutu, in the Apartheid years. His was one of the voices that cried out at the injustice of a system that oppressed the majority of South African people simply due to the colour of their skin. When I go into schools and try to explain this to pupils, they don’t understand. “That’s not right” they tend to say. They see through the ridiculousness of what could only be described as a cruel system, where leaders clung to power that they knew would end, but they tried to extend their reign for as long as possible, by all means possible.
This little man appeared. Almost like John the Baptist, he seemed to be shouting in the wilderness. While the world was not able to hear the words of Mandela, he spoke up, using his status as Archbishop, not to remove him from his flock’s struggle, but to throw him into it’s centre.
He suffered along with his people. He was harassed. He was tear-gassed. He was arrested.
In 1984 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize which gave him a higher platform to speak to the world, although, with typical self deprecation he said “”You get the Nobel Peace Prize and you say the same thing that you said before you got the prize and now everybody thinks, ‘Oh, dear, the oracle has spoken.'”
But he always believed that his and his people’s moment would come. On May 10th 1994 it was Tutu who introduced President Mandela to the South African people and to the world. He said that he told God that if he was to die at that moment, it would be almost perfect. This was what he had been waiting for.
Later, Mandela appointed him to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was given the role of getting a nation to face the atrocities under Apartheid. It was to be no quick or easy task.
Although he retired from public life in the late 1990’s he continues to speak through his membership of The Elders, a group of world leaders discussing human rights and peace issues.
Tutu is now raised to the heights of public esteem with his close friend, Nelson Mandela, and with Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. Their words have gone beyond their individual causes to reach out to all humankind who search for wisdom.
Tutu’s optimism under Apartheid was never in question, “I never doubted that ultimately we were going to be free, because ultimately I knew there was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.” His all encompassing acceptance and love of God plain to see. “We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.”
On his 82nd birthday, I say, “Happy Birthday Desmond Mpilo Tutu” and may the world be blessed to have you here to celebrate many more.