The death of Desmond Tutu-world lost one of the loudest voices against apartheid, injustice and oppression

 Desmond Tutu stood for freedom, democracy, social justice, gender equality, against child marriage, against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza

Archbishop Desmond Tutu died on Sunday December 26 at the age of 90 after fighting against prostate cancer for many years. The world has lost one of the loudest voices against apartheid, injustice and oppression. 

Desmond Tutu was a real hero for all those who believes in equality, human dignity, democracy, fundamental human rights, harmony and peace. He stood against apartheid in South Africa, Israeli occupation of Palestine, authoritarianism repression. 

Desmond was not active in politics until 1970s. He became vocal against apartheid regime in South Africa, after watching horrors of apartheid policies. He saw black South Africans entrenched in sea of poverty, exploitation and repression. He became vocal critic of apartheid regime in the 1970s and continues to oppose it until it ended in early 1990s.

He saw the struggle of black people in the township and the battles against the apartheid regime; he joined in the anti-apartheid movement alongside Nelson Mandela. The style of both men was markedly different. But perhaps they complemented each other and joined hands to walk along a path which essentially led, in the late 1980s, to the fall of the apartheid regime and establishment of the ‘Rainbow Nation’, a phrase first coined by Tutu.

Tutu was also appointed chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by Mandela. Both men knew the extent of injustice inflicted on people. But they also realised the nation would have to work together if it was to move beyond its ugly past and develop as a country which stood as an example to others. 

 Tutu played a major role in galvanising the international pressure which led to the previous regime falling, travelling across the world to do so and then helping promote Mandela through his influence within the church and beyond it.

Desmond Tutu lived his life with passion, courage, faith and deep insight, but it was a life lived against the odds.

Sickly at birth, as an infant he survived polio, which left him with a permanently weakened right hand. As a teenager he suffered tuberculosis, which left adhesions on his lungs. Later in the 1980s, when he became, in Nelson Mandela’s words “public enemy number one” to the apartheid regime, he survived a number of assassination attempts. And for the last 25 years of his life, he lived with recurrent bouts of prostate cancer.

Desmond Tutu's advocacy ranged widely, beginning with appeals for sanctions against apartheid and continuing with campaigns against homophobia, for gender equality, against child marriage, against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, against oppression in anywhere in the world and in support of the “second wave” of liberation which saw the growth of multi-party democracy across Africa from 1989.

The common factor which underlay Tutu’s activism was his deep-rooted faith and its implications for how people – and later the environment – should be treated. If there was one thing which enraged him, it was to see the powerful inflict suffering on “so-called ordinary people”— “so-called because in my theology nobody is ordinary.”

He believed that every human being is created in the image of God, to be held in awe and reverence as if he or she is God. Therefore to mistreat a human being is not simply unjust or simply painful for the victim: it is blasphemous.

“When I see innocent people suffering,” he wrote, “pushed around by the rich and powerful, then, as the prophet Jeremiah says, if I try to keep quiet it is as if the word of God burned like a fire in my breast.” As he rose rapidly through the ranks of church leadership in the 1970s, he recognised that he was placing his life at risk. But he felt compelled to speak out, no matter the consequences.

With South Africa’s most militant black leaders in prison, exile or internal banishment, and with the growing militant labour unions operating mainly on shop floors, the church leaders used their pulpits to become the most prominent anti-apartheid voices within South Africa at the time.

The issue prompting his then-controversial appeals for economic sanctions against South Africa by the international community was the policy of forced removals. The apartheid government removed an estimated 3.5 million people, more than 10 % of South Africans from homes where many had lived for generations and dumped them to eke out an existence in poverty-stricken rural “homelands”.

In sharply-worded, no-holds-barred attacks, Tutu skewered those he held responsible for apartheid’s suffering, using language which got under the skins of white racists in a way few others could.

When Cabinet ministers responded with fury, he would raise the stakes with even more defiant attacks. He told the apartheid government that they would go the way of Nero in Rome, of Hitler in Germany, of Amin in Uganda and Somoza in Nicaragua: they would, he said, “bite the dust, and bite it comprehensively.”

He never hesitated to criticise the ANC government on corruption, misrule and failing to fulfill the dreams of Black South Africans to get rid of poverty, exploitation and repression.

He denounced Israel for occupation of Palestine and continues repression. He stood with people of Palestine in their struggle against Israeli occupation and for their freedom, dignity and rights.

Tutu was never a pacifist in the mould of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, he embraced instead the just war theory. Originally developed by the African saint, Augustine of Hippo, and later the Italian monk, Thomas Aquinas, just war theory holds that it is legitimate to turn to violence when all peaceful means of bringing about change have been exhausted. When abroad, Tutu vigorously defended the liberation movements’ decisions to launch armed struggle, but he never reached the point of endorsing them himself.

For his role in keeping South Africa’s struggle for freedom peaceful and his participation after this in overseeing the reconciliation process, Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. For many in South Africa his words and his sermons helped them recognise that even if reconciliation was difficult it had to be achieved.

He turned increasingly to his mission within the church and his family till the time of his death. But long after this his role in South Africa’s escape from apartheid and its many horrors had not been forgotten by the people of that country or of the world. It can be said that while Mandela was the brain and guide behind the freedom movement, Tutu was its soul. Their partnership was a crucial factor in the country’s freedom and the maintenance of calm after this was over.

For activists, journalists, freedom movements across the world, Desmond Tutu's truth that "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor" should forever be the guiding light to freedom.

The world will miss his loud voice against injustice, occupation and repression. Rest in peace Desmond Tutu.

                                                                      Khalid Bhatti 

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