The name printed in bold font on the back of his customised supporter’s shirt is usually “The Arch” when spotted at Newlands, Ellis Park or FNB Stadium (known as Soccer City during the World Cup), and one never fails to admire the gushing joy South Africa’s footballers, rugby players or cricketers feel when they spot him in the crowd.
“The Arch” is approaching his ninth decade, but never misses a moment to defy the sands of time, busting a lung blowing his “vuvuzela”, or singing “Shosholoza” in the crowd.
The colourful sports shirts are in dramatic contrast to the maroon robes we’ve been accustomed to seeing this man of the cloth in over the years.
Granted, there’s a sense of mad adventurousness about him whenever he speaks or sings in a crowd. There’s a lucid childlike cuteness in that squeaky voice, and a cuddly Yoda-esque wise teddy-bear in this old man when he appears on television. Flagging a warning signal, that we perhaps shouldn’t take this odd borderline-senile man seriously. No, because Bishop Desmond Tutu has always been like this, that’s part of his charisma.
But these are strange times...
When the head of the South African Zionist Federation, David Hersch, initiates an online petition against “The Arch”, demanding he be removed as patron of the Holocaust memorial centres in Cape Town and Johannesburg for his “anti-Israel behaviour” and labels his criticism of the policies, (yes, policies) of the state of Israel “morally repugnant” based on “horrific and grotesquely false accusation against the Jewish people”, it’s pertinent to provide a brief reminder to Hersch, and anyone who might be swayed, of the man’s credentials.
Tour de force
South Africa’s first black Anglican archbishop, Tutu was a tour de force against the Apartheid leviathan.
After years battling white supremacist foes, and gaining freedom, his was a voice of unity, refusing to allow post-Apartheid South Africa to fragment along racial lines.
He coined the term “Rainbow Nation” and actively worked to convince white South Africans that they had a role to play in the new era, while simultaneously launching himself fearlessly to address the monstrous socio-economic problems of poverty and HIV/AIDS in the country.
He headed the “Truth and Reconciliation Committee” which gave those guilty of the most heinous crimes, including mass murder, the chance to open up, say sorry and be forgiven to foster a national healing.
Not one to get onto the financial “gravy train” since 1994, Tutu has not accumulated massive wealth. He hasn’t glided into a blissful retirement, content with the activism of his youth, choosing instead, to hold a mirror up to the country, and his former comrades reminding them that they may be free now, but they’re far from flawless.
He has broken ranks and railed against government corruption. He was appalled with the soft diplomacy conducted with Zimbabwe over human rights abuses under the government of Robert Mugabe.
In 2009, when his friend, the Dalai Lama was denied a visa to South Africa because of Chinese pressure and alleged threats to end lucrative business with the rainbow nation, “The Arch” pushed a national soul-searching button by calling it “shameless” and “a total betrayal of our struggle history.”
Xenophobic violence committed by his fellow South Africans disturbed him so much that he wailed publicly, “Please, please stop, please stop!”
He is a founding member and chairperson of The Elders, which tries to put out fires around the world by flexing their aged intellectual and moral muscles. Membership includes Kofi Annan, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mary Robinson, Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter. Not bad company for an anti-Semite?
“The Arch” has spoken out in support of the people of Darfur criticised rich nations at the G8 summit over the disconnect between what they say and do, what they promise and don’t give. He’s been outspoken over unilateralism in war (with Iraq as the prime example) campaigned for women’s rights gay rights worldwide and within the church.
Israelis and Palestinians
Theoretically, he could have achieved all this, but still be an anti-Semite, right? Here’s an excerpt of an op-ed he’d penned in 2002, regarding Israel and The Palestinians:
“In our struggle against apartheid, the great supporters were Jewish people. They almost instinctively had to be on the side of the disenfranchised, of the voiceless ones, fighting injustice, oppression and evil.
"I have continued to feel strongly with the Jews. I am patron of a Holocaust centre in South Africa. I believe Israel has a right to secure borders. What is not so understandable, not justified, is what it did to another people to guarantee its existence. I've been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.”
“Israel will never get true security and safety through oppressing another people. A true peace can ultimately be built only on justice. We condemn the violence of suicide bombers, and we condemn the corruption of young minds taught hatred but we also condemn the violence of military incursions in the occupied lands, and the inhumanity that won't let ambulances reach the injured.”
The words of a raging anti-Semite? Or good wisdom for those politicians spinning on their own axis on that carousel called “The Peace Process” to listen to?
These are strange times. When thousands of birds fall mysteriously from the sky Sarah Palin cries “blood libel” and one of the great moral sages of our time is called an anti-Semite, there probably isn’t any hope for the rest of us. Strange times indeed.
Wait, as I click the “publish” button, I’m reading that 2,141 people have signed a counter-petition to defend Tutu and his character. Hold on for a sec... make that 2,142. Maybe there’s a semblance of hope for us after-all.