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The Life of Desmond Tutu

In this week's religion column, Terence Schilstra examines the life of an iconic religious leader
Photo Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation

Desmond Tutu: Introduction
A young black man lay in the dirt, beaten and bloodied, but still breathing. He was suspected of collaborating with the hated South African security police. Conspiring with whites meant certain death. The temper of the black mob raged around the young man; spitting anger swarmed like deranged wasps. A few steps away the crowd prepared a car tire filled with gasoline that would serve as his fiery necklace. Punishment. He would be burned alive. Without pausing, Desmond Tutu stealthily waded into the middle of the angry mob. “Stop what you are doing!” cried Desmond. It was only later that Tutu would consider the peril of the situation.

Desmond Tutu: Early Life
Desmond Tutu was born on Oct. 7, 1931. He was a direct descendant of the Motswana tribe, which has its roots in the interior of South Africa since AD 350. While ancient South African blood ran deep in his veins, Desmond was born into modern Africa, a place where racial unrest reached a fever pitch. 

In the first years of Desmond's life, he was deathly ill. He contracted polio, like so many other African children in the 1930s. Polio spread like wildfire through the dirty gutters and fly-borne infections rotting in sewage buckets, a common sight in Desmond's black township. For the poor Tutu family, there was little to be done to save their sick son. In fact, the faithfully Christian family lost all hope for Desmond’s life; his papa planned a small funeral; the frail young Tutu was as good as dead. Yet by some miracle, little Desmond’s health turned. He recovered with time. But the effects of polio would remain for the rest of Desmond’s life -- his frame frail, his right hand atrophied with minimal grip strength. 

Desmond Tutu: Home Life
The small town where Tutu grew up was not a pretty place. The houses of mud and tin were packed close together and crowded with people. The streets reeked of feces and garbage. The Cape wind would carry the murmur of neighbours' voices through the small huts, as if the walls were made of paper. Few homes boasted running water. The toilet was a communal pail.

Desmond’s home life was a nest of tension and loving affection. Security for the Tutu family was working long days to keep their family out of poverty. On occasions Desmond would lie awake at night listening to his mother's screams of abuse and his father’s drunken beatings. Outside the walls of home, his country was steeped in racial division. In 1948, after the South African political group, The National Party gained power, its all-white government immediately enforced policies of racial segregation under a system of legislation called apartheid. In short order, all non-white South Africans were forced to live separated from whites and use separate public facilities. South Africa became a place where communication and contact between the two groups, whites and blacks, was prohibited. From a young age Desmond knew a world of social and racial dissonance. Reflecting on his upbringing, Desmond notes, “Brutality can be as intimate as it is global.”

In 1945, a scrawny, spindly-legged Desmond, wearing shorts, but no shoes, reported for his first day of high school. He attended an all-black missions school near Johannesburg, a 40-minute train ride from his home. Desmond was one of the smallest boys in his high school, but he was very gifted. He excelled in each subject, with the exception of arithmetic. Because his family could not afford to pay for transit to and from school, Desmond stayed in a hostel for young men during the week. He would travel home on the weekends, when he could afford the fare. Desmond recalls visiting home some weekends. When he did, his mother would be away, working as a house maid for a middle-class white family, earning two shillings a day--just enough money to buy some cornmeal and scraps of meat for dinner.  

Desmond Tutu: Dreams
Coming out of high school, Desmond’s first ambition was to become a doctor. He applied to Witwaters Medical School, but did not qualify for a bursary. His family could never afford the tuition, so that dream was crushed and vanished. In the wake of disappointment, Desmond decided to pursue a career in teaching, following after his father. Accordingly, he enrolled at the Bantu Normal College, near Pretoria. While there, it was impossible for Desmond to escape the persistent reminders of racial segregation. Black students were housed in small round unkempt grass-thatched huts, while the whites stayed in manicured brick dorms. Desmond recalls an ordinary walk to class one morning turning into a sprint across town when a group of white boys started chasing him, spewing venomous racial slurs and pelting and bruising his small innocent body with rocks. He ran for his life until his aggressors got bored. 

Desmond Tutu: Early Career
By the mid-50s, Desmond had graduated and fell in love and married Leah Shenxane, a friend of his younger sister from their hometown. Around the same time, Desmond finished his Bachelor of Arts and started his first teaching job. Desmond was an inspiring teacher. He filled his pupils with a new vision for life. One commentator wrote, “To say Tutu was a popular and successful teacher would be an understatement -- he was a sensation.”

In the late 1950s, Desmond began his career as an educator. At that time, the South African government began instituting more radical racial reform in schools. Among the government's actions were massive cuts to black schools along with firings, demotions, and slashes in pay to black teachers. At the same time, white and European teachers received pay increases. In response to this injustice, Desmond took a stand; the first in a long list of standing for racial justice. Desmond protested the reform by resigning from his teaching position stating, “I’m not going to be a collaborator in this nefarious [racial] scheme.”

Desmond Tutu: Call into Ministry
Shortly after Tutu’s resignation as a teacher, he sensed a call into ministry. Tutu began conversations with his denomination about the prospects of his joining the priesthood. In short order his ambitions were considered by church leadership and Desmond was appointed to the task of subdeacon. In the role he was to engage in church ministry and while discerning his calling into pastorate, Tutu immediately grew a love for serving in the church. Accordingly, in late 1957, Desmond sought to enter theological college. He wrote to Anglican church leadership to express his desire to attend seminary, but his request was denied. It was found by the leaders of the church that Desmond owed 140 pounds for furniture he and his wife had purchased for their home one year prior. The Diocean officials made it clear that Desmond could only start theological training when his debt was paid. Tutu was indignant. Another dream crushed. Paying his debt was impossible. He was out of work and it would take over a decade to save the money to pay their debt.

Despite this disappointment, Desmond sought a solution. He sat down at his small desk and wrote a letter explaining the details of his situation to a well-known Anglican man by the name of Harry Oppenheimer, the heir apparent to the capital rich De Beers Mining Corporation. Oppenheimer received the letter, was moved by Desmond’s words and sent a letter of response. Along with the letter was a cheque for 200 pounds; the amount was more than enough to cover the debt. Attached to the cheque was a note which read, “I wish you all success and hope that you will be able to contribute to the building up of the spirit of greater tolerance and understanding in South Africa.” These words catapulted Desmond into ministry. These words came to define Desmond’s life. With the money, Desmond paid his debts. He reapplied to the Diocese. In short order he was advanced to study at St. Peter’s Theological College in Johannesburg, where he gave himself wholeheartedly to his studies. By 1961 Tutu was ordained as a priest.

Desmond Tutu: Ministry
Desmond Tutu quickly grew into a high-profile figure in the black community and church. He would preach on Sundays, but during the week he would come to be known as a rabble-rouser for peace. Michael Battle, a former adjunct to Tutu notes, people could not “distinguish [Tutu’s] theory from his practice.” He was a preacher who had a gift for deep theological thought while mediating boiling race relations daily in his neighborhood. Desmond, even with a frail physical frame, became a wise and strong older brother to his community. His strongest voice was reserved for racial justice. Desmond was not afraid to stand up for racism and mistreatment toward his fellow black community. In fact, Desmond’s whole life and ministry became a plea for peace between racially divided South Africa. Indeed, Desmond stood for justice for his fellow blacks. However, there was a surprising twist in his approach to race relations: Desmond stood just as firmly for the whites. Desmond declared, “When I care about black liberation, it is because I care about white liberation.” Desmond stood for peace and equality for all.

Desmond Tutu: Loving the Other
On the day when Desmond Tutu pressed into that mob of angry black men, he saw the hate and racism in their faces as they were poised to kill a fellow black man for cooperating with the white police. Desmond called out to his fellow blacks thirsty for blood to drop the flaming tire necklace, burning with the smell of gasoline. The young black man they sought to kill, bloodied from beatings in the dirt was their own kind. Desmond, small and frail from the ravages of polio might as well have been a giant in that moment. Desmond’s voice boomed amid the angry mob, “Do you accept us as your leader?” he asked. The mob quieted and looked on. “If you accept us as your leaders, you have to listen to us and stop what you are doing.” Desmond appealed to the nation's need for leadership. He recognized that South Africa needed a black voice for the voiceless. Furthermore, Desmond led the way by showing that if South Africa was going to have peace and racial equality, blacks would first have to learn to love each other.

Desmond Tutu: Ubuntu
This story of Desmond’s stand for peace and justice characterizes his life and ministry. He sought to bring the soothing balm of reconciliation to a black community with deep wounds from oppression and division. In order to bring about that healing, Desmond Tutu believed the antidote could be found in a word that can not be rendered in English. The word is, “ubuntu, botho.” It means the essence of being human. Desmond notes, regarding ubuntu, “You know when it is there and when it is absent.” Ubuntu speaks of collective humanness. “It recognizes that humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” Ubuntu is being human together. Desmond believed that only when both whites and blacks accept and participate in ubuntu, could there indeed be peace and justice.

Desmond Tutu: On Humanity
Desmond called for something that dramatically upended the race relations apple cart in South Africa. Desmond called for middle ground rooted in the essence of humanity. Indeed, Desmond ministered in time when South African race relations were hyperbolic. On one side of the spectrum, there was the black population which outnumbered whites five to one. Accordingly, whites lived in debilitating fear of a black uprising; fear they could be crushed by a black revolt in an instant. On the other side of the spectrum, blacks could not tolerate whites for the unjust political and social segregation that had been imposed on them by the white government for decades. Furthermore, blacks lived in fear of legal recourse and jail time for making a wrong move in society. South Africa had reached a fever pitch of hate precipitated by on both sides. Indeed, Desmond recognized that hate was merely an explicit resonance in the country. In actual fact, the real issue was not the explicit but the implicit mood of fear. South Africans, both black and white, were scared of each other. Having identified that mood, Desmond called for the nation to breathe the air of freedom from fear; to find middle ground: Desmond declares, “We shall be free, all of us, black and white. Let us sit down together, black and white. We shall only be free together, black and white. We can be human only together, black and white.” 

Desmond Tutu: Leadership
Throughout his life, Desmond worked toward freedom in various roles. In 1975, he was appointed dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg in 1975, the first black South African to ever hold that position. In 1978 Tutu accepted an appointment as the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches and became a leading spokesperson for the rights of blacks South Africans. In 1984 Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in the unifying campaign to resolve apartheid in South Africa. A year later, in 1985, at the height of township rebellions in South Africa, Tutu was installed as Johannesburg’s first black Anglican bishop, and in 1986 he was elected the first black archbishop of Cape Town, thus becoming the primate of South Africa’s 1.6 million-member Anglican church. 

Desmond was a shining example of peaceful defiance. Tutu once dressed in full episcopal regalia and led a march of about 40 clergymen to march on a local police headquarters in the wake of the death of 19 black men that were massacred by the white police force. Desmond led The Cape Town “March For Peace” on Sept. 13, 1989, to protest against political oppression. An estimated 35,000 Capetonians marched in commitment to a non-racial and democratic South Africa. Tens of thousands followed in other cities, and then around the world. Tutu declared: "We marched in Cape Town, and the Berlin Wall fell down two months later." Just five months later, Nelson Mandela was released from prison on Feb. 11, 1990. Desmond considered himself a leader by default. He believed that necessity was the impetus for his activism. One commentator wrote, it was his pleas for justice and reconciliation in South Africa that drew him into the political arena - but he always insisted that his motivation was religious, not political.

Throughout the life, accolades, and accomplishments of Desmond Tutu is a golden thread. The thread is that freedom and equality is rooted in humanity. The rabble rouser for peace believed that apartheid could be crushed when the world accepts that we are no more or less human than the other. Desmond dreamed of a world where all of God’s children irrespective of colours and shape, might enjoy basic human rights, the right to a fulfilled life, the right of movement, the freedom to be fully human in the image of God.



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Allen, John. Rabble-Rouser for Peace. Free Press, 2006

“Apartheid.” Authored by the Editors at October 7, 2010

Battle, Michael, Reconciliation. The Pilgrim Press 1997. 

Shirley Du Boulay, Tutu; Voice of the Voiceless. Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1998. 

Profile: Archbishop Desmond Tutu. July 22, 2010 Copyright © 2019 BBC.

Tutu, Desmond. The Words of Desmond Tutu. Newmarket Press, 1989.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia. Desmond Tutu; South African Archbishop. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. January 25, 2019

The Nobel Peace Prize for 1984. Nobel Media AB 2019. Tue. 4 June 2019.

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Terry Crawford-Browne. Desmond Tutu: A Prisoner of Faith.  Al Jazeera: 10 Jan 2013 15:59 GMT


Terence Schilstra

About the Author: Terence Schilstra

Terence Schilstra is the Intern Pastor at the Village Church, Thorold
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