Remembering Archbishop Desmond Tutu

By Matt Meyer

The author with Archbishop Tutu. Photo courtesy of Matt Meyer.

In mid-December 2021, I urged my colleagues, friends, and family to find the joy in the festive season rooted in our collective work for justice. As we prepared to close our year out with hopes for a better one in the future, I too was looking for reasons to celebrate. On the day after Christmas, however, my joy was diminished as the world bid farewell to a true voice for justice for all, one whose circumstance and character catapulted him to extraordinary prominence. I was truly humbled to call South African Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Despond Mpilo Tutu a friend, honoured to have his strong and supportive words serve as Introductions to three of my books and his inimitable presence on video and in person add to countless conference and events I helped organize. The “Arch” truly provided a human entranceway for so many freedom fighters who would find no similar source of sustenance from anyone near to his level of global prominence. It was not just that he had an unquenchable thirst for the liberation of all, leading him to a genuine, independent radicalism which defied easy ideological definition and defied the powerbrokers of every continent and corporation. It was not just that he fashioned—even in the busiest and most repressive of times—an administrative centre which enabled clear access to so many grassroots resistance initiatives. Archbishop Tutu’s head and heart, his prayers and actions, triumphantly focused on reconciliation and reparations borne of that resistance.

One might assume that my connection to the Arch came about first and foremost through my mentorship and deep collaborations with the man who would eventually become my step-dad, Pan African pacifist Bill Sutherland, with whom I co-authored Guns and Gandhi in Africa (2000) which Archbishop Tutu provided the Introduction for. And while it is true that the Arch’s connection to Bill was a deep and long-standing one more akin to family members than friends, it is not how he and I first met. Bill, it should be noted, worked for decades with the War Resisters’ International and for years as a staff member of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which won the Nobel Peace prize as an organization – along with the British Friends Service Council – in 1947, following the end of WWII. As is the custom, Nobel Peace laureates are given special space to nominate future prize-winners and – as an AFSC representative helping to lead that group’s work against the heinous racist apartheid regime, Bill worked hard to get AFSC to recommend then-Bishop Tutu for the prize, As is now well documented, Tutu was awarded the prize in 1984 at a key moment in South Africa’s history.

Though repression within the apartheid regime was still extremely intense, the mass democratic and anti-racist movements which would sweep across the country and ignite the world were coming up at just this time, in the early 1980’s. The United Democratic Front, a broad coalition of grassroots groups, was taking the lead in many places and, within the white community, the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) was developing as a voice within the communities of the oppressor, to spark a creative fire among a new generation of whites who would come to oppose both militarism and racism. Tutu, of course, was a supporter and champion of both and – more than that – was willing to take substantial risk by boldly dispelling the myth that the Boycott and Divestment movement would hurt the African people of South Africa. The callous liberal and mainstream mock-concern that BDS would be anything other than a strategic, internationally accessible, nonviolent means of hurting the apartheid regime was laid bare when Tutu led the call (at a time when getting direct word out of South Africa was difficult) that BDS was a policy which would help Black South Africans not hurt them; their torture at the hands of the racist regime was far more serious than the loss of a few coins which might trickle down to the African community from the state losses under a successful divestment campaign. 1984 was key, and the Archbishop was always personally grateful and politically engaged with Papa Bill for the support of the Nobel endorsement and what became our collective conversations on unarmed resistance and the tactics of social change. I shall never forget the surprise call from the Arch which came through on my mobile phone in Brooklyn decades later as we were celebrating Papa Bill’s 90th birthday, noting that the people of Africa owe him a debt of gratitude.

My first personal connection to the Arch, however, came through work with another fierce and fearless friend: Cape Town’s wonderful Dr. Ivan Toms. Ivan was many things to many people, first and foremost known as the medical doctor who built and staffed the health clinic at Crossroads. Crossroads was not really a township or a neighborhood, it was a community–a very unique community made up of those now called shack-dwellers, a grouping of squatters making up what some termed a shantytown. One of the special things about Crossroads was that no matter how many times the apartheid regime literally bulldozed down this community of open resistance, community members would quickly turn around and rebuild. A little thing like a highly militarized and repressive state was not going to get in their way! Another special thing was that there was this one member of the white community, a prominent medical doctor no less, who decided to throw his lot in with those most oppressed and create a health center in the middle of Crossroads where he could attend to people most in need and train a crew of community-based health practitioners and nurses to take care of the rest. This was just who Ivan was. He was, by the way, also one of the early leaders of ECC, refusing the doctor’s draft and other calls to military service and supporting those younger resisters who were less established. When he obtained a small US State Department grant to travel to the States as an example of South African ‘goodness,’ he made sure to speak out against racism and apartheid whenever he could and, as soon as his official responsibilities were completed, decided to extend his stay in the hemisphere and bought himself a ticket to revolutionary Nicaragua, fighting against the US-sponsored contra war. Upon returning to South Africa, he infuriated the right-wing regime and ruffled a few feathers on the left when he publicly proclaimed, “Yo Soy Sandinista!” 

Dr. Ivan Toms was also gay. And like nearly everything in the rest of his life, he refused to keep quiet about things which were important to him. He was, in addition, an Anglican and a member of the Cape Town church where Desmond Tutu regularly pastored. So, very early on in his life as an iconic figure in his own right, Ivan asked his pastor Tutu (also years before the Nobel prize) what he should do. He didn’t want to be closeted, but also didn’t want to diminish his role as a then-rare white opponent of apartheid. Needless to say, Tutu and Toms engaged in dialogue deeply personal, spiritual, and strategic – as was their way. Out of those conversations came Ivan’s very public coming out, and Tutu’s very public support of the same. By the mid-1980’s and the growing anti-apartheid movements within South African and internationally, these two stalwart figures and friends was already “on record” – not merely about LGBT rights but about the principled position that liberation for all was not a negotiable thing to be compromised away. Ivan and I became buddies as fellow draft resisters across the waters at and after the founding of ECC. When I was tasked with editing a Peace calendar on youth resistance and “Children of War, Children of Peace,” Ivan helped connect me (now in the early 1990’s) with his famous friend who had also championed those children caught within the tragedies of war. Archbishop Tutu thus wrote the Introduction to my first edited “booklet,” a 1993 collection which includes short poetry and prose from young people around the world, including the voice of a “New Afrikan” scout based in the southeastern US by the name of Tupac Shakur!   

In the days and weeks following Archbishop Tutu’s passing, the leaders of almost every nation— the politicians and pundits of the most powerful on earth—will line up to claim him as their own. But the still-colonized people of the world who the Arch strenuously supported and defended will hopefully also remember his love—be they the Puerto Rican nation seeking freedom from direct US colonialism or the Tibetan people seeking freedom from China, be they the people of Western Sahara or West Papua or of Palestine, who as subjects of modern settler-colonial Israeli apartheid were of particular concern to this servant of God. We would also hope but do not expect that their colonizers, who will be among the first to claim Tutu as a source of inspiration (out of both sides of their mouths), would follow the freedom-loving directions which the Archbishop set forth. Those still imprisoned for political reasons (and their jailers) should also remember his consistent calls for their release—be they well known figures such as American Indian Movement elder Leonard Peltier or Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, or the lesser-known names of the wrongfully incarcerated of every nation (including, in the US, Sundiata Acoli, who is just a few years younger than the Arch). Freedom for all would be a far more fitting tribute to the life of Archbishop Tutu than the hollow words we will undoubtedly hear repeated in the coming days, and “peace on Earth, good will towards All” would be a more significant refrain if put into practice by the arms manufacturers and weapons peddlers of the planet.

The Arch was a great strategic thinker, and I remember sitting with him privately some years back in his office in Cape Town. Our conversation spanned so many topics across a world of injustices, but I recall two points of both tactical and spiritual significance. In discussing the still-incarcerated Puerto Rican patriot Oscar Lopez Rivera, termed by many South American heads of state “the Mandela of the Americas,” the Arch weighed in on how best to balance his ongoing support for Oscar’s immediate and unconditional release with the need to also understand the mind of the man who would be destined to release him: Barack Obama. Students of realpolitik, we realized that Obama wouldn’t simply set Oscar free based on moral suasion. The right words and right timing had to be considered regarding the Call for release. Then, as we moved to another “agenda item,” we reflected upon the people of Palestine’s West Bank and especially Gaza who had just suffered a bombing raid by the all-powerful and unregulated Israeli Defense Force. “God must be weeping now,” the Arch sombrely repeated to me, heart sick about both the immediate human toll as well as the difficulties ahead.

On these same days and weeks, I will try not to weep for our loss of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who—as I just wrote to his daughters—lived such a truly extraordinary and meaningful life. As we send the family our condolences and best wishes for a healing time ahead, let us do as the Arch would do, with steadfastness and humour and a focus on what needs to be done rather than its costs.

Today the gratitude which Archbishop Tutu insisted be paid to the under-recognized Bill Sutherland, the precious memories which are due to Ivan Toms, and those looking to pay tribute to Tupac as well as so many others, would do well to better understand the connections between these fierce freedom fighters. We would do even better to comprehend and act upon the potential connections which we can and must build between us. Let us take part of our energy in remembering the Arch to work towards building the 21st Century united fronts so needed to pave a path toward justice.

Let us work to heal the earth, and to heal one another, by redoubling our fight to Free the Land and its Peoples, to Free All Political Prisoners, to build a beloved community of liberation where all can find the enduring peace which is the fruit of our struggles for structural justice.

Matt Meyer is Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association, Senior Research Scholar at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst Resistance Studies Initiative, and a member of the editorial board for Peace & Change.

This post was expanded and revised on December 29, 2021.

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