In My Words — Desmond Tutu: An Unbending ‘Arch’ Toward Justice and Equality

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Associate Professor Prudence Layne reflects on the legacy of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

By Prudence Layne

He was a man of the people and for the people, and the people loved him back. He often remarked that he could not be a human by himself. That spirit of Ubuntu, the inextricable relationship of the individual and the community, captures the spirit of Desmond Tutu – the man, the spiritual leader and the human rights activist.

Associate Professor of English Prudence Layne
Associate Professor of English Prudence Layne

‘Arch,’ as he is affectionately known, rose to global prominence as the moral conscience and voice of South Africans trapped by the apartheid regime. He was unrelenting in his pressure to rally the world in united opposition to the racist government, calling for their boycott, divestment and denouncement, especially from the wealthy nations of the West, including the United States.

In the years following the official end of apartheid with the nation’s first democratic elections in 1994 and Nelson Mandela’s installment as president, Tutu continued his quest for equality for the disenfranchised wherever he met them, but especially across the African continent. Whether he was speaking up for refugees in Darfur, asserting his support for the LGBTQ community, saying, “I’d rather go to hell than to worship a homophobic God,” or decrying violence against women and children, his human rights campaign was unwavering.

I witnessed the ministry that was Arch’s life during a 2012 walk through Cape Town, South Africa. I first met Arch as an undergraduate at Howard University during his visit there, but this time found me with him on subsequent occasions as I led a study abroad program for students at Elon University, where I am a faculty member. We were making our way from St. George’s Cathedral, following early morning Eucharist, to his favorite café in the city.

The distance was short, literally across the street and around the corner, but it took us a long time to reach our destination. He stopped and ministered to everyone on the street, including the homeless, the indigent, the scurrying worker, the tourist and the casual resident. He joked, bantered, chatted, danced and prayed with those he met. One could tell from those chance encounters, their countenance, gait, or posture, the ordinary felt extraordinary and the otherwise invisible felt seen. The experience remains one of my most poignant memories of Arch during my numerous visits to the country.

Tutu applied the principles of justice and equity universally and without favor. In the years following Nelson Mandela’s withdrawal from official public life to the election of the disgraced former President, Jacob Zuma, Tutu strongly denounced the African National Congress (ANC), the liberationist party under whose flag and principles he led the anti-apartheid struggle and the majority stakeholders in the South African government. He penned an editorial in 2010 that lamented the ways that the country’s crime and corruption demonstrated how South Africa was losing its way and its pride. With Zuma’s election, he declared that he could no longer vote for a party that selected a man accused of rape and corruption as its leader.

Tutu’s bold, sometimes unpopular stances on politics and the state of his nation, Africa and the world demonstrated faith in action. His life’s work showed believers that a religious and spiritual life becomes a dusty ideological relic when it does not seek to improve the human condition. Faith without works is dead and a life without charity is meaningless. He crossed all human boundaries of difference, including religion, working with the Muslim and Jewish communities to solve their shared problems

Tutu’s faith sustained his quest for freedom and justice. As the Chairperson of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), he bore witness, like the rest of the nation and the world, of human depravity.  The TRC investigations engendered many truths as perpetrators sat before survivors, families of their victims, and the world, to recount their crimes in gruesome detail in exchange for clemency, atonement, forgiveness.

However, the jury remains hung as to whether the TRC process achieved justice for the victims since not one person has ever been jailed or convicted for atrocities they committed under South Africa’s apartheid regime. Yet in this enterprise as well, Tutu was convinced that the TRC process was an essential step towards his nation’s healing and reconciliation.

Arch was a prisoner of hope, a professor of faith and a practitioner of love. These three principles fueled his love for humanity and it is in this vein we must persist. Although the TRC was necessary, it was a foundational piece in this “long walk to freedom” and in realizing the rainbow nation of Tutu’s dreams.

As we say goodbye to one of the greatest freedom fighters of any generation, let us pattern our own lives after all that was good in his: unyielding in the fight for the dignity and equal treatment of all. Amandla! (Power to the People!) and the people respond, Awethu! (The Power is Ours!) Farewell Arch! Rest in Glory!

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.