As South Africa celebrated the life of anti-apartheid hero Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died on Boxing Day, former Archway School teacher and fellow countryman Brian Oosthuysen paid tribute to his lifelong friend.
Tutu was one of the country’s best-known figures at home and abroad.
A contemporary of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, he was one of the driving forces behind the movement to end the policy of racial segregation and discrimination enforced by the white minority government against the black majority in South Africa from 1948 until 1991. Here Brian pays tribute to the anti-apartheid legend.
Desmond Tutu tribute
I met Desmond Tutu in 1962 as we both embarked on a divinity degree as mature students at King’s College, London.
We were both married with a family and were the only South Africans on the course. We were delighted to meet each other because neither of us knew much about England, so we spent three years at King’s side by side becoming close friends and exploring London a bit. We were shocked the first time we went to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park and heard people voicing their disapproval of the government out loud and in public. We looked nervously around expecting security to arrive and almost ran away, from habit. Desmond’s wife Leah used to ask policemen the time to delight in their polite response. As well as new experiences there was much laughter and I got used to Desmond’s now world-famous loud chortle.
I stayed in the UK and Desmond returned to South Africa to continue his church work and we didn’t meet again until 1986 when he came to Builth Wells. It was a joy to see him but I remember feeling guilty and wretched when he said he needed me in South Africa to help the cause of freedom and that things there were very tough. I stayed in the UK mainly because two of our children were in their exam years. The 1980s for Desmond were difficult and dangerous and I felt very torn.
We met several times in South Africa after the end of apartheid, the first being when he was struggling with the traumas exposed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He was exhausted by all that he heard.
He was a man of profound faith lived in action: fighting for social justice, human rights, diversity and equality. He fearlessly challenged the wrongs in South Africa and in the wider world, championing the rights of the poor and marginalised. I remember his saying once, ‘If there are no gays in heaven I don’t think I want to go there’. He abhorred exclusion and exploitation. His moral reach was global. It began with peace and forgiveness in South Africa but extended to warnings of the climate emergency. In 2004 he said, ‘Ecological concerns are a deeply religious, spiritual matter’.
He also criticised the Israeli government in 2014 for its treatment of Palestinians. He refuted criticisms of interfering in politics. He asserted that those who claimed that churchmen should confine themselves to theology and not meddle in politics were reading a different Bible from his. His belief in an African philosophy ‘Ubuntu’ – we are all linked through our common humanity ‘I am because you are’ – was deeply held as was evident in his behaviour. He genuinely believed in the value of every single human being on the planet and that we must all care for one another.
We lost a global icon on 26th December 2021 and we all mourn his passing. I feel very privileged to have known him and become his friend, as many, many other did too. He will not be forgotten and neither will his laughter. Carole’s favourite memory of him was when we were at a reunion meal at King’s and she was sitting next to him. She realised she’d dropped an earring somehow and the next thing she knew was that he’d dived under the table to retrieve it, emerging triumphant. When the waitress reappeared he ordered rum and raisin ice cream which wasn’t on the menu, but she somehow conjured it up. After all, it was his favourite dessert.
Hamba kahle, Desmond. Go well. Rest in peace and rise in glory.