He preached peace, love and understanding and campaigned tirelessly for truth and social justice. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel prize winning peace laureate who has died aged 90, was a truly remarkable man.
Not only did he help end the scourge of Apartheid in South Africa – an extraordinary feat in itself – but he battled on to achieve reconciliation between opposing factions. His intellect, tenacity and humour were crucial elements in the ongoing fight for what is right.For almost 10 years I had the privilege to work regularly with the Tutu Foundation UK and learnt a lot about Desmond Tutu or Arch as he was invariably known.
This curious encounter between me – a confirmed atheist – and the world of this man of God occurred like so many other things in my life through a curious chapter of happy accidents. I’m so glad I did. It didn’t make me a believer but it enabled me to witness at relatively close quarters, a charismatic man who was kind, compassionate and caring but certainly no pushover.
Arch could be tough and fearless when required and was always prepared to speak his mind but he aso had an innate ability to weigh up an argument. He could deliver a devastating criticism often skilfully levened by his wonderful wit. .
By nature Arch was excitable and emotional but his really was the voice of reason. Desmond Tutu made a very real difference to our world.
Like so many others I felt humbled by the courage, humanity and strength of character that allowed Nelson Mandela to fight tyranny with forgiveness and reason. His death at the age of 95 after years of ill-health comes as no great surprise but, selfishly, I find it a little bit frightening that he is no longer around to provide a guiding light.
Hopefully the world will learn by his example, although I doubt it. As someone once said: What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? Nothing at all. I’m an atheist but fully admit there is a lot of sense in the core values of many religions. Turning the other cheek and forgiving those who trespass (sin) against us for instance. Incredibly difficult to put into practice but astonishingly effective if you do. Nelson Mandela had the strength to achieve it.
He also understood implicitly that anger is self-destructive. I’m not much into lighting candles and holding vigils, Mandela has gone. We should celebrate his life by practising forgiveness and compassion in our everyday lives. The other not so secret ingredient is humour. My work has brought me into quite close contact with Mandela’s old friend Desmond Tutu and he too uses humour in his ongoing battle against adversity and injustice.
Another extraordinarily charismatic and strong victim of apartheid who found the strength to overcome terrible events in his life was Joseph Shabalala. Some years ago I interviewed the visionary leader of the African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Not long before his wife of 30 years, Nellie, had been murdered, gunned down as she walked to church near their home in Durban, South Africa. Joseph admitted that even for a man of peace who had long advocated offering the hand of friendship to enemies, it was a testing time. A lesser spirit would have been consumed with hatred, crippled by thoughts of revenge. But Joseph responded by doing what he has always done… he sang. He told me: “It was very, very hard. There were times when I thought I would die. I was lost. People were talking but I didn’t hear them. But I sang and that gave me power and eventually I managed to lift my spirit.” He continues to strive for world peace: “I want to show people the way to peace,” he says. “Sing to those who think you’re their enemy and they won’t attack you. Getting people to listen, that is the answer.”
These are men who have faced down an evil regime that sought to oppress them with brutality and deny their people human rights simply because of the colour of their skin. I’ve been around a long time and know only too well the sorry history behind racism, prejudice and tyranny. I have never been able to understand it though. People are people whatever their colour, culture or religion. Whether black or white, most are good, some are bad. Simple as that!