Two pathways for the dismantling of Apartheid: the leadership of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu

Address by Piyushi Kotecha, Chief Executive Officer, Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation at the Launch of the Nelson Mandela Exhibition in Cape Town on 10 December 2021.

When Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu stood on the balcony of the City Hall on 11 February 1990, they had achieved their combined goal of the liberation of South Africa. They both wanted a free, united, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist nation in which the will of the people would be the arbiter of the future. However, their routes to this historic moment had differed because of circumstance, temperament, and primary motivation.

Mandela chose the route of political struggle, embracing an African nationalist ideology, joining a liberation movement and plunging into political activism, leading, motivating, organizing and galvanizing that movement into increasing militancy and ultimately negotiations.

By contrast, the road that Tutu took chose him. He never set out to be a political leader and never became one. He was a church leader who, in the absence of political leaders in prison or exile, and the banning of liberation movements, was chosen at a crucial time to head the SACC, which, prior to the founding of the UDF, was virtually the only remaining platform of any significance opposing the apartheid regime. Although his voice against apartheid had already been heard, especially in his 1976 letter to Prime Minister Vorster, it was the SACC role that catapulted him into prominence.

From then on, he was destined to be in the public square representing, first, Christians and soon becoming the voice of all the voiceless masses in the land, whatever their faith. He played this role with forceful impact and it was for this period of witness that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Later, as Archbishop of Cape Town, while the UDF took over the main task, he remained the leading church voice of defiance until political prisoners were set free.

The primary driver for the power of Tutu’s leadership is that it was exercised in obedience to God. One that secular people found difficult to acknowledge because they couldn’t relate to this core religious force in him.  Tutu made it clear that he was not captive to any ideology or party but was propelled by what he called the ‘Divine Imperative’ which Christians ‘must obey whatever the cost.’ Because of this, he said, “there is nothing the government can do to me that will stop me from being involved in what I believe God called me to do. I do not do it because I like doing it. I do it because I am under, what I believe to be the influence of God’s hand.” He declared that it was from the Bible that he got his mandate and that he didn’t need any other because ‘it was the most radical and subversive book there was.’ So, he followed in the footsteps of the Biblical prophets who were called by God to side with the poor and marginalized, denounce oppressive rulers and set the oppressed free. They cared nothing for their safety and bowed to no authority other than God’s.

Therefore, he took the struggle to the government by challenging them where they were most sensitive: they claimed to be Christian, and he called their bluff. He had no hesitation in denouncing apartheid, not just as a bad political nostrum, but as a theological evil – an offence against God and “as evil and as vicious as Nazism ….”.  When the government took on the SACC, he warned that, “they must know that they are taking on the church of God and those who have done so in the past, the Neros, the Hitlers, the Amins of this world have ended up as … the flotsam and jetsam of history.” His lack of fear and certainty of the ultimate downfall of apartheid meant that he could confront the regime with a boldness that deeply disconcerted them. This was not political courage, but spiritual freedom that propelled him.

Tutu never had any political ambitions, which freed him from the constraints of political expediency to call things exactly as he saw them. The power of his pronouncements was that they simply told the unvarnished and unspun truth. No-one could accuse him of saying and doing the things he did because of personal ambition. When asked about political ambitions he used to laugh and say that if he ever needed proof that Churchmen didn’t belong in the struggle for political power, “all I have to do is think of two names: Makarios and Muzarewa.” As soon as the people’s recognized political leaders were freed, he stepped back from the role he had been drawn into by the physical vacuum of their absence.

‘’ I have constantly announced that I saw myself as an interim leader in the sense that I have to step into a kind of vacuum, because our political leaders were either in jail or in exile, now one will not be as prominent in political things. You will no longer come and say ‘What do you think about this’, you are going to go to Nelson Mandela or other people like that but don’t think it means that I am saying the church has no role in the political arena. It has a role to speak the word of God about a sociopolitical dispensation.”

An obvious difference is that Tutu, although not a pacifist, stopped short of embracing the ‘armed struggle,’ calling instead for every other possible strategy – especially sanctions and disinvestment – to be employed on order, he said, in order not to have to utilize that ‘last resort.’

When change finally came, Tutu and Mandela both gave themselves to the work of healing the nation, Mandela in the political field and as Chairperson of the TRC, Tutu’s prophetic voice reverted to the role of pastor, to preside over a country-wide “confessional.” Their different roles were both equally crucial and complimented each other.

However, he never abdicated his role as the moral conscience of the nation, and while the new ANC government set about trying to build a human rights-based democracy, they were surprised and irritated that Tutu was willing to hold their feet to the fire, too. The most obvious example was when Tutu’s TRC made it clear that Mandela’s ANC would have to face the truth about some of their own human rights abuses too. In those early days, Tutu’s dealings with Mandela were not all smooth sailing. They clashed on more than one occasion, but always carefully and with the kind of mutual regard that preserved the core of their relationship. Mandela needed Tutu and Tutu was clear that Mandela was the leader who could unite the country. The difference between them was that Mandela was trying to make a government work, a task that required compromise. Tutu, on the other hand, kept on measuring government policies and actions by the moral and ethical imperatives of his faith.

Both went on to international “sainthood”, showered with honours, and admired and consulted by world leaders. Both were openly aware of their own foibles and frailties, enabling them to handle adulation with a light touch. After retirement, in 2007, Mandela, with Tutu’s help, assembled “The Elders,” a group of senior statespersons, calling themselves ‘independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights.” An appropriate coming together of two giants of the spirit whose main work was done!

Today, on International Human Rights Day, we dare not suffer from national amnesia nor sentimentalism. Let’s honour these two legacies, the heroism of our peoples’ struggles and prepare ourselves for the long ethical journey required to realise the unfulfilled promise of 1994.