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Voices: My memories of Desmond Tutu, the man we called ‘the Arch’

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  • Desmond Tutu
    Desmond Tutu
    South African churchman, politician, archbishop, Nobel Prize winner (1931–2021)

Desmond Tutu gave me a huge hug as we met at Cape Town airport, our documentary-making television cameras rolling. “I can smile now, because I sprung you from prison,” he declared.

I have many reasons to feel gratitude to “the Arch”, as we called him, but his demand, in a polite but firm letter, that hardline Hamas gunmen release me after 26 days of captivity in Gaza was probably the biggest. The letter was powerfully worded.

“A highly regarded professional journalist of integrity, Mr Martin played a very positive role for decades in opposing racial discrimination in his home country, South Africa, and was also arrested in South Africa by the apartheid regime,” he wrote. “Of course, as a hard-hitting independent reporter, he will sometimes cover stories that any regime will not like, but that is what we should expect and even applaud.”

Not content with securing my freedom, the Arch also followed up by threatening to come personally to Gaza to secure the release of the man I had been filming – a Palestinian rocketman turned peace seeker on trial for his life. He was eventually set free, too, and Tutu soon offered him a job with his peace institute in Cape Town – which the South African government banned him from taking up.

I am not really sure whether the Arch’s interventions directly led to my own or the Palestinian man’s freedom – but the Arch was. He told me: “It happened, so it must have been God using me in his plan.”

The Arch’s religious beliefs were often much wider and more all-encompassing than most Anglican churchmen. He even wrote a book titled God is Not a Christian. He was truly a man of faith, willing to risk his own safety for the sake of his view of human justice. On one occasion, despite a baying mob, Tutu plunged in to rescue a man about to be necklaced – set on fire with a burning tyre – after being suspected of spying for the apartheid regime. Tutu dragged him away, removed the “necklace”, and put him in his own car before they drove off to safety.

My own daughter and Tutu’s granddaughter became infant friends when my wife and I ventured into Soweto – to report and to teach, respectively – during the apartheid era. Nearly three decades later, in 2014, my daughter Laura invited the Arch and his wife to her wedding. They couldn’t come but, unrequested, Tutu wrote a marvellous letter to her and her fiancé, giving sage advice on how to create a great, long-lasting marriage. It included the importance of saying thank you and please. “We are fragile creatures, needing to be encouraged,” he wrote. He advised them to learn “that very difficult phrase: ‘I’m sorry, forgive’.” He concluded: “Hey, God bless you now and always. Arch.”

I had admired Tutu ever since the darkest days of the apartheid era when, aware of his churchman’s relative protection from arrest, the turbulent priest took up the cudgels for the oppressed majority. In 1990, Tutu was the only black person living in a posh neighbourhood reserved for whites – despite residential segregation, the government had not prevented the first black archbishop living in the officially recognised Archbishopric.

It was the day after Nelson Mandela’s release, and I had been invited by the Arch to join a small band of reporters. Tutu was making his lush back lawn available for Mandela’s first encounter with the press in three decades. Afterwards, he told me: “I’m retiring from politics. Mandela can do that.”

Yet even when, four years later, Mandela led a democratic non-racial government, the Arch’s political role did not end. Tutu quickly became enraged by corruption, and delivered the witty but stinging rebuke: “The gravy train only stops to allow other people to climb on board.”

Desmond Tutu following a service to present him with an honorary fellowship of the Guild of Church Musicians in Westminster Cathedral, London, in 2007 (AFP via Getty Images)
Desmond Tutu following a service to present him with an honorary fellowship of the Guild of Church Musicians in Westminster Cathedral, London, in 2007 (AFP via Getty Images)

In return, the South Africa regime, now under Jacob Zuma, tried to prevent him giving the oration at the state-organised tribute to his brother-in-arms, Nelson Mandela, on 10 December 2013 in Soweto’s giant football stadium. In the end the Arch did speak, but was given a minor role. He became increasingly disgusted at the country’s leadership, and even took part in a street protest in opposition to President Jacob Zuma’s shenanigans.

The Arch would start any meeting by holding my hands and intoning a softly spoken, open-hearted prayer. He would often recall his fondness for simple meditation and simplicity in life – as he had enjoyed when a young trainee Anglican priest in Golders Green, London.

His children, though, all went different ways. One daughter followed in his footsteps as a priest, while my friend Trevor was a light-hearted bon vivant, who on numerous occasions enjoyed zig-zagging rounds of golf and knocking back a few drinks with me.

During the late-apartheid era we would usually play golf on a grass-deprived course in Soweto, but we also managed to wangle our way onto a very classy whites-only golf club. I had been sent an invitation to play at Royal Johannesburg, as I was covering the South African Open for a British newspaper. I mischievously asked if I could “bring a friend”. Trevor and I sneaked onto the course unobtrusively and packed up laughing. We danced, waving our golf clubs on the second fairway (which was obscured from the clubhouse by trees) and, exulting in our breach of the racial divide, we chanted: “A black man on a white course? What next?”

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We had no real inkling then that apartheid was in its final couple of years – and that Trevor’s father was one of the chief architects of its unlamented downfall.

In his latter years, the Arch enjoyed his role as a member of the Elders, a group of former statesmen and stateswomen who tried to intervene in crises thanks to their combined moral authority. But he had some blind spots. One glaring one was to think the South African model applied everywhere. He would condemn Israel’s actions against Palestinians, yet, unable or unwilling to see more than one side, these criticisms became unnecessarily vitriolic.

He seemed blind to the massive repression of human rights, and the hundreds of thousands of deaths, in conflicts around the Middle East, especially in Syria. When, as we sat in his Cape Town harbour office in 2016, I urged him to also condemn Arab states’ “apartheid” and racism and mass murder, in an instant he became furious and escorted me forthwith, in silence, to the door. I reminded myself that he was rightly loved as a man of passion, not as a person of cool logic. We never spoke on that subject again.

The Arch was entitled to his own prejudices. After all, this passionate priest had done more than enough to eradicate prejudice and bigotry for the people he truly loved: in his own phrase, the Rainbow Nation. His light will continue to shine.

Paul Martin is editor-in-chief of MediaZones.net and Correspondent.World

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