The Big Read: Leah Tutu true grit behind the glory

25 October 2013 - 02:26 By Jonathan Jansen
GOLDEN: The day before their 50th wedding anniversary, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu with his wife Leah, relax in the garden at their home in Soweto
GOLDEN: The day before their 50th wedding anniversary, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu with his wife Leah, relax in the garden at their home in Soweto

It was the most unromantic proposal ever made to a young lady: "My parents want me to get married." But a while later she wrote to her suitor with a dose of wit and a lifelong commitment: "I will help you to be obedient to your parents."

Thus started one of South Africa's most enduring (58 years and counting) and admired marriages, that of Desmond Mpilo Tutu and Nomalizo Leah Shenxane.

Leah Tutu is a strikingly beautiful woman at age 80, and even when she stands with her supporting cane, there is just a hint of defiance born no doubt out of those difficult years of struggle.

Most people do not know that she was, at first, the family activist, the co-founder of the South African Domestic Workers Association, which brought relief to many women working in that once unregulated space in which black maids were often left to the mercy of the white madams. The legacy of Sadwa is celebrated to this day.

Suddenly one of the old women delivering a tribute breaks into a struggle song of domestic workers: "My mother was a kitchen girl, my father was a garden boy, that's why I'm a unionist." The catchy tune gets most people up, singing and dancing; others sit awkwardly as the song is repeated.

A well-known writer, Sindiwe Magona, shares a beautiful poem in honour of Leah, and then breaks suddenly into two Afrikaans lines: "As dit goed gaan met die familie, sal dit goed gaan met die nasie." (If the family does well, the nation will do well.) A reference no doubt to the solid family and the symbol of wholeness the Tutus have come to present.

There is no bitterness here. The recollection of memories from the past, through song and poem, is a stirring reminder of how far we have come as a result of the moral courage of Leah and her husband.

"What was it like during those difficult days?" I ask the Arch at a campus event celebrating the life of Leah on the occasion of her birthday earlier this month.

One could so easily be misled by the unfettered joy of Mama Leah and Arch, for they still carry those burdens lightly as they serve those of us who do not.

He recalls, for example, that the children would pick up the telephone and listen to death threats made against their non-violent father; that experience alone would break any parent. But they persisted, and the Arch is clear that the backbone of the family and the strength behind his public courage was his wife.

Sometimes a simple memory stays with you throughout your life. For me it is a picture broadcast on television news in which a massive army vehicle passes along the dusty road running past the Tutu home.

This systematic harassment of the wife of the bishop, as he was then, was intended to hurt the man himself. Leah was gardening, and as the huge truck passed by, she stood up quickly and looked for a little stone to throw in the direction of the might of the apartheid army. We now know, of course, that the little stone won.

"How do you manage the pressure of living with such a famous wife?" I ask the Arch in a lighter moment during the stage interview.

"She has both a rose and a peace choir named after her; she co-founded a mighty organisation."

And, of course, she raised a family of highly educated children.

"How do you handle this pressure?"

Then the trademark laugh from the pit of the stomach. The playful irony is not lost on the world-famous Nobel Laureate.

"Let me just sit at the back here," Leah instructs me as she points to an empty chair. She says this twice.

Of course I could not leave our guest of honour in the last row at the back of the hall of university students, staff and ordinary people who had come to honour her. But that is the humility of this great woman; even when it is about her, it is about others.

In a country where leaders are so often charged with corruption, where family love relationships dissolve in such spectacular public fashion, and where one-time activists fight shamelessly to acquire for themselves the spoils of war, I think the reason we love the Tutus is that they represent so powerfully the kind of country we wish we had.