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‘Tutu would rather die than turn a blind eye to injustice’: Former aide

29 December 2021 - 13:36
The late Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu's former aide says the cleric's outspokenness put his life at risk but he was unfazed. File photo.
The late Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu's former aide says the cleric's outspokenness put his life at risk but he was unfazed. File photo.
Image: Esa Alexander

The late Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s courage and determination to speak his mind set him apart from other church leaders.

That is the view of one of his long-time aides, John Allen.

Allen, who is an adviser to Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, was Tutu’s communication secretary.  

“I got to know Archbishop Tutu when I was a religion correspondent at The Star in 1976. He had returned to SA as dean in Johannesburg in 1975. He immediately stood head and shoulders above everybody around him by his sheer courage and determination to speak his mind,” said Allen.

“His views weren’t different from those of other church leaders, but he had an  extraordinary capacity with words and extraordinary capacity to communicate, and also an extraordinary defiance.

John Allen, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s former aide, marvelled about the late cleric's bravery.
John Allen, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s former aide, marvelled about the late cleric's bravery.
Image: Philani Nombembe

“While other church leaders were also working for liberation and believed in liberation, they didn’t get under the skin of white South Africans the way he did.”

Tutu’s reaction to the Matola, Mozambique, raid by the apartheid defence force, which left a number of ANC freedom fighters dead, is vivid in Allen’s memory.

“At Regina Mundi Church in Soweto he was basically saying, ‘You white SA have your boys fighting on the Angolan border. These are our boys on the border. You regard our boys as terrorists. We see them as freedom fighters’,” said Allen.

“In that way he was bold and assertive and he did it irrespective of the consequences. This was around 1978. He had just come back to Johannesburg. We went off for him to be  Bishop of Lesotho for a bit and he then came back as general secretary of the council of churches.”

Allen recalled asking Tutu about his outspokenness against the oppressive regime which could cost him his life.  

“In about 1978/79 I was at a council of churches conference talking to him about the consequences of his outspokenness. He said: ‘I have to accept I may lose my life, I might be killed. But I am doing God’s work. I have to do it.’

“He used to quote a section from the book of Jeremiah which says: ‘The word of God burns within my heart and I have to get it out. I have to speak’.

“He would say to ill-treat people, as happened under apartheid, was not just unjust, not just unfair, it was blasphemous because you are treating a child of God as if they were less of a child of God.”

“We went through a stormy period in the 1990s during the transition. Suddenly the role of the church had changed. The politicians were back, the politicians were out of jail. So they took a rather political role.

“Church leaders — Frank Chikane, Archbishop Tutu, Bishop Stanley Magoba from the Methodist Church — became mediators and would rush to sites of massacres to be with the people. There was one famous meeting between Prince [Mangosuthu] Buthelezi and Madiba [Nelson Mandela] which was facilitated by Archbishop Tutu and Bishop Magoba.

“When liberation came, they began to say we are in solidarity with the new government but it’s a critical solidarity. The debate in the church was: is there too much solidarity and less criticism? How do we get that balance right? Because we align with the new government’s objectives but we must reserve our right to be independent.

“What you see in Archbishop Tutu and Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, his successor, and Archbishop Makgoba is an assertion of independence from political movements.”

Allen said though Tutu supported the new government, he refused to turn a blind eye to injustice and corruption.

“During the 1980s the Dutch Reformed Church used to say: ‘We talk to the government about injustice but we believe we are more effective behind the scenes than upfront.’ As the ANC came to power, Archbishop Tutu said: ‘I’m not going to fall into that trap. I must speak publicly. I am not going to have private discussions with my friends in government.’

“That led to a clash between him and Madiba.

“The cabinet decided to continue the apartheid arms trade industry. The cabinet and parliament also voted to give themselves big salary increases. He came out publicly against that. He had a pretty sharp clash with Madiba over that. Madiba lashed out at him and he lashed back at Madiba.

“He retained his independence when he was not happy with the government’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation report. Of course during the Jacob Zuma administration, he became very unhappy. He was unhappy with the Aids issue during the Thabo Mbeki era.”

Allen said Tutu’s children had to share him with the world.

“I used to feel sorry for his children because they had to share him with the world. He didn’t recognise the distinction between his vocation as a priest and his family. It was all part of the same thing.

“The family often didn’t get a lot of private family time because he was so welcoming and would invite everybody in.”



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