By Matthew Hassan Kukah

Tutu demonstrated to us that when man meets moment and seizes the tide as Brutus said, times can change for an individual and a society.

Against the backdrop of the collapse of Communism in 1989, what Francis Fukuyama would later call, end of history, the prospects for a new wave of Democracy in Africa were so high that liberal African scholars spoke with optimism about what they called, the continent’s second liberation. Barely one year after the Berlin wall fell, Nelson Mandela walked free on February 11, 1990, marking a seismic shift in the politics of the continent.

The response to these developments saw a rash of responses across the continent. Francophone countries such as Mali, Niger, Togo, Benin, Congo and Zaire all embarked on what came to be known as Sovereign National Conferences. The central role played by the Catholic Church struck a chord with scholars around Theological Institutions as questions were now being asked as to what the role of the Church might be in the new liberation of our continent. Ayatollah Khomeini, Pope John Paul 11 and Cardinal Sin had all used religion to pull down the barricades of dictatorships that had held their people down.

The University of Leeds organised a Conference titled: The Church and Democracy in Africa. I presented the paper for Nigeria and Archbishop Tutu was the Chairman of the session. After my presentation and a Q&A session, we stepped out for coffee. Archbishop Tutu literally accosted me, hand on my shoulder, said: That was a very frank assessment of the situation in Nigeria. The difficulties on the continent are widespread, but the Churches must rally around to offer a clear direction. Given your country’s leadership in our struggle against apartheid and your huge resources, no one better qualifies to lead the continent than Nigeria.

A photographer stepped up and interrupted us by asking the Archbishop and I to move closer so he could take a picture. Archbishop looked sideways and said, We are black, I think this picture will be brighter outside. We all moved as he literally shepherded me outside. As we stood for the photograph, he looked at me and said: Gosh, except for my being fatter, we seem to be of the same height. I protested and insisted that I was taller than he was. The photographer nodded and I was not sure he was nodding in agreement or that we were well poised for the photograph.

As he was about to click his camera, the Archbishop beckoned to a Ugandan priest who was passing by, the late John Walligo who had served as the Secretary of the Committee that had just drafted a clean Constitution for Uganda. Come, Father, he said to him, join a photograph of two short men, make us taller by standing in the middle. Fr. Walligo was black as in real black. Again, as the photographer made to click, Archbishop saw the late Rev. John de Gruchy, his fellow white South African and shouted; Hey John, come here, bring your white skin, so you can add some colour to our photograph. Another bout of laughter followed.

To meet Archbishop Tutu is to meet one of the most uproariously, self-deprecating individuals whose jokes drip all over his cassock. The world had seen his passing coming. Indeed, it is to the great glory of God that he spent such a long and fruitful life, giving his history of battle with various ailments in the course of his life and managing prostate cancer for over twenty years.

The end came a day after Christmas, and for one who said of himself, I love being loved, one would imagine that he had negotiated with God to die at a time when the world was celebrating. We can only look back at a life of such spectacular richness and accomplishments. The reactions of the leaders of the world signpost that direction of his very eventful life. My intention here is to raise a few issues about the lessons that we leaders of the Christian Church can and must learn about faith, Christian love, politics, service and patriotism.

Much like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in which Brutus says to Cassius: There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.

From being a sickly child, born of Methodist parents who would later become Anglicans, Archbishop Tutu abandoned teaching once he tasted the injustice of the system and saw that the dice of opportunity was so heavily loaded against black students. He did not wait for the children to quote Fela by saying: Teacher, don’t teach me nonsense! Circumstances changed the course of his life as new opportunities opened up for him.

Between 1962 and 1944, he graduated from Kings College, London with a degree in Theology. Within ten years, he is made the first black Anglican Dean of Johannesburg, a very prestigious position. A year later, Soweto burst into flames. Within five years, he would become the Secretary General of the South African Council of Churches. This gave him an overarching platform to rally Anglicans and other church leaders to try and force the apartheid regime to take another look at the future of the country.

By the 80s, as the sharp teeth of apartheid dug deeper into the skin of black people, further deepening their dehumanization and oppression, a chord was torn in the veins of Tutu igniting the fire of righteous indignation. He would lead a delegation of Church leaders to face the Crocodile, PW Botha, the Prime Minister to warn of impending dangers from the internal combustion within the black community. They came out of the lion’s den at that meeting in 1980 empty handed, but the confiscation of his passport that year would signal the fact that there were very dangerous bends on the long road to freedom.

In 1984, Tutu received the Nobel Prize for Peace and by 1986, he was promoted Archbishop of Cape Town. A Nobel Price placed him on the moral pantheon of international politics and gave his voice moral authority.

From this prestigious and high pedestal, Tutu would rally other Church leaders and raise the moral tone of the urgency of ending apartheid. 1986 is a very significant year because he begins to push openly for economic boycott of South Africa. The rest is history, but his life and future took a totally different track till Mandela’s freedom which laid the foundation for the end of apartheid. There is little to dwell on regarding his work. However, I will like to fill in what I think has been missing in looking at the life of this great man. Great he was, but, history must place his greatness in proper context.

Over time, very little attention and credit has often been paid to white liberals and their massive contribution and bravery to the struggles of black people beyond Africa. It is easy to focus on people like Tutu and Mandela, but clearly, their rise was the work of a lot of men, some who preceded him and others who were their contemporaries. Let me cite a few of these great men, perhaps the most outstanding.

Rev. Trevor Huddleston was an English Bishop who arrived Cape Town in 1943. He developed the moral compass that would guide the involvement of the Churches in the struggles against apartheid. He published his damning book against apartheid titled, Naught for your Comfort, in 1956. He worked with many young people. He identified, nurtured and guided the young legendary prodigy Hugh Masekela and bought him his first trumpet at the age of 14. He was a close friend of the legend, Oliver Tambo, would later receive a prestigious award from the ANC for his work, be recognised and given credit by the late Madiba and Tutu. His connections got Tutu to Kings College, London, and the rest is woven in the great man’s history.

Next is Dennis Hurley, the Catholic Archbishop of Cape Town (1946-1992). He was ordained bishop at the age of 31(the youngest bishop in the world then), five years after his ordination as a Priest and six years after his Doctoral studies in Rome. An incredible human being, he pushed the Catholic Church beyond its frontiers of relative caution in the matters of apartheid.

Being in Cape Town meant that his teachings, his grit and courage made him a lodestar of the times. He was detained severally, attempts were made on his life and finally, the apartheid government put him on trial. He was charged with revealing the names of children who had been killed in the course of the forced removals of black people and reporting atrocities of the apartheid regime in Namibia. The apartheid government lost the trial, was ordered to pay Archbishop Hurley the sum of 25,000 rand! The trial is today a Case Study in Law Schools in South Africa! He received 10 honorary Doctorate degrees around the world. For standing up to the Crocodile, Botha, the Zulu nation nicknamed him, Eyes of the Mamba!

When I visited South Africa for the first time in 1995, I made it a point of duty to visit him. I looked him up and put a call to him. Surprisingly, he answered and was quite delighted. He then invited me over for lunch. He treated me to a most sumptuous meal in his home. At the end of lunch, he told me he had a surprise for me: the kitchen door opened and his cook, a gorgeous old Mama stepped out wearing a Super Eagles Shirt! The Archbishop said she was the local chair of the Super Eagles Supporters club. I was shocked as she reeled off all the names of the team, Jay Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Daniel Amoakachi etc!

Next were white liberal scholars who deserve commendation appreciation and tribute for their courageous assault on the foundations of apartheid and the risk to personal political or political ambition or safety in a system which they themselves were beneficiaries and had everything to lose and nothing to gain. Their major step was the famous Dakar Conference which took place on July 9-12th 1987, convened to begin exploratory talks about how to engage the white regime. In attendance were such key South African intellectuals, political activists like Thabo Mbeki, Mac Maharaj, Fredrick Van Zyl Slabbert, Dr Alex Boraine, Breyten Breytenbach, Lindiwe Mabuza and a host of others. The meeting was hosted by Abdou Diouf, the Senegalese President and Danielle Mitterrand, wife of the then French President. This array of individuals and many more laid the German floor upon which Archbishop Tutu stood so firmly to reach out to the world.

Archbishop Tutu’s position as the Archbishop of Cape Town placed him in the most strategic position to serve as a lighthouse. Again, he had great support from colleagues most of who never even get a mention today. There were people like Archbishop Stephen Naidoo, former Catholic Archbishop of Cape Town, Rev. Alan Boesak, former President of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches elected in 1982. His image would dim as he was caught up in a swirl of scandals. Dr. Frank Chikane, a former member of the Black Consciousness movement of Steve Biko who later became a very significant member of both the ANC, teaming up with Cyril Ramaphosa in civil society and the Council of Churches, Msgr. Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, detained after the Soweto uprisings, former Secretary General of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, former Member of Parliament and former Mayor of Tshwane, Rev. Beyers Naude and so many others.

One of the major turning points that became the touchstone for sharpening the moral direction of the Church’s engagement in the struggle against apartheid was the Statement issued by some black theologians which came to be known as the Kairos Document. I have gone to this length to illustrate that the celebration of the dramatic life of Archbishop Tutu is also a celebration of courage under fire, shown in the ability of white intellectual activists, writers, priests, men and women to form a broad coalition with enough moral authority. To celebrate Tutu is to celebrate the need for us to appreciate that in moments of danger, we either stand together or we hang separately. Religious, ethnic, social class, gender and ideology have to be put aside so the real leaders can save the nation. This is a great lesson for us to learn from the legacy of Tutu.

The departure of Archbishop Tutu poses a challenge to religious leaders of all faiths across our continent. African politics has been ravaged by the virus of greed of gangantuan proportions among our political, private sector and bureaucratic classes. Often, religious leaders are tempted to hide under the sacred thrones of their cathedrals with the belief that politics is dirty and that they should not risk contamination of their white linen garments. Tutu knew when to roll up the sleeves of his cassock. Often, civil society mistakenly thinks that its job is to change government. Sadly, it is often too late for them to realise that the corrupting effect of politics can smear everyone. This is why Tutu remained vigilant and warned the new generation of post-apartheid politicians to get off the gravy train of corruption! Like everywhere else, the new elite just believe that; it is our turn to eat!

Tutu demonstrated to us that when man meets moment and seizes the tide as Brutus said, times can change for an individual and a society. Often, the world remembers big men and women as if they dropped from the sky fully formed. We often ignore those who helped to shape them and even place them on the pedestal of fame.

The persistence of injustice challenges us all. Tutu illustrated to us the need for Church men to ensure that their heads are not wrapped up in the clouds of obscurantism. He was grounded in the history and culture of Africa, a fact that gave his theology some resonances and electrifying relevance for the social conditions of our continent. I thank God that my paths crossed with Archbishop Tutu and each time, he left a mark. Without knowledge of the history, culture, the dreams, the frustrations, agonies, pains and hopes of your people, theologians risk irrelevance. People will find new gods!

He chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but people like Alex Boraine, the Deputy Chairman and some other African intellectuals provided the direction for the work. I spent a week at the Bellagio Centre in Italy at the invitation of the late Alex Boraine mapping out the direction of post-apartheid politics under the aegis of what was then known as transitional justice. The TRC was a controversial turning point in the history of South Africa.

My last physical contact with Tutu was in the course of my visit to him in Cape Town in March 2007. My visit was to invite him to join us in a spiritual event to end my work in Ogoniland scheduled for May. He had graciously agreed to meet me in his office in the evening of that date. In the course of our meeting, we chatted a lot about Africa, the role of the Church, the relevant theological options for fixing our continent, the role of theologians etc, in his modest office.

He was surprised but impressed that I had encountered people like President Mbeki, Archbishop Naidoo, Beyers Naude, Alex Boraine, Frank Chikane among others and that South Africa’s story was not new to me. His eyes lit up when I told him that on my roll of honour, Steve Biko came tops. He looked at me and, with his mischievous laughter said; Yes, I can see you are some cheeky rebel Catholic priest!

As we left, he suggested we took a photograph. I reminded him of our encounter in Leeds University many years earlier but he hardly remembered. Unfortunately, there was no camera around and I had left my phone in the hotel. He nodded and said, “there will always be another time”. As we rose, I said to him; Archbishop, I actually came with a camera from Nigeria, but sadly, I arrived Johannesburg only to discover to my utter shock that my baggage had been forced open and the camera and a few items stolen. I expected sympathy but Tutu broken into an ecstatic bout of laughter as if he had won something. He then looked at me and laughed even more and said in my face: I am delighted that your camera and items were stolen at Jo’burg by our baggage loaders. Why should you Nigerians monopolise the stealing business? Our boys are learning very fast.

As we look back, we are bound to ask obvious questions as to what and how Tutu will be remembered. It is a tough question but I wish to make three short observations.

First, it seemed that Tutu, as his biographer stated, loved to be loved which is in each of us. However, looking back now, the first question is how to identify his footprints on the Church community in South Africa in particular and Africa in general. Outside South Africa, Africans simply heard about the famous man but hardly recall seeing him in lecture circuits around the continent. I feel that Tutu could have done more in rallying African theologians by taking up, even if intermittently, lectures around African universities. To that extent, he has left very little direct inspiration on the theological circuits on the continent.

Second, once Tutu entered the international orbit, propped by the western liberal media, he became almost inaccessible. I recall meeting a South African lady who told me that she met Tutu at an event and was so excited because her mother had worked with him and that he remembered her mother. She asked if he could come speak in their school and the answer was in the affirmative. In excitement, she told her School President of the possibility of bringing Tutu to the school on a speaking engagement. The President said the school will be ready to receive the great man any day he chose. She then tried to reach out to Tutu but his agents told her there were three conditions for getting him to speak: A private jet, a first class ticket and a sixty thousand dollar speaking fee! The doors shut.

Third, the Madiba has come and gone. So has Tutu but Africa’s problems persist, increasing poverty and deepening inequalities. There is an urgency of now, the need for loud voices to offer a sense of moral clarity about the need to chart a better course of life for our people. We Church leaders cannot celebrate Tutu without celebrating the need to continue to confront the structural scaffolding that has allowed the continent to continue to bleed so badly. We owe him the duty to continue to raise the bar for justice and equity because until all of us are free, none of us is really free.

  • Mathew Hassan Kukah is Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Nigeria