A great humanist

Published January 8, 2022

IT was raining in June 2008. Cape Town’s skyline, after heavy rains earlier in the day, had brightened up with a rare sight of multiple rainbows. I was part of a group from Staff College, Lahore, on a study tour to South Africa.

Before we embarked on the tour, Pakistan high commission at Pretoria had been requested to explore the possibility for the touring party to pay a visit to either Nelson Mandela or Archbishop Desmond Tutu — or both, if we were so lucky. We were told that Mandela was in the United Kingdom for a week in connection with events to celebrate his 90th birthday. Naturally, we were not to give up on a meeting with the archbishop.

The meeting luckily materialised in Desmond Tutu’s spartan apartment in Cape Town. Escorted by his white secretary, he entered the visitors’ room. Humble and gracious to the core, he made us all sit before he took a chair for himself.

The discussion mostly remained focussed on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) created in 1995 that he had headed after the apartheid legislations had been annulled and the first multiracial elections were held in 1994. He had also held the most senior position in the hierarchy of the Anglican church in South Africa during the brutal racist reign.

He was known to have famously said: “We had the land and they had the Bible. Then they said, ‘Let’s pray’, and we closed our eyes. When we opened them again, they had the land and we had the Bible.”

After return to black majority rule and even years before when he had seen it coming, he had begun working to apply balm to the wounds that the blacks had suffered at the hands of the whites. It was difficult for him and Mandela to bear with the treatment the blacks had been meted out under apartheid rule.

But, like Mandela, he was essentially a humanist. He was the most suitable choice to head the TRC and lead the country to a larger reconciliation and coexistence.

Tutu was a sensitive man. He would stand by the downtrodden. If he condemned the Soviets for their occupation of Afghanistan, he also criticised America’s excessive intrusion in Nicaragua and Israel’s bombing of Beirut.

With his moral compass intact, he withdrew his support for the African National Congress (ANC) government in 2013 after it had identified itself with corruption. The world at large stands poorer with the passing of one of the great humanists of modern times.

Khalid Mahmood

Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2022



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