OPINION – Isn’t the challenge of a hero’s long life not only the possibility of completing their mission, but also that they may live long enough to see its consequences? Sometimes a hero’s short life may exempt them from seeing the impact of their actions, whereas those who live long enough to even retire, can witness the terrifying truth that it did not work.
Is not Bishop Desmond Tutu one such hero who lived long enough to see his great political project end in disappointment? There is no doubt that Tutu’s was definitively a life of a priest with a political impact. A rare breed of the clergy whose political impact started with support of the Black Consciousness students’ strikes in late 1960s, the Soweto Uprising, up to his role in the TRC and beyond. However, his journey of “a priest with political impact” tells a tale of a flawed hero, but a hero nonetheless.
Of all his life’s works, the TRC, an experimentation with restorative justice is the greatest. Of course, a mention of the TRC immediately recalls the painful moment in which he asked mama Winnie Mandela to apologise for the activities of the Nelson Mandela Football Club. Mama Winnie Mandela would acknowledge that something went terribly wrong. Later on, she expressed how she could never forgive Tutu for asking her to apologise as if she had been responsible for apartheid. Mama was right, the disappointment with the TRC is rooted in how it ended up being largely a trial of liberation guerrillas and activists and less about perpetrators of “apartheid”.
However, at the time, with Mama Winnie, Tutu wittingly or unwittingly strengthened the internal factional interests of the ANC that sought to give Zuma an advantage in the contest over the position of Deputy President. As a woman leader, Mama Winnie was marginalised mainly to silence a radical critique of the ANC leadership which had chosen to embraced a neoliberal path. Most importantly, because she was a popular and powerful woman, the most hated combination for a patriarchally dominated ANC.
Tutu’s appointment into the TRC was itself a sign of priestly naivety shared by the ANC’s itself, the misguided hope that racism can be resolved by appealing to the racists’ humanity. In the end, the project of confess, show remorse, forgiveness and reconciliation was mobilised to overshadow apartheid’s structural and systematic destruction of blacks as a people. In retrospect, blacks should have never cared for racial healing, forgiveness and remorse that did not prioritise the socio-economic and structural change envisioned in the Freedom Charter. Being a priest, the idea of justice based on forgiveness and reconciliation seemed immediately attractive and yet, it became Tutu’s greatest flaw.
Tutu’s political impact found its apex during his role in bringing the church, in its diversity to the picket-lines against apartheid. He formed part of a very important generation of priests who expanded the ecumenical movement to find articulation with both liberation and black theology.
Through scripture, this generation developed a theologically grounded rejection of the regime leading to an explosion of politically motivated sermons on many Sunday services. This theological exposition was critical since apartheid, through the Dutch Reformed Church, justified its policies in God. Most importantly, they interrupted the apolitical Christian slumber of keeping silent in the face of tyranny; for the first time, the church as an institution opposed apartheid en masse.
These priests, although advocates of non-violence, defended the liberation movement’s right to arms; openly supporting guerrillas and activists arrested by the system; facilitated many underground routes and provided safe houses for them. As a result, they too became targets of assassinations, torture, imprisonment and banishment.
It is Tutu’s open condemnation of the 2003 War on Iraq, led in the main by the US and UK governments that we must also have in mind. His call that both Bush and Blair must be prosecuted for war crimes. His unequivocal characterisation of Israel as worse than apartheid, calling for its international isolation through boycotts and sanctions. Positions that made him unpopular with Western regimes.
His open support for the gay community and his rejection of the Anglican Church’s demonisation of homosexuality. Furthermore, his vocal condemnation of ANC corruption already during the arms deal days, and its denial to give a visa to the Tibetan leader, Dalai Lama. This made him, yet again, unpopular both with Christians and with the ruling ANC.
Those who do not consider Tutu’s political impact as a whole settle for easy, perhaps even convenient critiques, partly motivated by selective radicalism. They pretend to oppose Tutu due to the TRC’s failures, yet celebrate Mandela, campaign each day for Zuma’s political image, romanticise Mbeki’s years, love Ramaphosa and vote the ANC despite the fact of betraying the victims of the Marikana massacre. This is because these radicals of convenience don’t draw the full consequences of a TRC critique.
Let us return to TRC’s ideological basis. Restorative justice is grounded on the notion that those who committed atrocious act must confess to victims, seek forgiveness, and be reconciled to society. This is whilst victims are compensated. This path was chosen over a retributive justice system which prioritises punishment and incarceration.
The basis of this choice was due to an undeniable assessment that ours was a post-conflict country in which a form of violence that took place was different to that a War where soldiers confronted other soldiers. The 1994 democratic break was preceded by a decade long violence of state security forces against unarmed black people, but also by general orgies of black-on-black violence. We are talking protracted episodes of violence characterised by mob murder and mob torture occurring within and by black communities against other blacks. When taken into consideration, a more genuine critique of the TRC attains a significant nuance.
Wasn’t restorative justice not the correct approach in dealing with activities of the Self-Defence Units, including those that turned into gangsterism, within black communities? Shouldn’t IFP hostel dwellers who retaliated with brutality against ANC youths, including innocent communities like in Boipatong, be provided with paths to confession, forgiveness and reconciliation? Shouldn’t those Sharpeville MK controlled SDUs that went on a bitter war with ANCYL controlled SDUs be helped to reconcile? These were not only neighbours within communities, but also comrades belonging in single political formation.
If, as mam Winnie noted at the TRC, something terrible did go wrong, then is restorative
justice not a good mechanism for black communities to confront the impact of this something that went wrong? These were Tutu’s questions and it may not be easy to throw the first stone at him. Who would dare say peace and reconciliation within black communities was not a revolutionary attempt? Is not the task of revolutionaries to unite the oppressed? If so, it means the TRC story cannot be easily rejected as waste. To this day, any revolutionary act will need to show fidelity to this potential.
But let us take the critique even further. Isn’t it true that even if all white soldiers, generals, bureaucrats would have confessed, the TRC would still have failed? This is because the reconciliation of perpetrators into a society that has not changed the conditions for their creation as criminals will not only fail, but perpetuate criminality. Meaning the reconciliation of a self-confessed racists into a society that still privileges and protects white supremacy is futile.
Herein lies the flaw of Tutu’s heroism; the TRC logic, fundamentally based on his false, but noble hope in the internal goodness of racists. He did not take the scriptures far enough. He had a responsibility to think about Pharoah’s stony heart. Or the impossibility of a rich man entering God’s kingdom, because of the privilege of riches. Regardless of its sincerity, he cannot be absolved from it.
This is despite the fact that Tutu never presided over government as did his other reconciliation partners like Mandela, Mbeki, Zuma, up to Ramaphosa. He never sat in the economic policy halls that betrayed the economic agenda which should have provided a basis for the success of a racial reconciliation project.
Even considering his later calls for a wealth tax; pronouncements that all whites, regardless of whether they supported or rejected apartheid, nonetheless benefited from it. Including his acceptance that the TRC failed dismally when it came to reparations for victims, as well as its inability to expose many truths about apartheid atrocities. Despite all of this, Tutu was only at the doorstep of overcoming his reconciliation priestly naivety. But he did not enter.
He never realised that a reconciliation project based on an appeal to a racist’s individual humanity was a mistake. Amongst the oppressed it may have represented a great step forward. But apartheid could only ever be approached structurally, not through an appeal to the individual consciences of racists. In a racist society, being a racist already means you drink daily out of ever flawing waters of structurally aided mis-conscience.
In the end, TRC’s noble attempt at peace amongst blacks serviced not so much a united black confrontation of the structural overhaul of apartheid. But black docility in the face of continued post-apartheid white privilege.
However, isn’t this precisely what founds the false hope that white dominated economic institutions in the market can transform and provide economic freedom for blacks? Think here of GEAR, ASGISA and more recently, the NDP. Wasn’t even the 2019 victory of the Spring Bok mobilised for the fake unity project of let us “forget our differences”, let us suspend worries of white domination in the team and simply get drunk in its euphoria?
This is what “reconciliation project” is truly about and convenient radicals will not draw its full consequences for the whole of South Africa’s socio-economic reality. Meaning, the contours of our critique lie in how the TRC logic permeates all of society as an ideological mask for the continuation of white privilege. An ideological tranquiliser keeping our people in sleep and far from confronting the post-apartheid false freedom. You simply cannot critique/reject Tutu, whilst on the other hand accept Mandela, Mbeki, Zuma, Ramaphosa and the ANC that preside(s) over the continuation of white privilege in post-apartheid South Africa.
We must be prepared to accept the full limits of the TRC logic, take critique to its logical conclusion. When we do, we will pray for the fall of the ANC where the betrayal of black liberation is perpetuated. Including for the destruction of its post-apartheid white dominated socio-economic structure.
In the end, Tutu’s heroism lies in taking his Christianity where many, even outside religious beliefs dared not to reach. A brave priest who was willing to confront the status quo from apartheid to the war on Iraq; from apartheid Israel to Anglican Church’s homophobia; from ANC’s corruption up to saving the environment. It did not matter that all this risked the powerful despising
, or his own church might excommunicate him.
Rare is a hero who steps outside their immediate talent and leaps into colossal heights of activism. His political priesthood could have stopped when apartheid ended, but to end, the powerful always sat on the edge other chairs when Tutu speaks. For he spoke truth to power to his dying days.
A hero is by nature flawed. The true test is that their heroism rises above their flaws. In this regard, Tutu rose way above historic expectations. May his soul rest in perfect peace, a peace he struggled to bestow on so wretched a human image.
Written by Mbuyiseni Ndlozi
Mbuyiseni Ndlozi is an EFF Party MP. The text is adapted from IOL News