He came to the door in his bedroom slippers, wearing a sweatshirt that read “Just Call Me Arch.” I glanced over at the seminary student who had driven us to the doorstep of the palatial residence in one of Cape Town’s fanciest neighborhoods. The astonished look on the young man’s face revealed that he had not expected his archbishop to answer his own door in his bedroom slippers.
I too was surprised. Wasn’t there a butler, or deacon, or altar boy to greet guests at imposing Bishopscourt? I suspect there had been—until Desmond Tutu moved in two years before. Humble, open, and accessible, South Africa’s first Black Anglican archbishop often broke protocol. He also broke the law by taking up residence there, violating the South African government’s Group Areas Act, which designated this neighborhood a “white area.” Tutu boldly turned its grand grounds into a place for “the people,” installing a children’s playground and opening its swimming pool to his parishioners.
I stood on his doorstep in March of 1988. Jim Wallis and I had responded to an invitation that came to us at Sojourners magazine from South African church leaders: to visit, to listen, and to carry out the story of courageous resistance continuing to unfold in that troubled country.
Three weeks before our arrival, the South African government had outlawed the activities of seventeen anti-apartheid political organizations. Five days later, Tutu and other church leaders led hundreds of people in a march on Parliament to protest the crackdown and demand an end to officially sanctioned racial segregation and violence. While marchers endured the force of water cannons that day, police detained the church leaders and then released them with a warning to cease their protest activity.
They didn’t listen. On our first day in South Africa, a sea of riot police surrounded Cape Town’s St. George’s Cathedral. More than 3,000 people packed into the sanctuary of the massive church. Just before the service began, scores of young people surged down the aisles, singing and dancing the freedom dance known as the toyi-toyi, electrifying the air with their energy.
Archbishop Tutu stepped to the pulpit and thundered his hope. Addressing the brutal enforcers of apartheid, he shouted, “You may be powerful, indeed very powerful. But you are not God. You are ordinary mortals!…You have already lost! Let us say to you nicely, ‘You have already lost.’…Come! Come and join the winning side…You are defending what is fundamentally indefensible, because it is evil…Therefore, you will bite the dust! And you will bite the dust comprehensively!”
I remembered his words as I traveled throughout South Africa in the weeks that followed. I thought of them as I watched a 4-year-old in the destitute camp known as Crossroads pull a discarded plastic bag out of a puddle of sewage and tie it into a bow around her head, while her younger brother played with a crude push toy fashioned out of a rusty tin can and a piece of wire. Masses of children were dying from starvation in the squatter camps and Black townships, where razor wire, rifles, and armored personnel carriers were part of their landscape. A third of the 30,000 people held in police detention under the country’s state of emergency were children.
I remembered Tutu’s words when soldiers surrounded us and an officer of the security police interrogated us in the township of Duncan Village. The officer threatened the young man who was our guide with detention. After we were released, the young activist told us that he had already spent ten months in police custody, where he had been kept in a cold cell, tortured, and fed only cornmeal infested with worms. Torture and assassination were routine state policy.
The winning side, indeed.
I asked almost everyone I met on that trip if they thought apartheid would end in their lifetime. Most people felt that the horrific policy, instituted in 1948, would stay entrenched for at least a few generations more. Only one person had a different response. I asked a 10-year-old in Mamelodi, a Black township outside Pretoria, if he thought that when he had children they would get to grow up without apartheid. A determined look overtook his face as he thrust his fist into the air and declared, “I will see to it.”
And see to it he did, along with hundreds of thousands of others. As a result of massive popular resistance, as well as international pressure, just three years later apartheid was officially repealed. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Tutu had been right.
Nelson Mandela, who spent his first night of freedom at Bishopscourt after 27 years in prison, was inaugurated as South Africa’s first Black president in May 1994. Committed to truth-telling about the brutal past, and holding hope for the healing of his tragically divided country, Mandela established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Declaring “I can think of no better person” to chair it, he named Tutu to that position.
I returned to South Africa in the spring of 1997 to spend six weeks observing the stunning work of that commission. Four water cannons, two vicious dogs, six armored personnel carriers, and a score of police were arrayed in front of the town hall in Ladybrand, a small village a ten-hour drive from Cape Town. This time, they weren’t there to control and intimidate the crowd, but in response to bomb threats from right-wing elements determined to shut down the hearings going on inside about apartheid-era human rights violations. Painfully, emotionally, the truth was spilling out. As people shared their anguished stories of tortures endured and massacres witnessed, of children detained and activists murdered, I understood why Tutu was often overcome with tears during the hearings. It was almost more than one could bear.
Yet, despite all that was revealed in two years of testimony about apartheid atrocities, Tutu continued to uphold the truth that all of us are children of God, worthy of forgiveness and restoration to the human community. He embraced the African belief of ubuntu, which he described as compassion, hospitality, and openness to others: knowing that “you are bound up with them in the bundle of life.” This belief is what distinguished South Africa’s truth commission from others, whose practices of retribution often fueled relentless cycles of violence, and many observers believe it kept South Africa from descending into a bloodbath.
Archbishop Tutu was right about the winning side, even when the evidence wasn’t obvious. He described himself as a “prisoner of hope,” and that gave him rare vision and determination. He was also right in his support of women priests and LGBTQ rights, in his condemnation of Israel’s treatment of Palestine as apartheid and his blistering critique of the ravages of capitalism, in his opposition to war and his unwavering embrace of nonviolence.
I still remember the bold and prophetic words he thundered from the pulpit more than thirty years ago. But I recall just as clearly what he quietly admitted in his living room while serving me a cup of tea in his bedroom slippers. Referring to the march on Parliament, he said, “I was scared. I was sitting in the cathedral before the march, and we were praying. You could have heard the butterflies in my tummy.”
Has there ever been in one human being such a beautiful blend of humility, vulnerability, courage, and faith?