Our beloved global elder, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, became an ancestor on December 26, passing peacefully amongst his family the day after Christmas at the age of 90. A Nobel Laureate, moral giant and practitioner of radical love, Tutu was integral to the liberation of South Africa from the racist clutches of the minority white apartheid rule. And his moral authority has been foundational to international solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.
Baba Desmond Tutu is one of the last of that generation of South African warriors who bequeathed to their people a new nation without a “color bar,” passbooks and other trinkets of apartheid’s systematic racism.
When Nelson Mandela became the first elected Black president of South Africa in 1994, he selected Desmond Tutu to lead the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a novel national program that attempted to heal the deep trauma that had been inflicted on nonwhite South Africans. He traveled from one town to the next, listening day in and day out to gut-wrenching testimonies from survivors as well as perpetrators. At times, Tutu himself crumbled into tears under the weight of stories of such inhumanity. He hoped the TRC would be the requisite catharsis before forgiveness, but instead it was criticized ferociously from all sides.
Survivors relived their pain without restorative justice, while perpetrators were pardoned; and the real masterminds of apartheid were never confronted. Nonetheless, the TRC was the first of its kind in the world, a way — imperfect though it was — to address the grave injustices without further bloodshed.
Ultimately, that was his legacy. He refused to look away from or deny oppression, and he never shied away from confronting oppressors. But he sought to arrive at justice without further sacrifice from the oppressed.
Defended Palestine, deplored war
The world is remembering him, but across mainstream western media outlets, there are convenient omissions. Few outlets have reported his uncompromising stance with Palestine. When asked to compare Israeli apartheid with that of South Africa, he responded without hesitation that Israeli occupation was “far worse” than anything Black South Africans faced under apartheid. He was attacked mercilessly for his solidarity with Palestine. Zionists labeled him an “anti-Semite,” and today they are, along with other white supremacists, celebrating his passing.
Desmond Tutu spoke vehemently against the invasion of Iraq, pleading with governments and the masses to oppose the war. Addressing a rally of hundreds of thousands of people in New York in 2003, he beseeched George Bush to turn away from more death and destruction. He advocated passionately for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal and for the closing of Guantanamo Bay, a torture chamber for those accused by the U.S. of terrorism.
On every issue, Desmond Tutu endeavored to be on the side of the oppressed, the weak and wretched, no matter the risk or cost to himself. He shined light into the dark corners of power; and now the world is a little dimmer without the magnificent brightness of his being.
The writer is an award-winning Palestinian novelist.