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Looking back on Desmond Tutu's remarkable career

7 October 10 13:59 GMT

By Allan Little
BBC News


One of South Africa's most prominent anti-apartheid campaigners, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is to retire from public life. The Nobel peace prize winner has been a powerful political and religious voice across the world, speaking out for equality and humanity.

When Desmond Tutu was made Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986, he broke the law just by moving into the official residence.

Bishop's Court was located in a part of the city which, under the apartheid regime, was designated for whites only.

The government - led by the veteran Afrikaner nationalist PW Botha - did not try to stop him living there, for the symbolic heft of this charismatic African cleric was already clear.

But it did tell him that he would have to apply for membership of a special racial category that had been created mostly for foreign diplomats and businessmen.

He would have to be declared an "honorary white". This offer he declined.

'Unknown' nationality

In 1984, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace.

But he had no passport to travel.

He had been refused South African citizenship because he declined to say which of the so-called bantustans he regarded as his homeland.

The state finally allowed him to travel on a refugee document.

Beside the word "nationality", a government official had typed the single word, "unknown".

He stopped in London on his way to Sweden.

He spoke at St Paul's Cathedral.

I was there.

From the pulpit he said this: "I was on retreat not long ago in a forest in Northern California.

"I got up before dawn to pray and go for a walk in the wood.

"I met an old woman - the widow of a forestry worker.

"She recognised me, and told me that from now on she would include me in her daily prayers."

And then he paused, spread his arms as though to embrace the entire congregation - the entire world.

"I am being prayed for by a woodcutter's widow in Northern California," he bellowed.

"What chance does PW Botha stand?"

This was his vision. That he could muster the goodness of the world - an international hunger for justice - and send it into battle against apartheid, the system of whites-only rule and racial oppression that his people were living under.

'Extraordinary power'

We think of Desmond Tutu as a highly political priest.

When you meet him it does not seem so.

The first time I interviewed him was in Cape Town in 1995.

"Before you turn on the camera," he said, sitting down opposite me, "let us say a prayer together."

I have interviewed him perhaps a dozen times now. He does this every time.

The life he wants to lead - does lead - is not political at all but, above all, spiritual.

It is the source of his extraordinary power to move and inspire.

That power gets him into enormous trouble - at times he has risked his own life to stand up for what he believes is right.

In the 1980s, he was in one of the townships when an angry crowd turned on a man believed to be a police informer.

The man was about to be killed by the method known then as "necklacing" - a tyre full of petrol placed around the neck and then ignited.

Bishop Tutu waded into the maddened throng to save the man, and the crowd calmed and a life was saved.

There was, at that time, perhaps no-one else who could have done it and survived.

And his only defence was his personal moral authority.

Fighting discrimination

The last time I saw him was in Scotland, a little over a year ago.

He was addressing the governing body of the Church of Scotland, General Assembly in Edinburgh.

Bishop Tutu was the guest speaker.

The great controversy of that General Assembly was homosexuality in the ministry of the church.

One minister in a parish in Aberdeen had come out as gay. He was living with his male partner and, despite being supported by the overwhelming bulk of his own parishioners, the evangelicals in the Church wanted him out.

Desmond Tutu waded in to this fight too.

He approached the microphone high above the assembly hall.

Two thousand assembled Christians, clergy and laity, gazed up at him, rather awestruck.

"You know," he said, "I am not as young as I look".

And it brought the house down. Friendly, self-deprecating and disarming.

"We are all," he said, again and again, "created in the image of God."

"All. All."

And he repeated the word over and over.

"All. All.

"I have been fighting discrimination all my life. We are all created in the image of God.

"Black and white and brown. Male and female.

"All, all. African and European and Asian and American.

"All, all. Lesbian and gay and so-called straight.

"All."

It was a mesmerising performance by a man who has never been afraid to make enemies.

He has retained, all his life, a solid faith in the essential goodness of human nature.

And he has mobilised it to devastating effect.

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