Desmond Tutu (1931-2021)

Image: Taryn Elliott
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By JULIA CONLEY*

The meaning of activist and religious for South Africa and the world

Leaving a legacy of struggle in defense of oppressed peoples in South Africa and around the world, Archbishop Desmond Tutu passed away on Sunday, December 26, at the age of 90, in the city of Cape Town – allegedly due to cancer .

Advocates for human rights, health equity, economic justice and non-violence paid tribute to Tutu, who helped lead the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission it later formed.

The independent group The Elders (The Elders), composed of global leaders committed to justice and good governance, stated that their “commitment to peace, love, and the fundamental equality of all human beings will endure, inspiring future generations.”

“The Elders would not be what they are today without your passion, your commitment and your keen moral compass,” said Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and current President of the Elders. “He inspired me to be a 'prisoner of hope', in his inimitable phrase. [Tutu] was respected around the world for his dedication to justice, equality and freedom. Today, we mourn his death but affirm our determination to keep his beliefs alive.”

Tutu was the first president of the Elders, from 2007 to 2013, after gaining international recognition for his work leading black South Africans in the fight against the apartheid system, which he condemned as "terrible" while insisting on non-violent methods of protest.

It proclaimed that apartheid was a threat to the dignity and humanity of both black and white South Africans, and called on international leaders to impose sanctions on the country's government in protest against the apartheid system, a demand that twice led to the revocation of his passport by South African authorities.

“If you remain neutral in situations of injustice, you choose the side of the oppressor”, says Tutu's famous phrase during the struggle against apartheid. “If an elephant steps on a mouse's tail and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

In 1984, Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize for his actions. After the fall of the apartheid system in 1994, he chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose aim was to provide a record of violence and injustices perpetrated by the government under the system. The archbishop sought to establish “restorative justice”, offering compensation to survivors and amnesty to perpetrators who cooperated with the inquiry.

Tutu was a harsh critic of the economic and racial inequalities that persisted in South Africa after the formal end of the apartheid system, accusing, in 2004, President Thabo Mbekide of serving a small number of elites while “many of our people live in an exhausting, humiliating and dehumanizing condition of poverty.”

“Can you explain how a black person wakes up today in a squalid ghetto, almost 10 years after his liberation?” Said Tutu in 2003. “Then he goes to work in the city, which is still mostly white, in palatial mansions. And, at the end of the day, it returns to misery?”

Beyond his homeland, Tutu was an outspoken critic of militarism and imperialism in the global north, demanding that former US President George W. Bush and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Tutu was also a supporter of Palestinian rights and a critic of Israel's violent policies that affected millions of people in Gaza and the West Bank, comparing their treatment to the apartheid system.

In 2014, as the Israel Defense Forces carried out attacks that killed more than 2.100 Palestinians – mostly civilians – Tutu wrote an exclusive article for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, calling for a global boycott of Israel.

He called on Israelis to “actively disassociate themselves, along with their professions, from the planning and construction of infrastructure related to the perpetuation of injustices, including the separation barrier, security terminals and checkpoints, and settlements built in occupied Palestinian territories.”

“Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute a sense of 'normality' to Israeli society, are doing a disservice to the people of Israel and Palestine,” wrote Tutu. “They are contributing to the perpetuation of a deeply unjust status quo. Those collaborating with Israel's temporary isolation are saying that Israelis and Palestinians are equally deserving of dignity and peace."

That same year, Tutu called for a global divestment in the fossil fuel industry along the lines of the international sanctions he had supported against South Africa, which helped end apartheid.

“We live in a world dominated by greed,” wrote Tutu to the The Guardian. “We allowed the interests of capital to override the interests of humans and the Earth. It's clear that [companies] are simply not going to give up; they make too much money from it.”

“Conscientious people need to sever their ties with companies that finance the injustice of climate change,” continued Tutu. “We can, for example, boycott events, sports teams, and media programs funded by fossil fuel companies… We can increasingly encourage our universities, municipalities, and cultural institutions to sever their ties with the fossil fuel industry.”

Tutu was also recognized for his global fight to defend LGBTQ+ rights, his demands for an end to AIDS denialism in South Africa and, more recently, his efforts to combat misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines.

“Bishop Tutu meant so much to so many people,” said the Reverend Dr. William Barber II, co-chairman of the Poor People's Campaign in the United States. “We thank God for his life. May we, who believe in freedom and justice, be his legacy forever.”

* Julia Conley is a journalist.

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published on the portal Common dreams.

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