By Toyin Falola
Ubuntu: I am because you are, because we are. But beyond that, I am because I belong, and I have chosen to belong, to form a part of, participate in, and unite with others and their ideas and ideologies, despite the realistic existence of nuances and differences. This was perhaps the strongest lesson humans learned in the year 2020. Some might think it has become cliché that everything in the world goes back to the year 2020. But then, we have never seen any like it, and until we fully stretch the elastics of discourse around this year and the new realities, revelations, and awakenings that came with it, then our conversation will continue to revolve around it, whether it is boring to some unfocused people or not.
The year 2020 taught us to embrace Ubuntu more than ever before, to be humans first, unite first, because Mmatsie, Serges, and Edith exist only because the human entity exists. But before this message got aggravated in 2020, some people were already living by its principles. These people saw it as their culture, as their philosophy of life. As a matter of fact, some propounded the theology and championed it. The most remarkable of them? Reverend Desmond Mpilo Tutu! May God rest his soul.
Desmond Tutu, the South African Anglican reverend, champion of the communalistic humanist cause of Ubuntu, and hardcore lover of peace and unity, took his last breath on Sunday, December 26, 2021. He went to rest on the God-ordained day of rest. While we mourn the loss of a colossus and an invariably a core part in the sturdy armour of truthful humanism, we cannot but reminisce, in gratitude, on a life that was well-spent and impactful. I met the great man on several occasions: in Cambridge in 1988, where we had dinner as part of a group of admirers. In London, then in South Africa, with a group of people to appeal to him to speak with the President to end Xenophobia. He even gave me his phone number, but I did not call him once. When I did a tribute book in honour of Nelson Mandela, he sent a message that I left out some names.
Tutu was a South African Anglican archbishop, a true humanist, and a firm believer in communalistic humanism. He was born in Klerksdorp, South Africa, on October 7, 1931. The circumstances surrounding his birth did not boast of financial buoyancy in the least; yet, Desmond was destined to be great and influential, and he became exactly that. Between 1931 and 1960, when he became a priest of the Anglican Church, he went through a series of training and development. This training would later help him form the basis of his faith, beliefs, philosophy, and culture.
The quintessential Tutu was born and raised in South Africa when the apartheid system was thriving. Of course, a part of the country was seeing progress and advancement. However, a good part of the country, particularly the area inhabited by the black people, the true owners of the land, knew little to no progress, and the people were subjected to severe oppression. Desmond Tutu was well aware that he got his training and education swaddled in costly privilege, a privilege that came at the expense of several thousand other children. He was one of the beneficiaries of a grossly unjust system, and he never forgot that. Therefore, when that privilege provided him with a most-prized education and empowered him in 1960 when he joined the league of some of the most powerful people in South Africa — the priests — Desmond Tutu knew it was time to use what he had gained for the good of his people. And that was what he did. He fought relentlessly against the apartheid government of South Africa.
Here was a man who was brave to the core. A man who knew the circumstances surrounding how he came to possess the power he had begun to wield. A man who knew the rarity of the privilege he got, the wickedness of the system that operated in his country, and the overbearing likelihood of losing all that came into his possession through rare privilege if he pursued the much-despised path of fighting for the freedom of the South African people. But did that dissuade Tutu? Far from it. Rather, it strengthened him and pushed him to go further. It encouraged him to persevere against all odds and in the face of persecution.
Desmond Tutu made the most of what he had — his voice, faith, position, and influence. He was a man with a mission, and he had a clear understanding of his goals. The archbishop was at the forefront of pulling in national and international commentators on the deeds of the apartheid government in South Africa. Although the South African people passed through what would go down as one of their worst times in history, Tutu preached the importance of making grievances known in a peaceful and non-violent way. The people were angry and fed up, and Tutu knew that humans are naturally inclined to be violent in such a state of mind, especially when it involves a high level of depravity on their soil. But he knew yet another thing — that violence hardly ever solves the problem and that in the rare instances where violence solves the problem, it causes much bigger damage. The Bishop was not a man of violence. He demonstrated an exceptional quality by keeping the Nationalist Party in check when they became violent in their ways and dealings.
During the last decade of the last millennium, when our people finally won their battle against oppression and the apartheid government, Tutu was there to celebrate with his people. There was also the factional disagreement that threatened the embryonic freedom that the South African people had just got. And who else but the Very Reverend Demond Tutu, preacher and practitioner of the Ubuntu theology, stepped in at this critical moment? He persuaded both warring parties that each party is because the other is; therefore, we all are Africans. Thus, the war against apartheid was won through a united front of activism. People must not forget this as quickly as they got the freedom they desperately sought.
Simply put, Desmond Tutu lived for rights. He firmly believed that people should have the right to associate with, possess, or become anything that was not harmful to the generality of humans. He assiduously fought against any movement or organization that sought to oppress others and rob them of their rights. Tutu was a brilliant and convincing orator. Soon after he got ordained, he rose through the ranks to become the Bishop of Johannesburg in 1985, and a year later, he became the Archbishop of Cape Town. He removed the gender barrier on priesthood in the country while in this primal position of the South African Anglican Church. The late Bishop was a man who understood the futility in trying to please humans, so he just lived his life and embarked on endeavours based on his strong convictions. He never had a herd mentality. His support was always deep-seated and well-thought-out, making some people think he was always overly cautious in playing safe.
Archbishop Tutu had the life, although it did not come to him as easily as it came to many others. He lived and worked in different capacities at different times. More so, he died at the ripe old age of 90. What more could a human being want? The anti-apartheid hero might not have wanted more, but more things surely came to him. When we, as humans, do good in whatever position we find ourselves, and if we do it because we have chosen to be innately good and because we believe so much in the potency of doing good, then the recognition we deserve will come, even if we do not actively seek it. Such was the case with our beloved Tutu. He won several awards for his contributions to humanity and relentlessly pushed for the betterment of his people and the world at large. Among the awards he received was the prestigious Nobel Prize for Peace, which he got in 1984. The Royal Swedish Academy deemed the reverend worthy of the award for his immense contributions to the fight against the oppression of the apartheid government and especially for his struggles to ensure a peaceful and non-violent demand for the people’s rights.
Another award that the merry reverend and preacher of peace received was the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. The Presidential Medal of Freedom, considered one of the two most prestigious awards the United States of America can bestow on a civilian, was given to Tutu for his consistent contributions to the stability of world peace and other significant contributions to the fight for the peaceful co-existence of humans. In 2012, he received another prestigious award from the Mo Ibrahim Foundation for consistently speaking truth to power. This is a quality that many cannot boast of. Power corrupts, and once they have access to power, many activists soon fail to see the need to continue to champion the struggle for the rights of the oppressed. Also, there is the avoidance of truth to not lose the power bestowed on one. But not Tutu. He was a man who spent his life believing that his power and position were given him to help champion the cause of the marginalized and the oppressed, and if the oppressor were the leaders, so be it! Champion he must, and champion he was, speaking the truth, whether it went well with the powerful or not.
On Sunday, December 26, 2021, a day after Christmas, Desmond Tutu went to rest. The gravity of this demise is still a shock coursing through our veins, one that our brain has neither readily nor fully processed. We are still talking about his demise, and the largeness of the void it has left in true humanism is still unknown to us, until the moments we would need a fearless commentator and wonder what Desmond Tutu would have said. This humanist lived his life for the people. He believed in the people and believed God had plans for humanity. He believed that one of the greatest resources made available to us as humans is the ability to practice Ubuntu, and he preached this with every fiber of his being.
Rest easy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. You were an invaluable treasure and a blessing to the world. The whole world will sorely miss you.