Desmond Tutu’s Context and Ministry in South Africa
Desmond Tutu was a significant voice for equality and inclusivity in South
Africa during a time when its economy had the most inequitable wealth distribution in the world, and the nation’s politics as well as theology were explicitly racially based [Bat21]. He notably was required to balance the dual aspects of the so-called Helps and Needs Beatitudes emphasized for example in Romans 12 and Romans 13, which respectively emphasize peacemaking and governmental authority. This dual aspect within the beatitudes which theologians including Luther have wrestled speaks to what consitutes justified violence on the part of an individual in the context of war, or for example apartheid [Bru07].
The story of the Church’s varied and conflicting role in South Africa begins
before Desmond Tutu, and several heroes including his grandfather and a local minister laid the groundwork for his work, providing the inspiration he needed to begin his own ministry. In fact, the Anglican Communion was originally formed in 1867 when an English Bishop named John Colenso who had been stationed in South Africa was disciplined for his progressive theology at the first Lambeth conference [Bat21]. The Anglican Communion now has eighty million members, four million of whom are South Africans [Bat21].
Some time later, the legal structure of apartheid officially began in 1948
when Dutch Reformed Afrikaaners exerted influence in South Africa, basing
their right to the land on theology as well [Bat21]. Daniel Francois Malan
(1874–1959) was the first prime minister and is known for having said that the “history of the Afrikaner reveals a determination and definiteness of purpose which make one feel that Afrikaanerdom is not the work of man, but a creation of God. We have a divine right to be Afrikaaners” [Bat21]. Malan was not the only leader who unfortunately understood his faith, life and work in racial terms.
Desmond Tutu (1931–2021) was raised in the racially segregated and op-
pressive environment that resulted. He was however surrounded by role models, including his grandfather who was an African Ethiopian Church minister. His mother is also known for standing up for the underdog, which clearly Tutu excelled at in his own life. He also faced his own unique struggles as a child, fighting both polio and tuberculosis.
Neither the histories of the South African chapters of the Dutch Reformed
nor Anglican Churches are entirely commendable. Both Dutch and English
colonists benefited from significantly more robust education, financial welfare, public services and Churches than native South Africans who received one tenth the financing for education and lived on only 13% of the land despite comprising 80% of the population [Bat21].
One day, Tutu was surprised to find that an Anglican minister, Trevor Huddleston, raised his hat to his mother. Trevor Huddleston would turn out to be one of Tutu’s greatest inspirations. Huddleston had a warm personality towards everyone and seemed to naturally sympathize with others. He wrote about Nelson Mandela that he had “got to be a diplomat. But he’s leading a revolution. It’s a very difficult combination” [Bat21].
Tutu made his first confession to Trevor Huddleston in an Anglican hostel
where he was staying. Tutu was inspired by the consistent and devout prayers of monks and clergy. He learned to see South Africa in his own theological terms wherein South Africans could experience repentance, humility and self-denial during their oppression. It makes sense that Tutu would find understanding and inspiration in a community which emphasized poverty, chastity and obedience when he grew up with little, in a native culture that had little.
Huddleston was not able to maintain his stance without adversity. He was
a mentor to many people in Sophiatown, where in protest of the Bantu act
of 1953, St. Cyprian’s School which educated 1500 children, closed [Bat21].
The Anglican diocese of Johannesburg closed their schools in order to make
the statement that equal education for children was a fundamental issue of
The problems in Sophiatown became known as the “African renaissance”
and problems escalated when the Western Areas Removal Scheme policy gave
the government the permission to destroy Sophiatown and relocate all its inhabitants. Huddleston became chairman of the Western Areas Protest Committee, openly warned the press of their activism and appealed to public opinion. His life was threatened, his car tires were slashed, his office was ransacked. He was followed by police wherever he went. He finally left the country a few months before Nelson Mandela’s trial in 1963 [Bat21].
Some elements of Huddleston’s role modelling can be seen in how Tutu dealt
with similar issues in his ministry. For example, Tutu never used security and
traveled openly with his family despite being on numerous death lists and being justifiably concerned about the secret police. He also faced similar issues to Huddleston. The government required him to get a civil-government marriage officer’s license (arguably contrary to scripture already per Matthew 5:37 [Bru07, niv]), which disallowed him from officiating the marriage of any African man, despite his being a dean of the Anglican Cathedral in Johannesburg in 1975 (this sounds and looks like an understated form of genocide) [Bat21]! Tutu was also often not welcome to visit hospitals where Church members were ill.
Tutu also drew inspiration from other historical Christians, saying “think of the death of other Christians, e.g., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Archbishop Luwum in Amin’s Uganda, Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador and now Pakamile Mabija. They are witnesses to Christ and to the power of the resurrection over death.” It was from these people’s stories that he drew a similar fearlessness.
Tutu called for reconciliation from years of oppression, drawing attention to
current and past issues, like the relocations of the inhabitants of Sophiatown in the 1950s and Cape Town in the 1960s, saying that the apartheid government was a “pigmentocracy.” Apartheid uprooted over 2 million people before 1980 [Bat21]. 73% of South Africans were excluded from meaningful participation in government [Bat21]. The Anglican Church, the Methodist Church and other organizations including the African National Congress (ANC) — led by Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela — called for change.
Some in the ANC called for war, and the party’s advocacy for voting rights
transformed into a cultivation of the underground which led to the Soweto uprising. The uprising was violent and was met with violence.
Tutu urged uprisers to reflect on the nature of violence, saying that it was
abhorrent in all its forms. He defended a suspected informer with his body,
allowing him to escape an angry mob. He advocated within the ANC for a
just war criteria, citing St. Augustine and arguing that the underground be
careful not to fight non-military targets. All the while, he still spoke out against apartheid. He argued against war in Africa, and for international sanctions from the U.S. which he held in high regard for obvious reasons. He faced danger and opposition on every side.
To complicate matters further, Tutu was a part of the Anglican Church, not
a native South African Church. He was answerable therefore to his elders in
the Church, and often visited the Church in England (as well as the Russian
Orthodox Church and others) to discuss the situation in South Africa. Tutu
advocated for peace consistently, balancing his words so as not to undermine
all colonial presence in South Africa. Tutu understood that it was the role of
the Churches with the means to do so to help those South Africans in need. In
this sense, Tutu demonstrated an excellent grasp of the applicability of both the Help Beatitudes and the Need Beatitudes [Bru07], which applied to those with influence in South Africa and those without, respectively. The Bible required the Church to attend to the oppressed, as much as the Bible promised liberation to the oppressed. At the same time, apartheid (the Dutch Reformed Church’s supposed attempt to fulfill this need) was totally unacceptable. He knew that in the face of such injustice, “Christians’ responses to injustice, while gentle and peace-seeking in form… [had] to be firm and even severe in substance” [Bru07].
Tutu said that the apartheid government’s 12-point strategy to combat com-
munism was another thin disguise for racist policy and warned that Western
countries needed to be careful about interacting with the African economy be-
cause all of its internal politics had to be taken into account, and the optics of
investments from the inside and outside as well.
After the uprising, the government stopped banning local efforts for the
peaceful cultivation of native South African communities, seeing it as a welcome change. Trade unions were legalized and a more inclusive constitution was enacted in the early 1980s [Bat21]. Mandela was released from prison by Frederik Wilhelm de Klerk, who Tutu said must have had a Damascus road experience.
Tutu’s establishment as a spiritual leader coincided with the climax of the
apartheid government. He became archbishop in 1986, titular head of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa [Bat21]. At the age of 53, Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. He founded the Equal Opportunity Foundation in 1987 with a grant from Coca-Cola.
Tutu’s advocacy work did not end with apartheid. He was “as much a thorn
in the side of the dominant. . . South African government as he [was] in. . .
apartheid” [Bat21]. Tutu demonstrated a deep understanding and dedication to Biblical principles, without racial preference. Tutu advocated for reconciliation in a fashion like that echoed in the words of Chrysostom who said not to wait until that time “when thou hast suffered any of the greater wrongs, then [to] be reconciled” [Bru07], and Matthew who wrote that you should ”settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison” [niv]. Tutu wasted no time. Battle writes that “when chapel finished, he would come out and say, ‘We will march tomorrow’” [Bat21].
Desmond Tutu was recognized globally as a spiritual leader and elder before
his death on December 26th, 2021. In such a messy theo-political cultural
history it can be hard to point out the peacemakers who would inherit the
Earth, but Desmond Tutu was undoubtedly among their ranks despite great
[Bat21] Michael Battle. Desmond Tutu: A spiritual biography of South Africa’s
confessor. Westminster John Knox Press, 2021.
[Bru07] Frederick Dale Bruner. Matthew: A commentary. W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2007.
[niv] The Bible: The New International Version. Blue Letter Bible.