Desmond Tutu: HRAC's Person of the Year

Originally posted on December 26, 2013 at:

During the Carter Administration, due to the inexplicable appearance of the luck that befalls one once in a while, I was appointed to be country director of the Peace Corps in Lesotho. I say lucky, because it remains perhaps the best job I ever had. The day I landed in Africa was the day of Steve Biko's funeral. For four and a half years, a guiding notion for volunteers was to promise little but deliver lots. It was a strange eddy current in American policy. Contributions made didn't get much notice from the government, but it was strongly appreciated by the school principals we worked with, the farmers they assisted and the businesspeople they helped get started.

In that time, the then Anglican Bishop of Lesotho often requested those volunteers and helped to spark and reward their dedication. That man was Bishop of Lesotho, Desmond Tutu. Back then, long before his return to South Africa and his elevation to Archbishop, he was a man somehow both strident and peaceful, and balanced a sensible cadence and reasonable demeanor as he spoke out to the world that the ravages of the injustices of apartheid were toxic for both black and white alike in South Africa.

Lesotho is a small mountain kingdom, green in summer and brown in winter, and it is the country where I lived in the belly of the beast called apartheid. Along with Swaziland and Botswana, these three were given independence by the British government to avoid the Boer government's takeover of these properties in 1948, the upstart year of apartheid. The only Lesotho products of great value to the Boer government of South Africa was water. Clean and voluminous, it now flows by gravity from Lesotho's high mountain watershed to the people of the new South Africa. Lesotho's water to South African farms now feeds the whole of southern Africa. It is life saving and as precious as oil.

There is a metaphor here I want to stretch a bit. As the water of Lesotho flows down from there to Johannesburg, as does the water of the Nile to Cairo and as does the water of Pennsylvania does to New Orleans: life grows and prospers; food grows abundantly; people wash and clean themselves; children play in the water; and birds and animals all refresh themselves in this bounty. When Bishop Tutu returned to South Africa after his tour in Lesotho, he was as vital for the country's political evolution as water was for agriculture. His love of his homeland, of truth, or justice, of Mandela, of his religion, all these things combined to force the monster of apartheid to put away some of its evil. Others joined in this flow from Maseru. Chris Hani, the military leader of the African National Congressexecuted just after the end of apartheid, could have led the nation as surely as Mandela did. True greatness and he died young. Donald Woods, running from the secret police of South Africa flew out of Lesotho to carry the message of Steve Biko far and wide. Phyllis Naidoo and Barrister Sello were the spine of the ANC in that small place. Naidoo, along with Father John, an Episcopal priest, was blown up opening packages for the refugees. These all did their courageous part.

Tutu was part of a tsunami of change that challenged and toppled the walls of apartheid. But he was not finished then. He has been an outspoken leader in South Africa who has consistently rage against Mugabe's destruction of Zimbabwe, to advocate for Palestinians with clarity and love, to articulate his compassion for Tibetans in China. His search for truth and justice went from Cape Town to the capitals of the world. His work at reconciliation for his own nation healed many a wound and opened the future of south Africa to stretch itself out and to breathe fully the air it needed and was due to all South Africans.

Tutu has more personal peace, a quieter (though no less resolute) voice, and freedom in his homeland. He has more time to pray for justice amid a background of restful justice in South Africa and can get to know grandchildren better on undisturbed walks with his wife. Diamonds, coal, gold and platinum all come from the earth of South Africa and there is immense wealth involved. These things pale in comparison to this priest who was a wellspring of moral force and impassioned oratory who will remain a holy thorn in the side of bad governments and bad governance, and Desmond Tutu is a man we might learn from as a world on how to lead, how to follow and how to fight with peace and honor.

Apartheid may have retreated from South Africa in 1991, but the racism and general disregard for humankind can still be found today around the world, including in the United States where the rich get richer and the poor become ever more dismissed for the audacity of hunger. South Africa should be flying even higher right now, but the greatness of people like Mandela, Biko, Hani and Tutu surely didn't pass to the likes of Mbeki and Zuma. Indeed, Mbeki and Zuma have increased suffering where Tutu strove to eliminate it. When it comes to moral courage and truths being spoken, most of the ANC leadership is currently no more credible than the sign language "interpreter" present at Madiba's funeral. Tutu's voice continues to resonate, as it always has, as the voice that stands out from the static, the voice that speaks truth to power and does so on principles of justice and peace, usually for the powerless themselves. He follows no external compass, but the dictates of his conscience and spiritual path. He has continued to fight onwards to publicize the plight and agitate for positive change for causes as diverse as HIV awareness in South Africa to the imprisonment of Chelsea Manning.

It is the belief of the Human Rights Action Center, and of myself personally, that Desmond Tutu should be recognized as the human rights person of the year. His bravery and integrity in the face of others is considerable and this man should be thanked by the world for his inspiring leadership in an arena where we should all lead together. He is more dangerous to those in power than they ever suspect from his smile when in repose. He is no wolf in sheep's clothing. Far more dangerous, this priest in sheep's clothing carries the voice of justice and truth and lets it echo from flock to foe. May he have a long life, a peaceful rest, and millions of followers to emulate him.