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Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s death should remind us to stand up to oppressors, even when they’re on our side

I never took much notice of Desmond Tutu until one day in July 1984 when we both received degrees from Aberdeen University. Mine was a middling one in history and politics, the legacy of four years of lacklustre studies. His was an honorary doctorate of divinity, one of dozens of such honours he received in recognition of his role as a charismatic campaigner against the inhumanity of apartheid in his blighted country.

Three months later, as I set out in journalism, he was awarded something far more impressive: the Nobel Peace Prize for his stance in “the struggle in which black and white South Africans unite to bring their country out of conflict and crisis”.

Like any self-respecting student I had boycotted goods from South Africa, despised “rebel” cricketers taking tainted cash to play in the apartheid state and would rather have walked over burning coals then opened a bank account with Barclays. And I pulled Aberdeen’s student branch of the Tories out of the national body after seeing activists in black shirts strut around their annual conference wearing “Hang Nelson Mandela” badges. I was summoned to meet the party chairman in response before I quit in frustration at their tolerance of racism. Yet the more I looked at Tutu, the more I heard a voice that spoke far beyond his own tormented society.

Unlike some recipients of the Nobel accolade, Tutu deserved that prize awarded to him as a symbol of all South Africans whose “concern for human dignity, fraternity and democracy incite the admiration of the world”. Yet he was not just a brave man who became the face of the anti-apartheid movement at a time when many other activists were behind bars, nor even merely the conscience of his nation as some fellow campaigners entering into government curdled in power. For this diminutive archbishop with a wicked sense of humour evolved into something even greater: a global voice on human rights who served as constant reminder that repression is wrong wherever it is found.

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Apartheid was contemptible – as anyone without a malfunctioning moral compass knew in their soul. This exuberant man of the cloth, armed only with compassion, eloquence and wit, cut through the arguments of all the powerful figures and vested interests attempting to appease an evil regime at a time when Mandela remained locked up in prison. He became an inspiration not just for South Africans – trapped under state-sanctioned racism that corroded their country, then later struggling to create a new society – but for many more people around the planet confronting repression, fighting for freedom or grappling against racism in their own nations.

The death of this irrepressible priest is marked by a torrent of righteous tributes. Yet the core message that “The Arch” espoused – “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” – remains crucial. Look around the world: autocracy is resurgent, corruption festering, democracies faltering, inequality surging and intolerance rising. Even some of the strongest Western societies seem frighteningly complacent over their most precious freedoms, riven with angry fissures and ruled by toxic political pygmies who praise Tutu as they corrode the causes to which he devoted his nine decades on earth.

Key to Tutu’s greatness was not just his humanity, nor even his forgiveness, but his refusal to ignore human rights abuse regardless of where it emerged. He risked his life to save a man suspected of being a police informer from being burned to death, then rebuked the seething township mob. After the end of apartheid, he headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that condemned the African National Congress alongside white politicians, then spoke out against a dismal black elite that failed to tackle poverty. It was scary to see how the new ministers so quickly donned the old clothes of their predecessors, he said as hopes of profound change were extinguished amid a tide of complacency and corruption.

He was not scared to criticise his own Anglican church and African nations such as Uganda for bigotry, equating the struggle for gender and LGBT equality to the fight for racial justice. “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven,” he said eight years ago. “I would much rather go to the other place”, He condemned Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as “a cartoon figure of an archetypical African dictator”, attacked Israel for brutal treatment of Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza, spoke up for the Dalai Lama against China, campaigned on climate change, castigated fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for her silence on ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, supported Syrian refugees and even berated “two-nation” Britain for jailing disproportionate numbers of black citizens.

I am an atheist, but I can only admire how this man’s deep faith drove him to become such a powerful voice for equality, peace and reconciliation. His central message remains important at a time when many activists, politicians and religious leaders are partisan and selective in the human rights issues they support. Chunks of the left ignore repression by China or Cuba; others pander to a brutal Russian dictator, such is their loathing of the United States. Many conservatives ignore the plight of Palestinians, refugee fatalities or the fight against inequality. The rights of gay and transgender people are a battleground for self-serving culture warriors. Now we hear absurd arguments that efforts to protect public health in a pandemic are a form of tyranny from people previously unconcerned on such issues.

Tutu leavened his message with laughter but this wise man’s intent was serious. “When we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate,” he once said. “When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves. All of our humanity is dependent upon recognising the humanity in others.”

Could there be a better moral code on our troubled planet as we prepare for the dawn of another year?



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