The recent passing of two South African leaders of diametrically opposed backgrounds and character prompts reflection on the complexities and compromises associated with significant political and social change.
When Archbishop Desmond Tutu passed away on Boxing Day 2021 at the age of 90, the outpouring of praise that followed, not only in South Africa but around the world, might have seemed excessive or hyperbolic, but it was not. South Africa truly has lost its moral compass. A spiritual and moral leader unlike any other – one of the last icons of the anti-apartheid struggle.
What made ‘The Arch’ unique was the profound way his political views and positions were informed by his religious beliefs. He was a man of peace. Uniquely among anti-apartheid leaders, he refused to endorse the armed struggle, because he abhorred violence. His intervention in the early 1980s at a funeral in Johannesburg, to save the life of a man suspected of being a government informant, was a powerful example of his ethic.
When he was appointed Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) he took the position because he genuinely believed in reconciliation rather than vengeance. Critics have condemned the TRC for being too soft on apartheid crimes, granting amnesty to notorious killers and torturers on condition that they give testimony about their human rights violations to the Commission.
Social justice, love and joy
But Tutu did not believe only in peace and reconciliation, he also believed in social justice. In 2011, dismayed by what he saw as the failure of the African National Congress (ANC) party to deliver on its post-apartheid promises, he declared: “Our government is worse than the apartheid government … Mr Zuma, you and your government don’t represent me. You represent your own interests.” This angry outburst was triggered by the government’s refusal to grant the Dalai Lama a visa to visit South Africa, fearful of annoying China. Never afraid to speak his mind, Tutu always put truth and justice ahead of politics and partisanship.
But ultimately, what defined Tutu’s life was love and joy, in people and in life. Like the greatest South African icon of all, Nelson Mandela, it is impossible to think of Tutu without seeing his beaming face, smiling or laughing. One of his last gifts to the world was ‘The Book of Joy’, co-authored with the Dalai Lama.
The passing of F.W. de Klerk
When former South African President F.W. de Klerk passed away six weeks earlier, on 11 November 2021, the reaction was more muted, even equivocal. Like Tutu, de Klerk had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, controversially sharing his prize with Nelson Mandela, as the white and black leaders who had worked together to bring South Africa’s painful and shameful era of apartheid to an end.
It is true that de Klerk took the crucial steps of unbanning the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations, entered into negotiations with Mandela and other ANC leaders who he later released from prison, and paved the way for South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. Many white South Africans never forgave de Klerk for giving up power, but it was the right and only thing to do. The border war in Namibia and Angola ended, as did the suppression by the army of unrest in the townships. At a structural level, systematic and institutionalised discrimination against South Africa’s black majority by the white minority came to an end.
But de Klerk never acknowledged that apartheid was a crime against humanity, as resolved by the United Nations in 1966. Perhaps he was fearful of prosecution for his personal liability. Unlike Tutu’s lifelong commitment to justice and peace, de Klerk’s position shifted over time, leading critics to label his actions as pragmatic and expedient rather than born of conviction. When de Klerk became President in 1989 the writing was on the wall for white minority rule; he just happened to be there at the historical moment when the wall had to be torn down.
This perception grew in recent years, as de Klerk made several hurtful and troubling pronouncements about apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. His final address to the nation, in a video released on the day he died, apologised for the pain, hurt and indignity apartheid had caused, but again without acknowledging personal guilt or apologising for his role as a Minister in the apartheid government since 1978.
While FW de Klerk never stopped defending “separate development”, Desmond Tutu is credited with the idea of post-apartheid South Africa as a “rainbow nation”, an inclusive metaphor that encompassed all South Africans, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. His fearless moral clarity co-existed with a generosity of spirit and lifelong attention to social justice, evident even in his wish for a simple coffin. It is surely the recognition of these remarkable qualities that has prompted the outpouring of tributes to him, qualities that one hopes will inspire future leaders.
As white South Africans ourselves, some of whom grew up during apartheid, we are always complicit in some ways and we owe our own apologies to our nation and our fellow South Africans. Yet we are inspired by Desmond Tutu and what he stood for, by his commitment to humanity, by his ability to always see the best in people.
As researchers and educators working in development, we strive to use our education and skills to influence the world in positive ways, to address questions of poverty, inequality and injustice, to produce future leaders who have the courage and wisdom to make the inspired decisions that will be necessary in the future. In the words of ‘The Arch’ himself: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
This opinion piece was written by Stephen Devereux, Tessa Lewin, Hayley MacGregor, and Linda Waldman, South African Fellows at IDS.