9. Desmond Tutu: Gravitas and Hilaritas

by Graham Kings

Date added: 12/02/2022

Desmond Tutu: Gravitas and Hilaritas

by Graham Kings

article for The Round Table: the Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs

Nelson Mandela’s description is poignant: ‘Sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humour, Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless.’

Tutu is known for his impish wit, but serious courage was also central to his character.

As an infant, Tutu had polio and had to write with his left hand, because his right was so weak. As a teenager, he had tuberculosis and was 20 months in a sanatorium, where Fr Trevor Huddleston, an Anglo-Catholic English missionary, visited him. When he was 12, in Sophiatown, Huddleston had doffed his hat to Tutu’s mother and moved off the pavement to let them pass. This had a lasting impact on the young boy.

After training as a teacher, during which time he met Nomalizo Leah Shenxane whom he married, he resigned because of the Bantu Education Act, which enforced racial segregation in schools.

He then studied for the priesthood at St Peter’s Theological College, Rossettenville, Johannesburg, where Huddleston first worked and Oliver Tambo had studied in the next door school. Rowan Williams has described this training as ‘intense, monastic and radical’ (New Statesman, 21 July 2021).

Ordained deacon in 1960, and priest in 1961, he was sent for further studies to King’s College, London and served as a part-time curate at Golders Green, North London, and then at Bletchingley, Surrey.

Thereafter he trained priests at a seminary in Alice, Eastern Cape, and significantly was chaplain to the next door Fort Hare University. This was the cradle of the black consciousness movement, where Mandela and his future colleagues studied.

He taught theology at the University of Lesotho and in 1972 moved to London, to serve as regional secretary for Africa of the theological education fund of the World Council of Churches; an early education in ecumenism. In 1976, he was installed as the first black Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, then consecrated bishop to serve as Bishop of Lesotho in 1976. In 1978 he returned to an ecumenical role till 1985, this time as General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches.

In 1977, he preached at Steve Biko’s funeral: ‘I bid you to pray for the rulers of this land, for the police, especially the security police and those in the prison service, that they may realise they are human too.’

When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, he said: ‘One day no one was listening. The next I was an oracle.’ In 1985 he became Bishop of Johannesburg and in 1986 the first black Archbishop of Cape Town, a post he held till 1996.

When Mandela was released from prison, after 27 years, on 11 February 1990, he spent his first night of freedom with his wife, Winnie, at the Archbishop’s residence, Bishopscourt.

In 1993, Tutu preached at the funeral of Chris Hani, liberation hero and South African Communist Party leader to 100,000 mourners. Tutu led them in a chant: ‘We are the rainbow people of God.’

From 1995 to 1998 he chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, criticising sternly FW de Klerk for the inadequacy of his testimony and persuading Winnie Mandela to admit her gang of youths had committed brutal crimes. Nick Stadlen QC, in a Guardian interview (26 Sept 2007) stated: ‘Both the ANC and the National party took court action to seek to prevent publication of findings which were critical of them.’

The following are two examples, from Hope and Suffering (Collins, 1984), of his nuanced, biblical preaching. Concerning the horrific, forced removals of black people from ancestral lands, Tutu applied the story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21) which was stolen by King Ahab. Encouraging black South Africans, who were exiles in their own land and surrounded by the myth of apartheid, he drew on Genesis chapter one, where the Priestly writer reinterpreted a Babylonian myth to hearten the exiles in Babylon. He called it, ‘a tremendous tour de force, to uphold the hope and faith of a people who felt quite down and out.’ 

In the Anglican Communion, and the Commonwealth, this diminutive Archbishop was a towering figure of gravitas and hilaritas, and an eloquent advocate for gay and lesbian rights. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, was present at his enthronement and when the South African government later threatened Tutu, he let it be known, ‘Touch Tutu and you touch the whole Anglican Communion’.

Rowan Williams, in his Being Disciples(SPCK, 2016) profoundly and playfully drew on an insight of Thomas Aquinas, who had pondered the bliss of God: ‘Desmond Tutu loves being Desmond Tutu. As God loves being God.’


Dr Graham Kings is Hon Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Ely and Research Associate at the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide, which he founded in 1996. 

Graham Kings

Graham Kings

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A bronze

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