Books

'TuTu: Authorized' Is a High-Gloss Keepsake

Scott Kraft
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Desmond Tutu was the moral voice of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. He held no official position with any party and still doesn’t.


Tutu: Authorized

Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 368 pages
Author: Allister Sparks , Mpho Tutu
Price: $29.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2011-10
Amazon

The history of the long fight to end apartheid in South Africa had many heroes but none quite like a 5-foot-4 Anglican archbishop with an impish sense of humor who became a giant irritant to the white authorities.

Desmond Tutu’s gift for the art of protest politics was on sweet display one pivotal weekend in 1989, when Frederick W. de Klerk was about to be installed as president and the nation pulsed with clashes between protesters and police.

Tutu announced that he would lead a protest march — a clear violation of the law. The minister of police telephoned and pleaded with Tutu to first seek court permission. Tutu declined. “I really don’t mind if your policemen line the route,” he added, “so long as they put their hands in their pockets and whistle as we go by.”

The police wisely stayed home and 30,000 people, white and black, marched peacefully through the streets of Cape Town. Addressing the crowd, Tutu invited De Klerk to “see what this country is going to become. This country is a rainbow country.”

Those and other moments in the life of the anti-apartheid crusader and 1984 Nobel Peace Prize recipient get heroic treatment in Tutu: Authorized an unapologetic fan book co-written by veteran South African journalist Allister Sparks and Tutu’s daughter, Mpho. The book’s release has been timed to Tutu’s 80th birthday and follows his recent decision to retire from public life.

Tutu was the moral voice of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. He held no official position with any party and still doesn’t. With flowing religious robes as his only shield, he bluntly challenged successive white governments to end apartheid, skillfully led the nation’s post-apartheid efforts at reconciliation and later stood up to black leaders when they edged away from the democratic principles they purported to espouse.

Although a reader finds much of that story in these pages, the telling feels surprisingly dry and dutiful, more like a textbook than a dramatic narrative. The back and forth of the political currents of his era are rendered flawlessly, but we hunger to be taken behind the scenes of this man’s remarkable life.

Tutu: Authorized is a high-gloss keepsake filled with historical photographs, pages of Tutu’s quotable quotes and dozens of vignette-style remembrances from the global luminaries.

Bono pens the introduction and reappears later with another tribute. Other praise-singers include Jackson Browne, Carlos Santana, Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama. (Barack Obama, of course, is here as well.)

The eminence of those celebrities — several of whom make multiple appearances — seems to have placed them beyond the reach of an editing pencil. Many begin with a version of: “The first time I met him was in ...”

Even though a rich narrative of Tutu’s life remains to be written, readers seeking to know Tutu better won’t be wholly disappointed.

We are in solid hands with Sparks, a skilled South African journalist. He is at his best in describing what was perhaps Tutu’s most important role: his time as head of the country’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Sparks dramatically recounts the moment when Nelson Mandela’s estranged wife Winnie was questioned about the brutal activities of her private vigilante gang.

“I speak to you as someone who loves you very deeply,” Tutu told Mrs. Mandela. “... I beg you ... I beg you ... I beg you, please. ... You don’t know how your greatness would be enhanced if you were to say, ‘I’m sorry ... things went wrong. Forgive me.’

“There was a breathless silence as the two looked directly at each other,” Sparks writes. “Then, in a soft monotone (Mandela) responded: “I am saying it is true. Things went horribly wrong ... For that, I am truly sorry.”

Tutu grew up in black townships near Johannesburg. His father was a teacher and, later, principal of a black elementary school. As a teenager, Tutu was accepted into an Anglican-run boys’ hostel in Sophiatown — and was hugely influenced by Trevor Huddleston, the famous white priest and anti-apartheid activist from England.

Tutu tried teaching at first but didn’t like it, so he joined the priesthood, rising quickly in the Anglican church. Sent to Britain to study during the '60s, he learned life skills that would later serve him well.

“Tutu developed the confidence ... to disagree openly and vigorously with whites: to shake off the self-doubt, the crippling sense of inferiority, the Uncle Tomism that life as a second-class citizen can induce in an oppressed community,” the authors write.

Tutu returned to South Africa, rising in the church hierarchy. He preached reconciliation and nonviolence but angered the government by coming out forcefully in favor of economic sanctions — rejecting, in particular, the Reagan administration’s policy of “constructive engagement.” Tutu called the policy “immoral, evil and totally un-Christian.” While he was harshest in his criticism of the apartheid leaders, he also took black parties to task for advocating violence and embracing communism.

His growing international standing, and the Nobel Peace Prize, made it difficult for the government to silence him. Although he was arrested on occasion, he was never held very long.

When Nelson Mandela was freed from prison, Tutu’s role changed. He helped mother the four-year process toward the nation’s first free, multiracial elections.

These days, Tutu remains an independent, beloved force in his home country.

He has been a sharp critic of the current president, Jacob Zuma, and the black elite who have left the poor and downtrodden behind.

He told a gathering in South Africa this year that he sometimes wants to be circumspect and silent. “But it has not been possible,” he said, adding that his remarks are inspired “by my love for God and a passionate love for my country and my compatriots.”

Scott Kraft is a former Johannesburg bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

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