With the passing of Desmond Tutu, who died in Cape Town at age 90 on December 26, even the last of the three Nobel Peace prize winners linked to the end of apartheid in the 1990s has gone. In 2013, the death of Nelson Mandela hit the global headlines for weeks and his life and times were celebrated with a stadium event to which an unprecedented number of world leaders participated. A few weeks before Tutu’s departure, Frederik W. De Klerk, the last white president of South Africa who received the award along with Mandela in 1993, had passed away almost unnoticed, except for the minimal (and almost embarrassed) coverage by the anglosphere’s media. Unlike Mandela and Tutu, De Klerk paid a high price for the fading of the memory of the historical role played by the ‘reformists’ in the peaceful ‘pact’ transitions at the end of the Cold War, when dialogue between opposing sides and radically alternative values seemed the only way out of the nightmare of an armed clash. Nor had his image benefited from the shift of the fight against racism from a political-diplomatic tool (apartheid was declared a ‘crime against humanity’ by the UN General Assembly with the decisive vote of pro-Soviet communist countries and authoritarian regimes) to a universal and non-negotiable principle, one of the few truly indisputed and indisputable in the post-bipolar world.
Of the three, Tutu had been the first to earn his Nobel Prize in 1984, for openly supporting the protest movement that was taking to the streets against the apartheid regime in South Africa’s cities, offering the African National Congress in exile an inside line and drawing the attention of Western public opinion to the failure of the white government’s reforms. Shortly thereafter, in 1986, Tutu became the first black Anglican archbishop of Cape Town and in the ten years that followed he used his pulpit at the St. George's Cathedral as a base to support the struggle against apartheid, traveling the world and intervening in the political debate to loyally support Mandela and the ANC leadership. For this reason, in 1996, he was named by Mandela as the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, entrusted with the task of revealing and healing the wounds left by three decades of repression and violence. The decision to grant amnesty to those who would publicly admit responsibility and to consider the acts of violence by both sides, criticised by some, was consistent with Mandela's far-sighted political calculus, but also expressed the archbishop's faith in the power of tolerance and forgiveness as tools for restoring the fabric of South Africa’s common society.
The relationship between Tutu and Mandela is an important key to reading the whole story of the struggle against apartheid and South Africa’s transition. Unlike Mandela, whose adult life was dedicated entirely to politics and political activism, Tutu (13 years his junior) was a clergyman trained within the international circuit created in the postwar period to promote dialogue, peace and the culture of civil and human rights. Within the Anglican Communion and in the capitals of ecumenism in Britain and the United States, he was seen as one of the African leaders destined, in the condescending logic of late colonialism, to take over from Europeans and North Americans after having fully absorbed the values of Western humanist tradition. His encounter with the anti-apartheid resistance front took place between the 1970s and the 1980s, as the crisis of Soviet Russia was depriving the ANC of its historical ally and the civil rights movement in the West was gaining momentum and mobilizing against the ‘Machiavellian’ alliance with the anti-communist white regime.
While Mandela had been one of the promoters of the ANC's turn to armed struggle in the early 1960s and would not renounce the use of violence until the end of the negotiations, Tutu always remained faithful to the principles of dialogue, non-violence and the rule of law. Harsh in his stances against the government and all those who did not actively support the struggle against segregation, Tutu took full advantage of the wide spaces of freedom that the South African regime, anxious not to sever its ties with Western democracies, continues to grant to the churches, the media and the institutions of civil society. However, he always kept the channels of dialogue open with his adversaries and contributed decisively to making the option of negotiation prevail over that of revolution – which, given the white government’s military superiority, would have probably led South Africa, and perhaps not only it, to a bloodbath.
In this sense, Tutu offered Mandela decisive help on his way to power, pushing him and the ANC along the path of dialogue and non-violence at a time when Western governments and public opinion were willing to get rid of the apartheid regime, but not to accept another bloody revolution, similar to many others that had swept through the African continent with inauspicious results. In the last years of his life, Tutu never gave up his moral integrity, insensitive to the contradictions and calculations of politics. As an archibishop emeritus, he did not hesitate to return to the public life’s field to fight for universal principles considered by some to be in conflict with African culture (such as the rights of LGBT communities) and to support human rights and democratic principles in the world (whether it was Iraq, Zimbabwe or the Dalai Lama’s Tibet), even going so far as to spend his moral prestige criticizing the ANC leaders who succeeded Mandela, when their choices conflicted with the values for which he had fought all his life.