*In 1995, I was commissioned by Style Magazine to write a profile of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Then, as now, he was a busy man, besieged by visitors from abroad and requests from the media. I was told he wouldn’t be able to fit me into his schedule for months to come. Then his Press Secretary, John Allen, said, “Why don’t you just come to Cape Town for the day, and hang out with the Arch?” So that’s what I did. And here is the story.
It’s teatime in the library at Bishopscourt. Beyond the wide-open patio doors, the garden is alive with colour and birdsong, and the summit of the mountain is untroubled by cloud.
It is a beautiful new South African day. The Archbishop is in his place, and all is well with the world.
He sips his drink – Milo, with ice, in a tall glass – and he rests it on the tea-trolley, his every gesture captured on video and film by the cameras that obscure the faces of the Presbyterian peacemaking delegation from America.
He points to photographs of his predecessors and tells them a story about the bishop, the archbishop and the Very Big Dog.
His ebony crucifix bounces on his chest as he mimes the collapsing of the archbishop’s deckchair, the leaping of the hound on the cassock, the frantic maid rushing in to call for help.
As he reaches the punchline – “And the bishop said: ‘I’m glad'” – his voice descends to a sonorous timbre, and the room swells with raucous laughter and the sound of Presbyterians steadying their teacups.
The archbishop lets it ride for a moment, and then he points to the portrait of another of his forerunners.
This time, the story is of courage and fortitude in the face of impending death. The room falls silent.
He plays the mood like a violinist, sweeping up the scale to a lilting crescendo of hope and resurrection, ending on his three favourite words: “Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.”
At that moment, everyone in the room is in love with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, or at least in awe of his infinite capacity to solicit adoration.
He claps his hands and ushers the delegation into the dining-room, where they will talk about peace and truth and justice.
I have been following in the footsteps of Desmond Tutu since early this morning.
At the unholy hour of 5.30am, I drove up the winding, leafy lanes of Bishopscourt, dodging squirrels and joggers and old men walking their dogs.
But all I could see, in a mind’s-eye montage of fleeting images from television, newspapers and authorised biographies, was the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the icon of the anti-Apartheid struggle, the purpleclad prophet of the Rainbow Nation: Tutu.
Tutu forcing his way through an angry mob to save a black policeman from the necklace.
Tutu clambering into the back of a Casspir, a police dog snapping at his heels. Tutu lifting his cassock and toyi-toyiing on April 27, 1994.
Tutu spreading goodwill in a township street, wearing a fisherman’s cap and a custom-made T-shirt: “Just Call Me Arch”.
Tutu, alone in the moonlight in a faraway English parish, dancing like a dervish with the unbridled joy of Christmas. But it’s a little early for that.
John Allen, the archbishop’s media secretary, who used to pound the religious affairs beat on The Star, leads the way down a carpeted corridor lined with awards and citations and momentoes of photo opportunities.
Apart from the grinding, clunking rhythm of heavy machinery, it’s as quiet as a cathedral in here.
Allen peers around a doorway, nods, and makes a suggestion. “Say, ‘Hi.’ ”
It is the archbishop. He raises a hand and says: “Hi.”
He is striding very briskly in his tracksuit and Reeboks, brow lightly varnished with sweat, going nowhere fast on a Trojan treadmill exercise machine. It is the price he has to pay for being Tutu.
Not too long ago, he felt free to walk with God on the pavement outside the security gate. Now it’s 30 minutes on the treadmill every morning. Still, he remains blissfully oblivious to distraction.
His eyes are fixed on the infinite, his lips move in silent conversation. He’s not talking to himself.
The day will begin with a Eucharist service at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. There will be a staff meeting to discuss pastoral matters.
On the way back to Bishopscourt, he will record a short Christmas message at Tape Aids for the Blind.
He has three media interviews lined up for the day: two television, one print. He will entertain the Presbyterians and see a couple of parishioners.
In the evening, he will answer questions from the nation on Microphone-In with Nigel Murphy.
Things are not working out as planned. When he raised Nelson Mandela’s hand on the balcony at the Grand Parade, like a referee announcing the champ, the idea was that Tutu, leader by default during the power vacuum of the Struggle, would disappear quietly into the purple band of the South African spectrum. He would become a pastor.
Trouble is, the transition was a miracle. Everyone knows that. No-one knows why.
So the archbishop has had a lot of explaining to do, on an increasing number of public platforms at home and abroad.
But he is a man of the cloth. He bears his burden with grace. “I am loved,” he once explained, “therefore I am.”
Loaded with papers and passages from Scripture, the archbishop slides into the back seat of the Camry as John Allen starts the engine.
The journey to town, in peak-hour traffic, will take about 25 minutes. Perhaps there will be time for small talk. Perhaps not.
We take a left onto the M3, easing into the citybound flow. “I take my life in my hands continually,” says the archbishop, quoting from his daily text.
“Yet I do not forget Your law. The wicked have laid a snare for me, yet I have not strayed from Your precepts. Your commands are the joy of my heart.”
The archbishop slips off a patent-leather shoe and extends a red-socked foot towards the gear-lever, almost touching Allen’s pin-striped shirt.
“I loathe those who are double-minded, and Your law do I love. You are my shelter and my shield. All the ungodly of the earth You count as dross. My flesh shrinks from fear of You.”
I catch sight of the archbishop in the side-view mirror. A small, grey-haired man in a purple cassock, cloaked in solemn meditation. It is a jolt.
The secular world slips by the window: minibuses, trucks, police cars, billboards advertising timeshare on Devil’s Peak.
“And now, you priests, this decree is for you. Unless you listen to Me, unless you pay heed to the honouring of My name, says the Lord of Hosts, I shall lay a curse on you, I shall cut off your arms, fling offal in your faces. I shall banish you from My presence.”
It is 7.45am. It’s impossible to find parking in this town. Even the reserved spot in the courtyard of St George’s Cathedral is taken.
Tutu hops wordlessly out of the car and disappears into the mouth of the church. He swaps his purple cassock for green. Eucharist.
He swallows the last of the communion wine, the inside of the chalice shining silvery light on his face.
He pauses, rests his elbow on the pulpit and contemplates his small congregation of ecclesiastical staff. A sermon is optional at this point.
Instead, he says to them: “Hello. You look fine to me.” Something about the archbishop’s timing and delivery makes me want to burst out laughing, but I check myself. This is a church.
Later, on Microphone-In, Tutu takes a call from a man who is opposed to affirmative action. Tutu concedes his point, but chides him for the sexism inherent in his belief that the best man should get the job.
“Ja,” says the caller, lapsing into platitude, “I always say that behind every good man is a good woman.”
Tutu doesn’t miss a beat. “No,” he says, shrill as a bird, shoulders shaking with mirth. “Behind every good man is a woman with nothing to wear.”
This is crazy. Now we’re parked in. And so is the archbishop.
At every step he takes from the cathedral, his path is blocked by someone else who wants a minute of his time, to hug, to shake hands, to greet, to implore, to deliver tidings.
People surround him in clusters, and his laughter peals through the courtyard.
A visiting theologian from Germany, watching from the shade of a jacaranda tree, tells me he is horrified by the sight.
But the archbishop has a simple approach to such matters. “God, I am doing your work. It is jolly well your business to look after me.”
Finally, like the Red Sea, cars give way, and we head for Bishopscourt via Tape Aids for the Blind, where the archbishop will pre-record his Christmas message.
Sitting in the glass booth after a royal reception and a quick-as-a-flash photo opportunity, Tutu obliges the engineer with a sound check -“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, I’m sitting in my chair and hoping for Heaven” – and lays down his homily in one take, without notes.
Bethlehem, he says, is God’s graffiti for the world: “I just want to say I love you.”
Politely declining tea, Tutu bestows benedictions in triplicate on his way out.
“God bless you, God bless you, God bless you. Good morning and bye-bye.”
At Bishopscourt, someone asks him how he is feeling. He lifts his purple skullcap and pats his bald spot. “Moeg,” he says, turning the word into a wounded bellow. But the limelight enervates him. Maybe too much.
He is sitting on a chair in the shade of a bottlebrush tree when the cameraman from the BBC whoomphs a white light onto his face. Tutu recoils.
The programme is Songs of Praise , but he feels more like a suspect in a police interrogation room.
The producer, sitting opposite, pops her head into a black bag, checking the image on the monitor. She offers a technical explanation.
“Unfortunately, the light is necessary. Otherwise you’ll look very dark.”
She attempts to embellish the point. Too late. Tutu almost falls off the chair with giggling.
“But I am very dark! And very hot. Are you trying to prepare me for the other place?”
The light is dimmed, leaving just a glow of neon on Tutu’s face, and red on the producer’s. She fires away.
“What does Advent mean to you, personally?”
Every word trips from Tutu’s tongue with relish.
“Preparation for the birth of a baby .. .” Cut. “Sorry,” says the producer, “would you mind very much saying, ‘Advent to me . . . ‘ ”
He flaps his palms on his cassock. Of course. He should know these things by now. Advent. Ubuntu. Guilt. Confession. Renewal.
Eloquent, emotive, spontaneous, Tutu is an interviewer’s dream. But there is only so much of him to go round. He is forced to distribute his soundbites like loaves and fishes.
Many times during the day , I will hear him saying: “If we do not open the wound and cleanse it, it will fester.” “My humanity is caught up in your humanity.” “People are making the mistake of thinking that freedom means licence.” Yet even Tutu is sometimes at a loss for words.
When the producer asks him to encapsulate his feelings on the miracle of April27, there is only the sound of a bee buzzing, and paper rustling, and a truck changing gears in the distance. Time is suspended. Then he spreads his arms, forgetting that the camera is on a tight shot.
“Incredible. Incredible, incredible.” He pauses. “Electric! You wanted to jump and to cry and to laugh, all at the same time. But maybe the most prominent thing was, ‘Hey! I am free. We are all free. Black and white together.’ Yes, we are going to succeed, scintillatingly, spectacularly, because we have made this transition from …”He touches his face. “… pigmentocracy to democracy. Incredible.”
He claps his hands and I steel myself against the urge to join in. One final question. It is the most difficult and challenging of them all.
“Do you feel there is anything else I should have asked you?” Tutu leaps from the chair, waving his hands, trilling in protest: “No, no, no! Please don ‘t try.”
He sits behind the desk in his study surrounded by tokens of the adoration he craves. A signed portrait of Bill Cosby. A big red St Valentine’s bear. A frog with arms in hugging position.
Forty years ago, Tutu taught English and mathe matics at Madibane High in Sophiatown. Then he entered the priesthood, inspired in part by the earth-shattering sight of a white man tipping his hat to a black woman. The woman was Tutu’s mother; the man was Father Trevor Huddlestone.
Twenty years ago, after ministering in Benoni, London, and Lesotho, Tutu was appointed Anglican Dean of Johannesburg.
Then Bishop of Lesotho. Then General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches.
Then, days after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Bishop of Johannesburg. Then Archbishop of Cape Town. Where does he go from here?
Somehow, he does not feel qualified for sainthood.
“The trouble,” he says, “is that people don’t know me. Christianity says everyone is a saint until the contrary is proven. But the very first thing that disqualifies me … is feeling sorry for myself. There are moments when you think, not even your wife understands you . And you have a huge bout of self-pity, which leads to self-justification. You don ‘t want to spend too much time worrying about whether you are holy. The thing is, have you caught a glimpse of God’s holiness, and what does that do to you?”
I ask Tutu whether it worries him that his own holiness has not always been apparent to some of his countrymen.
Some years ago, when he was travelling the world, denouncing Apartheid, calling for sanctions, and telling the West to go to hell, a white woman passed Tutu in the concourse at Jan Smuts Airport.
“It’s that bastard Tutu,” she said. “If I had a gun, I’d shoot him now.”
Yes, it worries him. There is a real danger, in the post Apartheid era, that Archbishop Desmond Tutu is becoming too respectable.
Whites who once despised him for attacking the Government, now admire him for attacking the Government.
“You know,” he marvels, “I have heard it said that I should go and be chaplain to the Springboks. That wouldn’t hVE been suggested, even in a jocular way, a year or so ago. Our spat with Nelson, particularly, was good. It made people realise that I am not a lackey of any political party, and that democracy does not mean not disagreeing. I have also heard it said, by someone in the ANC, that Bishop Tutu should concentrate on religion. It’s quite extraordinary how quickly they echo their predecessors!”
But it doesn’t surprise him. He understands the concept of Original Sin: it would only surprise him if people in positions of power did not succumb to the temptation to abuse it.
He is satisfied that honest moves have been made to derail the Gravy Train, but the thing that worries him even more is guns.
“The arms trade is a very real concern. The Government may be persuaded that this is a foreign exchange boost, but we are saying, if the only thing you are looking for is more money to come into the country, why not get involved in the drug trade? I mean, it’s much more lucrative.”
He laughs and recalls a bumper-sticker slogan suggested at a recent church conference on the subject. “Anglicans Do It Without Arms”.
A loaded question. For a moment, he broods on the nature of power that comes and goes.
“In fact, nobody is indispensable. You are indispensable in a way because there is nobody quite like you, but in another sense, you are not. You are on a stage at the moment. But your act will pass, and some other actor will come onto the stage. And those of us who are Christian know that death is not the worst thing that can happen to you.”
He pauses, and throws his hands up in the air. “But I’m enjoying life, man! It’s great, it really is wonderful to be alive at this time and to see the vindication of the people’s hopes. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.”
The archbishop is sitting in a floral-patterned easychair in the lounge at Bishopscourt, surrounded by Presbyterians who have seen the Rainbow.
A woman in a dog-collar says, “Your Grace, I would say that just being here, and seeing the way our African brothers and sisters – I mean black Africans – are able to put aside the suffering and work towards peace, answers a problem that we have not answered in the States. You are light years ahead of us.”
The archbishop nods sagely, touching the bridge of his nose with his fingertips. Then he brings the delegation back to earth.
“I hope,” he says, stretching the vowel into infinity, “you are not going to be idealising us.” Laughter. “Because we have very, very serious problems. We are all in need of healing. If the wound is not open and cleansed, it will fester.”
The leader of the delegation presents the archbishop with a plaque and a T-shirt, and a woman knocks over a coffee table on her way to take a photograph.
Tutu points to the bottom of the garden, where Nelson Mandela held his first press conference as a free man.
“Perhaps you would like to take a look, so that you too can say, ‘I walked where he walked.'”
A man calls Microphone-In to complain about the archbishop. It makes a change. He is white, and his voice is pinched with righteous indignation.
“How can you Tutu…I beg your pardon, how can you toyi-toyi in the church aisles? How can you clap and sing? Where is your dignity?”
It is not in the studio. Tutu is hooting, shrieking, almost weeping with laughter.
“I don’t care for dignity! I frankly am not worried one little bit. I am an African. I am me. I will dance in Washington, I will dance in St-Martin’s-in-the field, I will clap my hands and make a joyful noise unto the Lord. What makes you think that God does not laugh?”
He’s laughing now. All it takes is Tutu.