As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Archbishop Desmond Tutu (January 2022)

Welcome to 2022. I’ll start with some of John Lennon's words – “A Very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear.” That line is from “Happy Xmas, war is over”, originally released in 1971 referring to the Vietnam war which ran its bloody course right up to 1975 despite Lennon's refrain "War is over, if you want it" - perhaps people didn't want. It peaked at number 2 in 1980 following John Lennon’s murder. It’s a complicated message, then – not innocent simplicity, but activism: shouting at a world that is cruel and unfair. Let’s hope 1972 is better than 1971, let’s try to make it so, but let’s not kid ourselves that by singing we can rid the world of fear completely. Let’s not kid ourselves that perfection is round the corner, but let’s not give up on trying to get there. Sometimes it feels as though we’re standing here alone and waving a flag in front of a tank; and sometimes it feels like all we can do is stay in bed and hope that the world notices, but sometimes, just sometimes, the tank changes course to go round us; sometimes, just sometimes, people listen to what we're trying to say.

It is our tradition at this time every year to think about that big world, to think about making it better, to remember those who live in fear, to tell their stories and those of people that the world has forgotten. We call this half term Resilience for a Better Tomorrow and I want you all to look out from yourselves, to read the news and to join me in condemning cruelty and discrimination and prejudice and marginalisation. I want you to find some things to care about that aren’t you; I want you to seek change in the wider world and I want you to realise that this will mean some changes in your hearts too.

My story for you today is about a wonderful man who died over the Christmas vacation – one of those people that you read about and you think “Yeah, we got lucky there – the world was fortunate to have you in it”. There are a few people like that – and quite often you get the sense that it wasn’t just an amazing person but it was the right person at the right time. I wonder if it’s true of Abraham Lincoln – that without an ornery wordsmith with a hickory stump and an obstinate streak a mile wide the USA might not have come out of the civil war in one piece. I’m pretty certain it’s true of Winston Churchill – that almost anyone else would have sought to appease Hitler, or would have done less to bring America into the war, or would, when standing alone and at the end of their resources, have asked for peace. History has been kinder to him than he deserves – he wrote it, after all – but I think the world got lucky in 1940.

I also think the world got lucky with Nelson Mandela – luckier than anyone deserved – and this is the story I want to tell this morning, although many of you will be feeling pretty certain that Mandela can’t be the person I was talking about given that he died in 2013. When I was growing up in the 1980s, South Africa was an apartheid regime and everybody knew it – the people were divided into Whites, Indians, Coloureds, and Blacks, each group having different rights, with the whites clearly at the top of the heap. Everybody knew it because there were sanctions, there were boycotts, there were news stories – there was even a song “Free Nelson Mandela”. Those news stories were of violence – of protest put down by armed police, of black activists beaten or shot or murdered by the forces of the wealthy white government protecting its status quo. Steve Biko was one prominent example, a black activist, founder of the Black People’s convention, banned for subversion in 1973, arrested in 1977 and beaten to death by state security forces.

Nelson Mandela was put in prison in 1964 after being found guilty of treason – of trying to overthrow the state and he stayed there until he was freed in 1990 amid the disintegration of the apartheid system he had fought against. In 1994, at the age of 75, he became President of South Africa after the first non-racial democratic vote in the country’s history. Somehow power had transitioned from the 9% of the population that had a vote under apartheid, and somehow it had been done without terrible bloodshed. One of the reasons for this is Nelson Mandela – a lawyer who had practised in Johannesburg before becoming involved with the anti-apartheid movement; a scholar who read voraciously and wrote to correspondents around the world from his cell; an old man who had, maybe, used up all his anger; a pacifist who had taught himself Afrikaans, the language of the oppressors, so he could relate to them more effectively. Would anyone else have been able to keep the peace, to hold back anger and thoughts of revenge and to direct them towards building a rainbow nation? Last term I talked about Liberia where a similar transition took 20 years of terrible civil war. South Africa isn’t a perfect place – it’s unequal – it has too many poor – too much corruption – and last year there were riots following the trial of one of its ex-presidents – but there hasn’t been wholesale slaughter. The world got lucky with Nelson Mandela, luckier than it deserved.

It also got lucky with another black South African who was instrumental in the anti-apartheid movement and in that transition. When Nelson Mandela was on trial and being imprisoned, Desmond Tutu was studying Theology at Kings College London. When Steve Biko was killed in 1977 he was Bishop of Lesotho – a small country entirely surrounded by South Africa. He spoke up against apartheid and warned the National (white) government that they were heading towards violent rebellion. Meanwhile he encouraged activists to act non-violently and campaigned for international economic sanctions to apply pressure for change. White conservatives despised him, white liberals found him too radical, Marxists opposed his anti-communist stance and black activists were disappointed by his lack of action. Still he continued to pray, to argue, to encourage, to smile – it is his smile that I most remember, beaming out of my television when I watched him on the news.

He became Archbishop of Capetown in 1986, the most senior position in the Southern African Anglican hierarchy. He was the first black man to hold this position and encouraged consensus building as a leadership style – it’s not the role of a leader to dictate, he thought, but to find a common understanding, a plan of action that all can get behind. He also – just so you can be sure he’s a good guy – introduced the ordination of women as priests (a terribly new idea in the late 1980s). In 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released and began negotiation with the president, F.W. de Klerk, to find a way towards universal suffrage, violence did start to break out. Not between whites and blacks – if that was coming it would be later – but between rival groups of blacks, jostling for supremacy, knowing that when de Klerk finally stepped aside it would be one of them who became president. Tutu worked throughout this period to bring black leaders together, to calm tensions, to persuade them all that peaceful transition was best for everyone.

After the elections the question was how to deal with the horrors of the past. Do you hold huge show trials of the white politicians, police-chiefs, businessmen who had been part of the apartheid regime? Do you declare a universal amnesty and let them all off? Or is there a third way? Tutu found the third way, leading a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” – offering confession of crimes, forgiveness rather than punishment, and then restitution, making things right. Somehow this cheerful, hopeful, peaceful, conciliatory man was in the right place at the right time with the profile and authority to make the difference. The world got lucky with him and we’re a sadder place since he died on Boxing Day.

Apartheid was a terrible wrong – unjust, cruel, violent; and it leaves scars on South Africa still in the form of ill-will and inequality. Let us not tolerate such things in our world, but let us not forget the work of Archbishop Desmond Tutu who recognised that the natural course is for injustice to lead to violence, and so activism must have an ethical compass rooted in pacifism. Let us should loudly against the evils of this world and find it in our hearts to forgive those who do us wrong. Let us look unwaveringly at injustice and inequality and hope unceasingly for a better tomorrow. Let us learn from each other during Resilience about this big, wonderful, but unjust world. Happy New Year. Let’s make it a good one.