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Bishop Tutu’s Hopes and Fears

7 minute read
Bruce W. Nelan, Karsten Prager and Bishop Desmond Tutu

At St. Alban’s Church, the seat of the Anglican diocese of Johannesburg, it was time for the morning prayer meeting. In the boardroom, the staff had assembled, about 20 men and women, black and white. At precisely 9 a.m. Bishop Desmond Tutu arrived. “Good morning, Baba (Father), ” said members of the group. “A little more enthusiasm, please, ” the bishop replied with a smile, and the group obliged. Then he pulled up a chair and began the day’s lesson. It was drawn from Acts 21: 27-39, the story of Paul being taken into protective custody by Roman soldiers to shelter him from a Jerusalem mob. Tutu smiled thinly. When the prayer meeting was over, the bishop leaned forward to tell his staff about the previous afternoon at Daveyton. He said that during the funeral he had heard a joke about Louis Le Grange, South Africa’s Minister of Law and Order, telling State President P.W. Botha that Bishop Tutu had committed suicide. Botha’s astonished reply: “I didn’t know you had detained him. “

Becoming serious again, Tutu spoke once more of the scene at Daveyton. “I am scared, ” he said, shaking his head for emphasis. “I am really scared. I have never seen anything like the scene yesterday. We are building up an incredible legacy of hatred. I cannot be at all the funerals, and one just does not know what is going to happen at future funerals. How long can we restrain the people? I have just got to believe that God is around. That is the only hope. If he is not, we have had it. We are going to have to do a lot of praying.” Following the meeting, Tutu spoke with TIME International Editor Karsten Prager and Johannesburg Bureau Chief Bruce Nelan. Excerpts:

Q. How would you describe the situation this week as compared to last?

A. Things have been exacerbated very considerably by the state of emergency and by the detention of those whom the people regard as their leaders. The police and the South African Defense Force have been put into an incredibly awkward position in that they are not seen as agents for maintaining law-and-order but as protectors of an unjust system. In the consumer boycott in the eastern Cape, for instance, there are very strong indications that the police are harassing black traders, trying to break this boycott. We really are on the edge of a precipice. It would take nothing, nothing really, to push us over.

Q. You said you hoped God was around. It sounded like a cry of despair. Does that characterize your state of mind today?

A. No, it’s just that I’m human. And I hold on, and often only by the skin of my teeth, to believe that God is in charge of his world, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, and there are often too many appearances to the contrary. Like any ordinary human being, I also reach the end of my tether. I can only be rescued from that by the fact that so many care around the world and pray for us. But the level of repression and evil in this country is incredible, and the suffering that our people are exposed to is more than I can take. I am amazed at their patience.

Q. Is their patience running out, and can you still control them?

A. I am surprised that they do continue to listen, when I have absolutely nothing to show for asking them to be restrained, for saying it is possible that a more just society will come about, with a minimum of violence. I mean, it’s all rhetoric. Can you imagine President Reagan speaking with the same equanimity if the fatalities here were white? Over 500 people have been killed. Virtually every day of the week someone gets killed.

You have to speak about the real anger among black people, anger that can become mindless. You see what they can do–burning people and so forth–and you want almost to abandon them. And then, at the same time, they still have an incredible sense of humor. You say something and they laugh. And even now there is no generalized hatred of whites. There is still a fantastic fund of goodwill. You would think that blacks would be saying that the best kind of white man is a dead white man. But you cannot sense any hostility toward whites. It is one of those paradoxes. This is one of the things that you would hopefully say to the State President: “All you need to do to unlock all that goodwill is to say you intend to dismantle apartheid, you are going to release unconditionally the people they acknowledge to be their leaders, you are going to sit down and talk with them, and you do have a specific program and plan.”

At the moment [the country is] floundering around. You get a little piecemeal reform: the sex laws are repealed. It’s like someone wanting to be praised because he’s stopped beating his wife. It’s crazy. It is not the height of my ambition in South Africa to cohabit with a white person. It’s nonsense. Who introduced these laws in the first place? And now we must praise them because they’ve suddenly discovered they don’t need these laws. Yet if the government said it was going to abolish apartheid laws one, two, three–the dramatic impact could change the mood.

Q. So where exactly does that leave the government?

A. They are in a Catch-22 position when they say they won’t talk until the unrest has been quelled. The unrest is not going to be quelled because apartheid is there. Botha has everything to gain from talking to blacks, because he could be saying to the world, “Look, I’m talking to these horrible people who are always criticizing me and who are anti-South African.” The world would say, “Yes, Botha is reasonable, he does talk to his critics.” We would have lost. I would be losing out too, because even to say I am willing to talk to him would lead many in the black community to say, “Tutu’s selling out.”

Q. Does that mean you can’t continue to offer to talk?

A. I am not a politician. My paradigm comes from the Scriptures. I say to the government that it cannot prescribe to me what I preach. Equally, no one in the black community can prescribe to me what I should do. I’m not in this game for personal kudos. I wish I weren’t in the game at all. I have to follow biblical paradigms: prophets go on talking to kings; Moses goes to Pharaoh, even when he is told that Pharaoh is going to harden his heart. But he goes.

Q. Why do you want to talk to General Johann Coetzee, the police commissioner?

A. Maybe they don’t really understand. They must not be able to use the answer that many German people gave about Hitler, that they didn’t know. We will say, “We told you, we tried everything possible to communicate to you where you were leading this country.” This is a tremendous country. It doesn’t need to go that way.

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