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Prophecy or Prediction – A day with Desmond Tutu

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On Sunday 10 July Archbishop Emeritus Tutu again found himself the centre of media attraction when VIP’s crowded with Sunday worshippers and proudly Anglican church people to mark what was billed as the “40th Episcopal Thanksgiving Service for the Most Revd. Desmond Mpilo Tutu.”


Desmond Tutu 40th anniversary July 2016The Anglican Cathedral of St Mary in downtown Johannesburg played host to the celebration attended by former Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlante, Minister Susan Shabangu (representing the Cabinet) and a range of other dignitaries, to give thanks for the outstanding Episcopal ministry of Archbishop Tutu who was ordained Bishop of the Church in the same cathedral forty years ago. His first appointment was as Bishop of the Diocese of Lesotho, but with the outbreak of the Soweto riots in 1976, he found himself increasingly drawn into prophetic mediation which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism in 1986; the Pacem in Terris Award in 1987 (awarded by the Catholic Church); the Sydney Peace Prize in 1999; the Gandhi Peace Prize in 2007; and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

With a large banner hanging above the congregation proclaiming the words from the prophet Amos “Let Justice roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24), it was inevitable that some controversial prophetic challenge was likely to be sounded. Professor Barney Pityana, himself an Anglican clergyman and theologian, and long-time friend of the Tutu family, preached the sermon, based on Acts 11.24, which referring to Barnabas says “For he was a good man. Full of the Holy Spirit and of faith”.

Read also: Desmond Tutu’s warning shot: Zuma and ANC worse than Apartheid Govt

Pityana prefaced his tribute to Archbishop Tutu and his devoted wife Leah as stand out examples of “good people” by lamenting the absence of good men in public life.

“Goodness has gone out of fashion, at least in South Africa. There are far too many instances of how unrewarding it seems goodness can be. One can hardly say of any public personality that ‘so-and-so was a good man’. Goodness in human affairs does not pay. Neither does it bring fame and fortune. How could it be for example that a convicted murderer could have so many followers and even apologists? How does a politician who stands trial for crime of rape, who later is indicted for some 750 charges involving serious crimes, involving dishonest handling of public funds, and more than five years later is still the head of state? Right now at the SABC a person without qualifications without any regard for the craft that he has been placed over, continues to rule supreme. Indeed he clearly doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong.”

John Clarke at Mtentu Hutted Camp, Wild Coast October 2006

Citing the Constitution as the embodiment of goodness, Pityana then moved on to scrutinise fellow clergy who had also been found wanting for “impropriety in handling of diocesan resources”.

“These examples in both church and nation demonstrate disregard for goodness and the value of virtue.”

He explained the criteria that underpin the selection of candidates for Bishop, and how the “practice of kindness without condition” was for him pivotal. He related how for 50 years Desmond Tutu and his wife, were a “constant feature in my life. But he gave no preferential treatment. I was at the receiving end of his strong rebukes. He made it very clear that what was wrong was wrong”.

Pityana concluded by calling for the church to again rise to the challenge that Desmond Tutu exemplified so perfectly.

“We have seen in recent days experienced a great reversal of what we hoped for in 1993. If we are these days to overcome the myriad of challenges our society faces… and the failure to have a capacity to care for one another… we need men and women full of goodness, and of faith and truth and of love. But this task is far too important to be left in the hands of those devoid of the quality of goodness. Who take cover in lies rather than speak truth; who take the citizenry for granted rather than live a life of value; and for whom morality has no meaning. ‘Where there is no vision’, as you know, ‘the people will perish’ (Proverbs 28:18). When we as a nation expose lies for what they are then we are on our way to true freedom.”

Archbishop Tutu wept at the overwhelming outpouring of gratitude, goodwill and prayers. In a brief speech of thanks, after thanking all and sundry, he characteristically raised a laugh by warning the extremely accomplished Imilonje KaNtu Choral Society Choir that “you are welcome to my funeral. And if you don’t come I will get out of the coffin and ask where are you?”.

Guests at Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 40th anniversary included former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, and Minister Susan Shabangu.Guests at Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 40th anniversary included former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, and Minister Susan Shabangu.


To put some historical context to Archbishop Tutu’s extraordinary goodness the following article, by social worker John GI Clarke relates to a dramatic episode that occurred in April 1980, in a packed Students Union hall at the University of Natal in Durban. It occurred at the start of the “Free Mandela” campaign that Percy Qoboza, editor of The Sunday World had initiated. The ‘Bish’ was but four years into his episcopacy.

“In five to ten years we will have a black President” said Desmond Tutu in April 1980. Pointing to Zinzi Mandela who was sharing a platform with him, he added with a confident glint in his eye and warm affection in his voice “and, I believe that person is going to be that lady’s father”.

The accuracy of his prediction earned Tutu regard as something of an oracle. However, if we recall the rest of what he had to say to the gathered masses, I believe it is more correct to describe him as a prophet. It is not his prediction but his prophecy that has made him such a remarkable person – and why so many of us who journeyed behind him over the ensuing years cannot give up the national peace building project that he initiated.

He said: “What the white community still has in its power to do is to decide whether that President is going to end up there through a process of reasoned negotiation and discussion at a conference table or whether he will have to do so after bitter fighting and bloodshed.

“I think we have a very good chance of pulling off the first alternative. And we need Nelson Mandela because he represents all our genuine leaders, in prison and exile.

“So to call for his release is really to say, ‘please let us sit down, black and white, and work out our common future, so that we can move into this new South Africa which will be filled with justice, peace, love, righteousness, compassion and caring’.”

But what isn’t generally known is the extraordinary circumstances that preceded Tutu’s bold prophecy. His first words were in fact words of a loving priest, spoken into a situation that was trembling on the edge of violence because a handful of embittered white Zimbabwean students had chosen the highly charged occasion to heckle and hurl racially tinged insults from the upper terrace of the Students Union hall. Below them in the main body of the hall a massive throng of mostly black and coloured students had come to pay a rare visit to the mostly white Howard College campus to hear their heroes speak. It was a highly incendiary situation.

“Biggest event in our student political lives, by a long way”, is how Chris Swart – the SRC President at the time, described it as we reminisced together a few years ago.

Watch: Tutu celebrates 40 years of ministry

 The ‘Saint’ is in the detail.

At the time Tutu was not yet the internationally revered and respected icon of peace, forgiveness, truth and reconciliation. Most white South Africans in fact despised and criticized him. The drama I witnessed on that extraordinary eventful day illustrates why the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to him four years later was so thoroughly deserved.

It was the second major public event (after the one at Wits University a few weeks before) of the Free Mandela Campaign calling for the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela. Bishop Tutu was General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches at the time, which had fully endorsed the campaign.

Amplified by Percy Qoboza’s newspaper, word of the upcoming event had travelled fast, far and wide through the media and word of mouth (no Twitter or Facebook back then). The SRC from the Medical School – which in terms of apartheid policy was reserved for Black, Coloured and Indian students only – had mobilized their constituency to come to the ‘white’ Howard College campus for the event, to cross the racial and political divide. Moreover, a boycott was underway in all so-called Coloured schools who were protesting against many other myriad apartheid injustices and indignities.   The event provided an educational experience far more relevant to prepare them for life than anything in the official syllabus, which was one of the bones of contention of their boycott. So, besides an assortment of radical, reactionary and revolutionary university students, hundreds of high school students purposefully attired in their various school uniforms had swelled the crowd to proportions never seen before (or I doubt since). The normal seating capacity of the hall was perhaps around a 1000. To say that there were some 6000 bodies crammed into the hall is not an exaggeration.

Normally lunchtime Student Body meetings were greeted with general apathy from the overwhelmingly white student community on the Howard College campus. The relatively unfamiliarity of now having an overwhelmingly dark skinned audience packing out every available seat and standing area was already enough to make me insecure in my role notwithstanding my three years of experience in student politics. But the incendiary effect of a small group of embittered white Zimbabweans (and some white South African sympathizers) hurling racial insults sent the needle up the scale of my adrenalin pump from ‘insecurity’ toward ‘panic’.

The Zimbabweans were understandably embittered because most of them had seen combat in the bitter Rhodesian guerrilla war. A few weeks before they had seen a sworn ‘terrorist’ enemy, Robert Mugabe become the first democratically elected black Prime Minister of their country.

This same historical fact was of course interpreted very differently by the throng of black visitors. They were (also very understandably) clearly not prepared to put up with any more racial abuse and oppression. Mugabe’s pre-independence electoral victory was a source of great confidence to them, and to Bishop Tutu himself which is perhaps why he was able to make such an optimistic prediction.

Fortunately, a student leader on the otherwise ideologically and geographically separate medical school SRC (whom I only got to know by his first name Vish) came to my rescue. As a member of a Nusas affiliated SRC I had never met him before that day because the black medical school SRC was very strongly supportive of the Black Consciousness thinking of Steve Biko, who had been a student at the medical school. Biko’s death in detention three years previously had served to further conscientise that student body and a strict policy of “no contact” with the ‘white’ English speaking Nusas affiliated campuses was enforced. This meeting was a rare exception. As deeply offended militant black students stood up with rage in their eyes intent on retaliation against the ‘embittered’ white reactionaries, we found ourselves thrust into a situation that required us, without the benefit of any practice or rehearsal, to form a ‘mixed doubles’ pairing to try to restrain them.

The majority of visiting black students had arrived earlier and were packed in the main body of the hall downstairs like sardines. The troublemakers, having arrived later from morning lectures found a safe vantage point in the upper terrace to commence their bombardment of verbal taunts and heckles. Fortunately, the sheer volume of people, mostly scared looking high school learners from the ‘coloured’ schools, were fortuitously packed tightly between the most strident of the antagonists of both sides, serving as a human barrier to prevent them from getting close enough to trade something more injurious than verbal insults.

From their commanding position the Embittered hurled their racial insults from above while the Militants below struggled to retaliate. My level-headed medical student partner shielded me to prevent them from snatching the microphone while I tried to put my unfinished learning in conflict resolution to work. I could not recall anything in my social work text books that quite approximated the situation I found myself in. Saul Alinksy’s “Rules for Radicals” was the closest but even he says “the threat is usually more terrifying than the actual thing”. Not helpful when the actual thing turns out more terrifying than the threat. Besides the human barrier of people, the PA system was the only other advantage we had to try to calm things down above the escalating clamour. The strategy seemed to be working and I consoled myself in the knowledge that Chris would soon be entering the hall with Bishop Tutu and Zinzi Mandela to hopefully take abler command of the situation.

But then someone intent on sabotaging the meeting (there are a number of obvious suspects, with the Special Branch top of the list) switched off the electricity supply to the hall. The large Students Union Hall was plunged into murky twilight – the ambiguous zone where Vampires and Werewolves thrive. Some shafts of sunlight from a few un-curtained windows still allowed enough light in, but trying to shout above the frightening chaos was impossible. Moreover, the light was enough for the ‘militants’ in front of the stage, prevented from using the PA system, to put into operation another way of settling their scores with the ‘embittered’ upstairs. How permeable would the human barrier be?

Fortunately, the fear and awe-struck majority that separated the Militants from the Embittered exercised their not inconsiderable influence by preventing the Militants from moving through their composite sea of humanity.

Vish and I decided the time had come to turn to ‘Plan B’. In truth it was a plan that only came into existence when the switch was thrown by the anonymous saboteur moments earlier.

“We have a megaphone upstairs in the SRC offices” I said to Vish “Let me see if I can find it”.

The human barrier thankfully proved to be just permeable enough to push my way out of the hall and upstairs to the SRC offices.

“OMG!” (Although I might have uttered a very un-Tutu like expletive). Alas, the megaphone was not in the cupboard! Moreover, there was no one around to help me find it, as they had all made their way downstairs – or so I thought. Unbeknown to me Bishop Tutu, Zinzi Mandela and Chris had entered the elevator to get to the hall two stories below. The electricity had been cut at the precise moment that the doors had closed. They were trapped in the lift (doubtless the key element in the alleged plan by the Special Branch to stop the meeting).

Then, carried by a force that defies any normal explanation, I found myself running up two further flights of stairs to the Sports Union offices, – also deserted as everyone was downstairs either participating in or observing the unfolding pandemonium in the hall.

I opened the first office door. Miraculously, there sitting on a bare table was the megaphone- perfectly positioned for me to grab in one slick movement before bounding helter-skelter down the stairs again into the hall. Using the megaphone to help me through the throng, and well lubricated by pouring sweat obligingly produced by the humidity of the Durban sub-tropical climate, I slithering and pushed my way through the seething mass of students again, to reach Vish at the podium. He had somehow managed to keep up the volley of hitting the balls served to him back into the crowd while waiting for the reinforcing amplification of the megaphone.

Inexperienced as I was in crowd control, while he pushed Militants off the stage (still intent on snatching the megaphone), I somehow had the presence of mind not to try to scold the Embittered as that would have simply provoked them further. While he commanded the necessary authority and respect to engage the Militants at close quarters to prevent them from making me a surrogate target for their angry retaliation, I tried to sooth things with characteristic weak jokes and other distractions.   We managed to contain the situation, anxiously waiting for Bishop Tutu and Zinzi Mandela to appear – not realizing that they were in fact trapped in the lift.

Fortunately, with a bit of effort they managed to force the doors open manually and were able use the stairs to make their way to the hall, only to confront another obstacle – the throng of student’s jam packed between the entrance and the podium.

Spotting them, I announced through the megaphone “Bishop Tutu and Ms Mandela have arrived. Please make a space so they can get to the front of the hall”

The mood began to change as the ‘black sea’ between the podium and the entrance, hitherto impervious to the Militants, miraculously parted like another sea of another hue, in another time and place in history some 3000 years before, (but come to think of it, in a not too different socio-political context).

With relief I handed over the megaphone to Chris and the meeting got underway. Bishop Tutu, thoroughly composed and sporting the characteristic reassuring grin on his face, despite enduring a few last salvos of insults emanating from the Embittered in the upper terrace, took the megaphone from Chris.

“You fellows up there. I just want to tell you…WE… LOVE… YOU…”.

Not exactly the sentiment in the minds or hearts of most of us in the hall, least of all the Militants. Yet, as if to confirm the momentousness of the occasion, at the precise moment that he uttered those disarming but empowering words of love, the hall was bathed in light. Power of a more earthbound physical nature surged back through the wires, obedient to the changing tide of history. The PA system crackled back into life and Bishop Tutu was able to dispense with the megaphone, to continue with his amazingly portentous speech.

(I don’t know who flipped the switch back on, but Chris thinks that the Special Branch was as unprepared as we were for what happened on the day.   I like to think that some common sense prevailed as they realized that it was an utterly foolish thing to have done).

After ten years of various struggle efforts, including 83,000 signatures on the petition (with my own there too somewhere, something I proudly note on my c.v.), Nelson Mandela walked free.

Recalling the experience with Chris and other lifelong friends who shared the extraordinary day with Desmond Tutu, I was told that when he arrived at the SRC offices the first thing he asked for was for a place for some privacy so that that he could pray.

Let no one try to tell us that prayers are never answered.

Whatever that event did for Tutu’s career, it was probably the single most significant experience that gave shape to the career path which still sustains me today, thirty years later working as a social worker, writer, human rights educator and peace activist.

There were many more occasions, even more dangerous ‘twilight’ incidents where Archbishop Tutu’s intervention and mediation made the difference. He is characteristically very modest whenever he is asked to explain how he managed to handle such situations.

“There was an amazing number of people praying in the situation which released spiritual forces that carried things forward. I was the visible aspect but there was a lot more happening behind the scenes of people praying fervently”.

When I asked him if the extraordinary incident described above was an accurate recollection of what happened 30 years before, he laughed. “An old man like me! My memory is getting so bad, I get up to go into a room but when I get there, I have forgotten why I went there. But the circumstances you describe are so improbable they are probably true”.

We have mercifully avoided the bloodbath. Many ‘embittered’ whites and ‘militant’ blacks have, thanks to his ministry and the spiritual forces that guide him, found each other and moved into the vision of a “new South Africa” that he helped us see and believe in thirty years ago “filled with justice, peace, love, righteousness, compassion and caring”.

But I am again perplexed.

I wonder where the Embittered are today? What is their recollection of the event? President Robert Mugabe has been a tragic disappointment.

I wonder where the Militants are today? How do they feel about President Jacob Zuma? Another tragic disappointment.

It would be mischievous to ask Archbishop Tutu to predict who the next President of South Africa will be, or how much longer Robert Mugabe will continue to remain in power. I know him to be a truth teller rather than a soothsayer. It was not his prediction but his prophecy that woke me up thirty years ago. He is not a talisman providing the media with idle amusement for a superstitious public. He is a true prophet who has shown me, and doubtless thousands of others to read the “signs of the times” in the present and to interpret these within the larger movement of history and a shared sense of God’s will: a call to responsible engagement rather than fatalistic resignation. His focus on the future is to discern emergent terms and conditions that are shaped by current behaviour in the present. He did not escape into fatalistic resignation to a predetermined end result but instead inspired hope, notwithstanding the discomfort his words evoked among those already corrupted by power and privilege.

My favourite verse from scripture is from the prophet Micah.

“This, and only this, is what the Lord asks of you:

Act justly, love tenderly,

And walk humbly with your God”. (Micah 6:8)

How must we read the signs of the present times? What does acting justly now mean?

Cover Image: Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Pic: Wiki Commons

Thanks to Stuart Lowman and Biznews for running this article on their site

About John GI Clarke

John Clarke hopes to write the wrongs of the world, informed by his experience as a social worker and theologian, to actualise fundamental human rights and satisfy fundamental human needs.  He has lived in the urbanised concentration of Johannesburg, but has worked mainly in the rural reaches of the Wild Coast for the past decade.  From having paid a fortune in toll fees he believes he has earned the right to be critical of Sanral and other extractive institutions, and has not held back while supporting Sustaining the Wild Coast (, the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute ( and the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (, in various ways.