Desmond Tutu was a lot more than a fighter against apartheid

By David Rovics

Desmond Tutu meets Guyana-born Dr Michael Wailoo, University of Leicestershire

This may sound either arrogant or forgetful, but I could not possibly remember the number of times I was in the same room or at the same protest as Desmond Tutu. .

It seems very important to mention, because of the way this man is already being remembered by the world’s pundits and politicians.  Tutu is being remembered as the great opponent of apartheid in his native South Africa, who was one of the most recognized and most eloquent leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle there, for most of his adult life.

Being a leader in the movement to end apartheid in South Africa was probably the greatest achievement of the man’s life work, and it should come as a surprise to no one that this is the focus of his many obituaries, along with the Nobel he was awarded in 1984.  After Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, he was remembered by the establishment in much the same way, as a leader of the movement against apartheid in the US.  The fact that he had become one of the most well-known and well-loved voices of the antiwar movement in the United States and around the world at the time of his death has largely been written out of the history books, a very inconvenient truth.

But many of the same political leaders commemorating Tutu today would have been unlikely to mention him a day earlier, lest Tutu take the opportunity to speak his mind.  This is certainly why he was not invited to commemorate his friend and comrade, Nelson Mandela, at Mandela’s funeral eight years ago.

Now can be sure that all the praises of Desmond Tutu as the great moral compass of the world will be made safely, after he’s dead.  Before then would have been much too dangerous, and he was best ignored until then — at which point his passing can be used as an easy way for liberals and conservatives alike to talk about how they also opposed South African apartheid, eventually.

Looking back at Desmond Tutu’s life, I recall him speaking at, there’s a headline from the Washington Post on February 16th, 2003 — “thousands protest a war in Iraq,” in New York City the day before.  There were at least half a million people at the rally. 

The following year there was a rally in Copley Square in Boston, Massachusetts against Israeli apartheid.  Tutu was the main speaker, and he spoke at length.  When he would compare Israeli apartheid to the South African version, this was just the kind of support the movement to boycott Israel.

There were three overlapping social movements in the early 2000’s that I was involved with as a musician, all of which Tutu was deeply involved with.  I’m talking about the global justice movement and the movement to cancel debt in the Global South, the movement against Israeli apartheid, and the movement against the US/UK invasion of Iraq.

The journalists, when given the job to cover Desmond Tutu, generally did so when it had something to do with South African apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which he chaired, etc. 

Lots of other drafts of history are then rewritten, for the text books, when once again Desmond Tutu’s centrality to the struggle against South African apartheid will be highlighted, with most everything else papered over or ignored entirely.  Others will recall Tutu’s service to the global social movements that arose in the decades after apartheid, to which he gave the full weight of his moral standing — whether these movements were covered by the corporate press or not, whether most of us knew these movements existed or not.

Those of us who were involved with the social movements will remember him as a fierce critic of capitalism, of Israeli apartheid, and of US and British wars of aggression.  And we know why he is being praised now by media outlets and politicians who have had no time or space for him since 1998 or so.

Desmond Tutu failed to remain in his historical place.  Had he played his cards differently in the post-South African apartheid period, he could have been a very rich and even more venerated man, winning lots more awards and schmoozing with the world’s power brokers.  Instead, before his official retirement from public life at the age of 79, he spent his seventies campaigning around the world as part of social movements for equality, dignity, and peace, and being a thorn in the side of so many of the rich and powerful people praising him today.

Dead people can’t speak out in their own defense, which makes them much less dangerous than when they were alive.  So it’s up to those of us who are still here to speak, and to remember.