Without Tutu and Mandela, Is South African Moral Exceptionalism Dead? 

The country could still achieve genuine racial justice after its moral giants have left the stage—but don’t count on the ANC government to lead the way. 

By , a political analyst and author based in Johannesburg.
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks.
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks.
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks during the funerals of four young anti-apartheid activists in Duduza township, near Johannesburg, South Africa, on July 10, 1985. GIDEON MENDEL/AFP via Getty Images

As the world comes to terms with the news of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s death, one question that will dominate headlines in the days to come is whether anyone with a functioning moral compass is left among South Africa’s leaders—or was Tutu the last of his generation to regard ethics and morality as more fundamental than law and politics?

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, in a statement released Sunday, seemed keenly aware that people at home and abroad were asking such questions. “We pray that Archbishop Tutu’s soul will rest in peace but that his spirit will stand sentry over the future of our nation,” he wrote.

There is a very real sense that South Africa, right now, desperately lacks moral leadership when it comes to rooting out corruption and ridding the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), of ethically dubious political appointees. But talk of moral compasses, even with respect to the archbishop, is not a useful way of understanding Tutu’s legacy, nor a useful way of making sense of the moral deficiencies of post-apartheid South Africa.

As the world comes to terms with the news of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s death, one question that will dominate headlines in the days to come is whether anyone with a functioning moral compass is left among South Africa’s leaders—or was Tutu the last of his generation to regard ethics and morality as more fundamental than law and politics?

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, in a statement released Sunday, seemed keenly aware that people at home and abroad were asking such questions. “We pray that Archbishop Tutu’s soul will rest in peace but that his spirit will stand sentry over the future of our nation,” he wrote.

There is a very real sense that South Africa, right now, desperately lacks moral leadership when it comes to rooting out corruption and ridding the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), of ethically dubious political appointees. But talk of moral compasses, even with respect to the archbishop, is not a useful way of understanding Tutu’s legacy, nor a useful way of making sense of the moral deficiencies of post-apartheid South Africa.


Within minutes of the announcement of Tutu’s death, social media saw a proliferation of both complex, lengthy sets of reflections about his legacy and also, perhaps inevitably, reductive hot takes. There is no one Tutu. How could there be? He lived a long, full, and closely examined life—a life responding to social and political facts that themselves did not remain constant.

Tutu should not be reduced to vanilla versions of reconciliation politics. Indeed, he was “woke” before the term was popularized, and the limitations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—namely, that economic justice still hasn’t been delivered for the poor Black majority and many ordinary victims of the apartheid state’s crimes never saw the perpetrators and architects of the system legally sanctioned—should not tarnish the rest of Tutu’s impressive personal biography.

Tutu understood the psychopolitical nature and effect of white supremacy, and specifically how the histories of colonialism and apartheid profoundly shaped South African society. He demonstrated this more than three decades ago with sustained critiques of whiteness generally and white South Africans specifically.

In a 1986 Washington Post profile written by journalist Pete Earley, Tutu is quoted reflecting on the impact of oppression on white people: “Whites, in being those who oppress others, dehumanized themselves.” He also spoke self-critically of his own anger toward racist people back in South Africa, and the recognition of the intensity of his feelings. He wondered whether his feelings were “bordering on hatred.”

Tutu was not color-blind nor was he morally neutral in the face of the injustices of his land.

These reflections show a moral compass at work. Tutu recognized the ethical justification for anger and allowed himself the entitlement to anger—distinguishing between anger and hatred. It is the latter he guarded against, in light of his hermeneutical commitment to Christian theology and praxis. That, however, was no bar to naming apartheid a crime against humanity, and berating willfully silent white beneficiaries of colonialism and apartheid for pretending that neutrality is actually a choice in the midst of evil. As he memorably put it: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

No white South African can claim to truly know and appreciate Tutu’s legacy if they only feel warm and fuzzy feelings when thinking of the archbishop, who many remember for his purple robes, mischievous smile, and conciliatory spirit while forgetting his radicalism and uncompromising moral code.

“Where was I, and what did I do, or not do, during the days of apartheid?” is a question that a full understanding of Tutu’s life work imposes on white South Africans. That is the moral complexity of Tutu’s legacy we should insist upon.

 

Then-South African President Nelson Mandela (L) receives a five volumes of Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in Pretoria on Oct. 29, 1998.

Then-South African President Nelson Mandela (left) receives five volumes of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report from Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Pretoria, South Africa, on Oct. 29, 1998. WALTER DHLADHLA/AFP via Getty Images

Tutu argued against hatred and naked racial vengeance, but he never rejected Black liberation theology or the Black Consciousness Movement—which was founded on a philosophy of self-actualization aimed at developing a deep sense of self-belief in one’s humanity, agency, and dignity in order to counter the apartheid state’s propaganda that Black people were inferior to white people.

Essayist Carlos Amato reminds us of this side of Tutu, in his fine obituary in New Frame, when he recalls Tutu’s words at the funeral of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, who had been murdered by the apartheid regime. Tutu said of Black Consciousness that it was “a movement by which God, through Steve, sought to awaken in the black person a sense of his intrinsic value and worth as a child of God.”

It was a sincere commitment to Black liberation theology that prompted Tutu, after the 1976 Soweto uprising, to criticize his white parishioners for their silence. (The uprising resulted in the murder of Black children by the apartheid state’s security forces after the children protested compulsory education in Afrikaans, which they viewed as the language of the oppressor.)

Tutu was not color-blind nor was he morally neutral in the face of the injustices of his land. He did not choose abstract interpretations of scripture to avoid realpolitik. He got his priestly hands dirty precisely because of a commitment to real world justice founded on his Christian faith.

Sanitized versions of Tutu are in many ways similar to reductive narratives about Martin Luther King Jr. that deliberately omit his radicalism by focusing in a shallow literal sense on the injunction that we should judge others by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Nothing in that vision is an invitation to be color-blind, nor to be ahistorical about the lived experiences of oppressed Black Americans in a white supremacist society. Similarly, Tutu has wrongly been weaponized by those who found his symbolism endearing and his radicalism inconvenient.

So committed was Tutu to the moral duty of standing up against injustice that he did not stop his work after he retired from his position as archbishop of Cape Town in 1996. He is, of course, most famously known for his work as the chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The work of the TRC is complex and deserves full exposition and debate on its own. It aimed at epistemic justice—recognizing that part of the justice due to Black people was to respect their autonomy and dignity by filling the gaps in their knowledge of what truly happened to their loved ones—by trading truth for amnesty. There were just over 1,100 successful applications for amnesty. Full disclosure about the abduction, torture, and secret burial of anti-apartheid activists, for example, could result in amnesty from prosecution in exchange for the healing that comes with families knowing what happened and even having opportunities for exhumations and reburials.

In reality, the TRC was a deeply flawed process both conceptually and practically. The power of public emoting, symbolism, and narrative catharsis took center stage while the knottier issues of economic justice and victims’ demands for real punishment for serious crimes—and even retribution—were left untouched.

South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu casts his vote on April 27, 1994 in Guguletu, Cape Town, in South Africa's first democratic elections.

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu casts his vote in Cape Town, South Africa, on April 27, 1994, for the countrys first democratic elections. ANNA ZIEMINSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The commission’s work was accepted by many South Africans as an imperfect process. But even for me, then a teenager, watching news bulletins of a weeping Tutu and listening to harrowing testimonies of families whose lives were ripped apart by the evil of apartheid instilled in me a sense of a nascent society trying to grapple with deep trauma.

I lacked the political vocabulary to make sense of it all as a young South African not old enough to vote in our first democratic elections, but I had an inkling of what Tutu meant when he famously jumped up and down, as if himself a little kid, after casting his vote in April 1994 and quipping in his familiar jocular way, “I feel two inches taller!”

The TRC process was a necessary disappointment. It didn’t and couldn’t deliver an economically just South Africa in which politically free Black citizens also lived meaningful lives. That was a burden to be discharged by the democratic state—which has failed to deliver. Still, South Africans must appreciate the upsides while continuing to respond appropriately as a country to enduring injustices that have still not been settled.


Tutu’s moral consistency didn’t stop with the end of apartheid. Indeed, he was a thorn in the side of the ruling ANC from 1994 onward. In 2006, he urged the morally odious figure Jacob Zuma to drop out of the ANC’s leadership race if the party wanted to remain respectable, and denounced the government for bending to Chinese pressure and denying the Dalai Lama a visa in 2011.

In 2013, he made clear his opinion in a piece for Prospect magazine that the ANC had been good at freedom fighting but did not “easily make the transition” to becoming a governing party. “I would very sadly not be able to vote for them after the way things have gone,” Tutu wrote, in reference to rampant corruption, violence, and inequality the ANC leadership had not dealt with.

This, again, is how a functioning moral compass works. Tutu did not think the ANC deserved political power in perpetuity. Like the National Party that ruled undemocratically, having disenfranchised more than 80 percent of the country’s population during the apartheid years, the democratically elected ANC was to be judged on the facts of its governance record. Tutu was willing to be unpopular to ensure that truth and authenticity prevailed. That is a marker of moral stature, and evidence of having deserved the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to him in 1984. This kind of moral candor is all too rare in today’s South Africa.

However, South Africans should guard against narratives that elevate excellent human beings, such as Tutu and Nelson Mandela, to positions of moral perfection. Such people should be honored with the necessary qualifications that accompany their achievements—including noting their limitations and flaws.

His passing should be a call for the rest of South Africa’s citizens to take up the wider challenge of completing the project of achieving a more just and equitable South Africa.

For instance, it was not up to Tutu what a nascent democratic state would do (or not do) with the work of the TRC he chaired. It is therefore unfair and misguided to heap all criticism of the TRC on Tutu as an individual. To this day, the National Prosecuting Authority of South Africa (NPA) is inexcusably meek, choosing not to prosecute apartheid-era criminals who did not receive amnesty for their crimes. The political cowardice of the current ANC leadership, and the ineptitude of the NPA, are structural obstacles to justice for ordinary Black South Africans that cannot be blamed on Tutu or the process he oversaw.

That said, precisely because of his moral stature, Tutu in recent years was perhaps less energetic than the young Tutu in speaking out about South Africa’s incomplete project of delivering justice. He took up some causes after his official retirement, such as the right to a dignified end to one’s life. But for ordinary Black South Africans, who remain the biggest losers of the negotiated settlement in South Africa, it would have been very useful to have Tutu, the head prefect of reconciliation, offer a sustained (even if post facto) critique of the TRC by underscoring the limitations of his work more bluntly, more often.

Tutu was but one individual—who did more than most of us ever could. His passing should be a call for the rest of South Africa’s citizens to take up the wider challenge of completing the project of achieving a more just and equitable South Africa. That is why talk of moral perfectionism, and moral compasses, is a distraction. It sets up impossible standards for leadership. What South Africa needs instead are hardworking visionaries who can get on with the practical task of building the unfinished South Africa envisioned in the ideals of the country’s constitution.

The good news is the country has a vibrant civil society that is up to the task. The bad news is it has a weak state and morally bankrupt ANC political leadership that often views civil society organizations as menaces rather than partners in the mutual task of forging a better future for the country. South Africans should not be intimidated or deterred by the moral shortcomings of the government of the day.

We now need to leave Tutu’s moral compass in peace, lowering it with him, and build our own tools for the future—honoring him by taking seriously our generation’s moral and political agency.

Eusebius McKaiser is an analyst for TimesLIVE and host of the podcast "In the Ring With Eusebius McKaiser." He is based in Johannesburg. Twitter: @Eusebius

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