By Mondli Makhanya
In July 1985, a hapless Maki Skosana, a resident of the East Rand township of Duduza, found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
She had been at the funeral of four activists who had died in a booby-trap ambush set up by the apartheid police’s security branch. For various reasons some mourners identified her as a police informer who had been involved in the deaths, and decided to kill her.
She was chased across the cemetery into a field and when the mob caught up with her, they proceeded to administer the brutal necklace execution. A tyre was placed around her neck, petrol was poured over her and she was set alight.
Just over a week earlier, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, then one of the sharpest thorns in the side of the apartheid state, had rescued a man from being necklaced in the same township.
Describing the incident, which occurred after a funeral of other victims of police brutality, Tutu said he and fellow anti-apartheid campaigner Bishop Simeon Nkoane had pushed through a crowd of about 50 people to reach the man, who was also suspected of being an apartheid collaborator.
He told AFP news agency:We rushed in, and they had already burned his car, they had doused him with petrol, they were intending to put one of the tyres around his neck and then to place him on the burning car.
It was the height of the anti-apartheid uprisings and the necklace was becoming the deterrent of choice for activists wanting to make collaboration with the apartheid state too ghastly to contemplate.
After the first Duduza incident, Tutu bemoaned how the apartheid system had dehumanised people to the extent that they would perform such cruel acts on anyone who “is seen as enemy of the struggle” and as “a co-oppressor”.
But after the killing of Skosana, Tutu was beside himself. He threatened to disown the anti-apartheid struggle and even leave the country.
“If you do this kind of thing, I will find it difficult to speak for the cause of liberation. If the violence continues, I will pack my bags, collect my family and leave this beautiful country that I love so passionately and so deeply. I say to you that I condemn in the strongest possible terms what happened in Duduza,” said Tutu.
Later that year, Tutu would come out again to condemn the Christmas Eve bombing of a shopping centre in Amanzimtoti, Durban, in which five white civilians were killed.
The ANC initially denied responsibility, but it emerged that Umkhonto weSizwe operative Andrew Zondo had carried out the attack in retaliation for the apartheid government’s Maseru raid in which 42 South Africans and Lesotho nationals were killed by the apartheid security forces.
Zondo was convicted and sentenced to death for the attack.
The Amanzimtoti bombing was widely celebrated in the townships, where the security forces were routinely killing black civilians every day. “Let white society also feel the pain that we are feeling,” was the general sentiment in the black community.
But Tutu broke with that general sentiment, condemning the bombing but also reminding the National Party that they were responsible for creating that climate.
Tutu said:I condemn all violence – that of the vicious and repressive system of apartheid, but also that of those seeking to overthrow it. If we did not have the injustice and oppression of apartheid, we would not have this spiral of violence.
These were strong rebukes of the democratic forces by Tutu, who had until then reserved his fierce tongue-lashings for the apartheid regime.
But it spoke of the man of principle that he was. If he was to oppose apartheid, which was “positively unbiblical, un-Christian, immoral and evil”, the liberation movement had to do better. That was Tutu. A man of principle par excellence, right to the end.
Much has been said about Tutu the man who stood up to the brutality of a system that was up there with Nazism in terms of the evils of the 20th century.
But it is the stripes he earned during taking this courageous stand that earned him the right to be the country’s – and the world’s – elder when the struggle against apartheid was over.
Once apartheid was overthrown, Tutu signalled to the new ANC government that his quest for justice did not just end with the fall of the National Party government.
As early as August 1994, Tutu decried the packages being offered to the elected political leadership, saying that the new leaders had “stopped the gravy train only long enough to get on”.
As chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), he did not go easy on any of those who appeared before him.
Although the National Party rightly got the brunt of the roasting at the TRC, the liberation movements were not treated with kid gloves – so much so that the ANC even complained that the TRC had “grossly misdirected itself”; acted “contrary to the spirit and the intention” of the legislation under which it is established; and that its findings showed an “extraordinary refusal on the part of the commission to locate itself in the context of the circumstances which related to the struggle against apartheid, both within and outside the country”.
To the end of his active life, Tutu was to remain as much of a thorn in the side of the democratic government as he was in the side of the evil system he was instrumental in overthrowing.While the ANC would have wanted a cheerleader, Tutu made it clear that his mission was to continue with the works of the biblical prophets who always spoke truth to power.
Ask Nelson Mandela. Ask Thabo Mbeki. Ask Kgalema Motlanthe. Ask Jacob Zuma. If Tutu’s health was not failing in recent years, we could also say, ask Cyril Ramaphosa.
One of Tutu’s greatest gifts to the nation was that he bequeathed it a courageous religious leadership that saw the pulpit as a revolutionary platform for the real transformation of people’s lives.
Following in his footsteps, South Africa’s faith leaders have not abrogated the responsibility to speak truth to power and be involved in the daily struggles of the citizenry.
Apart from the charlatans who raid congregants’ wallets, prey on women and make people eat rats, South Africa’s religious formations have a social justice conscience and go out of their way to make a difference in people’s lives.
This nation has been blessed with greatness. The evil system that we lived under conspired to give us men and women with bodies of oak, souls of angels and hearts of lions. Tutu had all of those qualities.
As Ramaphosa said in his announcement of Tutu’s death, his passing is “another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa”.
One by one, those “outstanding South Africans” are leaving us. They leave behind great legacies for us to carry forward. It’s likely that none of us will be as great as them. It was a special generation. But we should at least try to be an iota of what they were in whatever way.
With Tutu, we should try to steal some of his courage and principles – the courage that enabled him to stand up to one of the most ungodly regimes of the 20th century and the principle to challenge the “liberators” when they had gone badly astray.
—Mondli Makhanya is the Editor-In-Chief