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Desmond Tutu lies in state in Cape Town's St George's Cathedral Desmond Tutu lies in state in Cape Town's St George's Cathedral   (ANSA)

Cardinal Napier on Desmond Tutu: the activist, the brother, the pastor

Cape Town’s Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is laid to rest in St George’s Cathedral on 1 January 2022. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a tireless warrior for justice, equality and nonviolence, died on Boxing Day. Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier remembers...

By Linda Bordoni

Revered and looked up to – across the globe - as a “moral compass for the world”, South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s final resting place is in “his” beloved Cathedral, St. George, in Cape Town’s city center, where his ashes will be interred according to his wishes, following an official state funeral on 1 January 2022.

The man who believed his country could rise to become the "Rainbow Nation” was one of the most powerful voices in the anti-apartheid movement that led to democracy in 1994. He was also one of the driving forces behind the nation’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” that sought restorative justice and true reconciliation on the difficult path to equality after years of apartheid.

Like his “spiritual brother” Nelson Mandela, he tirelessly strove for dialogue always rejecting violence and vengeance while campaigning for solidarity with the most marginalized.

 Archbishop Tutu and former President Mandela celebrate the announcement of the World Cup in South Africa in 2004
Archbishop Tutu and former President Mandela celebrate the announcement of the World Cup in South Africa in 2004

Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier OFM, Archbishop Emeritus of Durban, was one of the religious figures who worked arm-in-arm with Tutu to bring down the apartheid system. He spoke to Vatican Radio about the many personal memories he cherishes of the long friendship and collaboration he enjoyed with Desmond Tutu on many levels.

On an occasion like this, Cardinal Napier says, it is normal to want to recount memorable incidents from the life of one we had come to know, respect and like, because of the human being, the person that he was first and foremost: in this case, warm, friendly, most approachable, and rather mischievous!

But, he adds, it is on the memories most linked to the political role which the man played, particularly in relation to the future development of the country and nation, that he chooses to focus.

Listen to Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier, OFM

A firebrand leading the way!

One of the first levels in which he remembers Desmond Tutu, Cardinal Napier says, is when Church leaders were negotiating with the government: they would make statements, decide on a common position, meet with government representatives, and express their views, “and invariably Desmond Tutu would be the real firebrand, leading the charge in such a way that there would be no misunderstanding where the churches stood on those particular issues.”

In this regard, he remembers the time when Tutu called together the various elements of the liberation movement, calling them together and urging them to unite in order to really make the difference “for our people in regard to negotiations with the government.”

In particular, he says, he remembers a meeting at Tutu's residence – Bishopscourt – when he was still the Archbishop of Cape Town, in which he called together all the leaders of the liberation movements and the Church leaders for a “very, very frank discussion” about what to do and how to go about doing it.

Tutu, the Cardinal recalls, was a real team player making sure all parties involved understood what was at stake.

Chris Hani’s funeral

Another lasting memory the Archbishop Emeritus says he has of Tutu is the way "he summed up the situation", calling for peaceful dialogue and reflection at Chris Hani’s funeral service, an extremely volatile situation in which the country came dangerously close to lighting a spark that could have triggered a civil war.

Hani, one of the South African Liberation Struggle’s most iconic figures, was a leader within the African National Congress and its armed wing. His assassination in 1993 by a far-right militant threatened negotiations to end apartheid and install a democratic government.

The funeral, Napier recalls “was an electrical occasion… with speech after speech after speech” firing people up and calling for retribution. Tutu, he recounts, went to the microphone and appealed for calm, telling people “to turn to prayer and to stand together and in that way, make a bigger impact on the situation than if they let things get out of control.”

The atmosphere in the First National Bank Arena in Soweto, he says, calmed down giving way to prayers and hymn singing.

“That’s my lasting memory of Desmond Tutu (...) impacting on the political situation,” he says.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu during a memorial service for former President Mandela
Archbishop Desmond Tutu during a memorial service for former President Mandela

A brother among brothers

Another relevant aspect Cardinal Napier says he wants to highlight is Tutu’s deep commitment to the ecumenical movement.

He speaks of the relationship Tutu forged and nurtured with other Church leaders: “He was a brother among brothers,” he says, noting that even though he made statements on his own, he always acted in unison with others, and he was always very conscious of being part of the team of Church leaders.

Archbishop Tutu with Pope John Paul II in 1983
Archbishop Tutu with Pope John Paul II in 1983

Role of the Churches in the struggle for justice

The role that religious leaders played in South Africa during the long dark years of the Liberation Struggle is pivotal, and Desmond Tutu is universally acclaimed as one of the most powerful forces for nonviolence in that process.

Cardinal Napier reiterates his capacity to turn an “electrical situation into an occasion of prayer,” explaining that this attitude was symbolic of many activities that the Church leaders had in local areas across the nation, “in all the hotspots, at any given time, where the churches were very involved with the people.”

The effect was, he says, that “people who were driven by the desire to go to arms immediately, would be drawn back to give negotiations an opportunity."

South Africans pay tribute to Desmond Tutu at the remembrance wall outside St. George's Cathedral in Cape Town
South Africans pay tribute to Desmond Tutu at the remembrance wall outside St. George's Cathedral in Cape Town
01 January 2022, 07:00