It is a joke Desmond Tutu often tells: years ago, when whites arrived in South Africa, they had the Bible and blacks had the land. The whites told the blacks to close their eyes and pray, and they did. When the black people opened their eyes, they saw that they now had the Bible and the whites had the land. Once, during a drought in the country, Tutu added cheekily “I think we got the better deal.”
It is that sense of humour and unwavering faith that has sustained the cleric in his long career as a peace and civil rights activist, suggests an hour-long BBC documentary which will be aired on Vision TV next month.
The airing of the documentary will nearly coincide with a visit by Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Cape Town, South Africa, and winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, to Toronto to accept an honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Trinity College. During the special convocation ceremony, Archbishop Tutu will also deliver the Romney Moseley Memorial Lecture on Wednesday, Feb. 16.
Meanwhile, Canadians have an opportunity next month to view the BBC documentary, entitled simply Tutu, on Vision TV, the national faith network on Thursday, Feb. 3 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
The filmmakers used archival footage and interviews with Archbishop Tutu’s friends and colleagues, including Archbishop Robin Eames, primate of All Ireland and Brigalia Bam, Tutu’s successor as general secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC).
The documentary traces the archbishop’s path from self-described “township urchin”, through his formative schooling in South Africa and England, and his rise to head of the SACC, and the Anglican Church in South Africa. It was as a youth in boarding school that Tutu met Rev. Trevor Huddleston (later Archbishop of the Indian Ocean), a white English-born teacher who became a close friend and ally in the anti-apartheid movement.
The meeting was significant for the young Tutu, since perhaps for the first time, he realized white people could be decent, notes a colleague.
“Desmond could not say ‘the white man is not a human being’, which is what most black South Africans would say because of the way they were treated,” says one priest.
The documentary also includes some criticism of Tutu, quoting colleagues who describe him as occasionally authoritarian and politically naïve, particularly for his calling for a boycott of South African coal in the ’70s without consultation with those affected by such actions.
But among Tutu’s greatest accomplishments, agree some of those interviewed, is his ability to keep the country from exploding into violence during the years of injustice.
“He’s managed to keep this country sane on many occasions when it was about to go mad,” says Donald Woods, the former editor of the Daily Despatch whose story about his own friendship with anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko was depicted in the film Cry Freedom.
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